kitchen table math, the sequel: Do not press send

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Do not press send

Straightening up the dining room table this morning (I'm still at it) I found a hard copy of this email to our new Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Technology.

I had to post it.

I didn't send this version to the superintendent. I don't remember what I did send, but I hope it was something reasonably short and to the point.

Good evening, G.

Christopher tells us he is to “create an artifact” for Social Studies / ELA at the end of the year.

For instance, he could construct a Civil War sword.

Or a Civil War musket.

Next year he will be expected to write a complicated research paper in 8th grade social studies, so this year he is preparing for that challenge by.... constructing an artifact.

I can’t tell you how violently we object to arts and crafts projects at this point.

Arts and crafts projects have nothing to do with college preparation.

In fact, we would go so far as to say that arts and crafts projects are the opposite of college preparation, Howard Gardner notwithstanding.

We know this because one of us — that would be Ed — is a professor at a major research university.

Ed is a historian.

Remarkably, Ed managed to earn a Ph.D., receive an appointment at UCLA, earn tenure, and publish numerous refereed articles, book reviews, and scholarly monographs without constructing a Civil War sword or musket.

Nor has he ever assigned a Civil War sword or musket construction project to his students.

If real historians don’t have to construct artifacts, we don’t see why our 7th grade son should have to construct artifacts, either.

So we object.

Making matters worse, the middle school will not be providing even a smattering of instruction in how to construct a Civil War artifact. That task falls to us. Again. As we’ve come to expect here in IMS, we are being commandeered to serve as the school’s uncredited and unacknowledged ghost teachers.

As half the district must know by now, we are already teaching math here at home — teaching math and wrangling with the district over the fact that we’re teaching math, which doubles or triples the time involved, not to mention the aggravation.

Math is fun.

Fighting with the district about who’s supposed to be teaching math — us or the school — is not fun.

Since last year we’ve been on the hook for teaching writing, too. We’ve elected not to battle the district on the subject of writing instruction; we’ve just sucked it up and done it, or tried to.

Of course, we’re not making much headway. Our child is too busy constructing Civil War artifacts in social studies, collages in ELA, hand-colored logos in “accelerated” math, and restaurant menus in Spanish to have much time left over to write stuff.

fyi: I’ve counted the books on writing and writing instruction I have sitting beside me, waiting for my attention.


17 books on writing
1 book on summarizing
2 books on logic
1 anthology of essays to serve as composition models (Norton Sampler)
1 complete 6th grade writing-and-grammar curriculum (Hake)
2/3 of Siegfried Engelmann’s Writing and Reasoning 6-12 middle school writing curriculum. (I’m missing the teacher’s Presentation Book for the simple reason that the Presentation Book costs two hundred dollars and the publisher won’t sell it to me because ----- I'm not a teacher.)

That’s not all.

Joseph Williams’ Style & Grace is on its way, and since I see that a used copy of Mina Schaugnessy’s classic Errors and Expectations: A Guide for the Teaching of Basic Writing is on offer for $9.09 at Amazon Marketplace, I think I’ll hit “Buy now with 1-Click” while I’m at it.


I’ve done it.

A couple of days from now, in addition to not using the aforementioned 22 2/3 books on writing and writing instruction to teach my middle school child how to write because he's too busy constructing artifacts, I will also not be using Mina Schaunessy’s Errors and Expectations.

Then of course we have our vocabulary curriculum (Vocabulary Workshop) and our spelling curriculum (Megawords), since the school doesn’t teach spelling beyond --- what?

Fourth grade?


If a student isn’t spelling by fourth grade, too bad!

So we’re attempting to teach spelling, or, rather we’re attempting to haul a 12-year old boy bodily through a spelling curriculum.

Lucky for us, we’re interested in math and we both happen to be writers. Also, we can spell.

But we have no freaking idea how to “construct an artifact.”

Furthermore we have no interest in learning how to “construct an artifact.”

Nor do we relish the prospect of scouring the Internet and the crafts shops looking for directions on how to construct an artifact and/or a pre-fab Civil War sword or musket kit like the solar system kit everyone bought last year when we had to do the Jason Project.

(also to file under fyi: We attended the Jason Project event held at the middle school last year, where we noticed that three of the papers on display were the exact same paper. What a superb resource the internet is for middle school children!)

If I could download a completed 7th grade arts and crafts Civil War sword from the internet, I would do it.

The budget vote is coming up, and the school year is winding down.

Many of us are exhausted.

I am exhausted.

How about you give us all a break and ask your teachers to stick to reading and writing assignments in reading and writing-based disciplines.

An assignment to construct an artifact isn’t social studies, and it isn’t art.

Catherine Johnson

Upshot: Christopher does not have to construct an artifcat.

This is good!

"The project method": child-centeredness in progressive education
Business opportunity
Do not press send
the project method
toga party

not very creative


SusanS said...

I'm going to have to save this post. This is exactly what's going on in my son's middle school. No social studies quizzes or tests this quarter. All projects.

So, my history-loving son is doing poorly grade-wise because he hates coloring and pasting. And that seems to be all they are doing.

I mean, I wouldn't know because I've never seen one graded assignment or anything.

I also found out from different parents that their bright history-loving sons are making bad grades, also, due to their hatred of coloring.

I'm going to have to teach that, also. Although, I already did it once in grade school.

Instructivist said...

No artifacts?

But wouldn't that run smack into the preachings of a towering giant in education?

(1859 – 1952) American philosopher and educator, considered the forefather of constructivism. Dewey wrote that students learn by "directed living," with an emphasis on workshop-type projects so that learning is combined with concrete activity and practical relevance. He rejected the practice of rote learning which was the common mode of instruction in his day. Dewey's ideas lie at the heart of the constructivist curriculum. Students must be engaged in meaningful and relevant activities that allow them to apply the concepts they are endeavoring to learn. Hands-on projects are the key to creating authentic learning experiences.

Exo said...

May I put my signature under your letter , too?

My next door SS teacher just did "Save Darfur" project with 8th graders - they put badly spelled posters all over the school; now she is doing another clay arts and crafts ...
Yesterday, while doing the lab with my 8th graders on Evidences of Evolution (compare the sculls og gorilla, australopithecus, and modern human by taking certain measurements) I realized that they don't know how to use a protractor nor how to find a diameter of the circle - and they are taking regents in math this June! I was terrified (which I expressed to them, I know, I'm not politically or whatever correct!)
I really can't understand why should we spend a week on a project for the topic that can be learned in 15 minutes? (I have to confess - I hate it, by I allowed my 7th graders to do a project on Safety Guidelines during Earthquakes - they were begging for it (arts and crafts!) and I was too tired to resist....The quiz will be given on Crust movement right after the presentations, though... They get so used to do the projects that if you are not doing it, yu become an "evil and boring teacher".

Tex said...

I always enjoy reading your emails to the school. Very entertaining.

However, I’m glad I’m not on the receiving end.

Tex said...

Surprisingly, this has been an easy year (4th grade) with very few projects. I guess they’ve been too busy drilling for those state tests.

Now that those tests are done, we do have the colonial fair coming up. Students and families are asked to create our own colonial costumes to wear on the day of the fair.

Instructivist said...

[They get so used to do the projects that if you are not doing it, you become an "evil and boring teacher".]

That's been my experience, too.

The kiddies are CONDITIONED to expect time-wasting activities. You become the odd man out if you are focused and subject matter oriented and don't go along.

Catherine Johnson said...

I realized that they don't know how to use a protractor nor how to find a diameter of the circle - and they are taking regents in math this June!

These kids are in accelerated math???

They're taking Regents Math A?

Catherine Johnson said...

Susan S

Send them the link.

We're making headway here.

Of course, I'm probably tempting fate saying that.

In any case, I'm pretty sure Christopher will never do another arts and crafts project in this district again.

I still have to hammer this point home for Spanish, but I think we're going to get there.

Catherine Johnson said...

One of the main arguments I ended up using, REPEATEDLY, was that neither the social studies teacher nor the ELA teacher is certified to teach art.

I'm now ferocious on this point. (Ferocious meaning unbending.)

The board sends out emails telling us that 100% of our teachers are "qualified."

Well, as far as I can tell 0% of our social studies teachers is qualified -- i.e. credentialed -- to teach the studio arts.

The middle school's reaction was typical obnoxiousness.

The teacher wrote me one sympathetic email saying she'd do the instructing; I wouldn't have to.

Also, the artifacts were to be for a museum, and would be high quality (she may even have said "museum quality") and therefore worth doing.

I just don't want to hear this kind of thing any more. A social studies teacher isn't a museum curator, and is not qualified to teach museum curation.

(This teacher, btw, is plenty smart. She's a career-changer, a former prosectuor, who has kids in middle school herself and complained about her kids' middle school on back to school night.)

Then she asked me to keep an open mind.

I wrote back saying my mind was closed.

Then: radio silence.

At that point I asked the superintendent to intervene and she did.

Catherine Johnson said...

fyi, this was my 2nd email to the teacher:

<< I understand how you feel, I have a son in 7th grade myself and I know what some projects can be like at home. >>

I know!

You probably don’t remember this, but you complained about your middle school on back to school night.

Naturally this gave us confidence. (I’m serious about that.)

<< Please, keep an open mind. >>

My mind is closed!

It is.

Christopher has done projects for YEARS, he’s reading books far below his reading comprehension level, he’s being given very few writing assignments, etc.

I could go on and on (and on), but you know the drill. When I say “far below his reading level,” I mean that literally. I finally had him tested last fall; his reading comprehension comes back at the 95th percentile. The books he’s reading aren’t in the realm of what he can do --- and what he needs to do if he’s to progress.

We want him to progress.

Ed went to Princeton; I went to Wellesley and Dartmouth. We both had reading comprehension scores well above the 95th percentile (as I assume you did).

It takes years to develop very high level reading comprehension. You can’t take a Kaplan class junior year in high school and jump from the 600s to the 700s.

If Christopher is doing projects he’s not reading, he’s not writing, and he’s not rewriting. That is the issue: the opportunity costs.

What we really need is for Christopher to be asked to read a serious book or essay and write a cogent summary of it.

Then we need him to do a lot more of these!

So: that’s where we are. We don’t want Christopher to do this assignment, and we don’t want to do it ourselves. Rightly or wrongly, our minds are closed.

Which puts the ball in the district’s court.

The district could open its own mind on this one -----

Catherine Johnson said...

But wouldn't that run smack into the preachings of a towering giant in education?


It would.

Catherine Johnson said...

That's the whole point.

Catherine Johnson said...

Students and families are asked to create our own colonial costumes to wear on the day of the fair.


rightwingprof said...

"Joseph Williams’ Style & Grace is on its way"

I used to use that in advanced writing classes when I was a grad student teacher. An excellent book, though pretty advanced. I might also recommend Zinsser's On Writing Well, which isn't a textbook, but a very good, common sense approach to writing.

I'm confused, though. Won't he get suspended or something worse if he takes even a construction paper sword or musket to school?

Catherine Johnson said...

Ed and I are becoming more adamant the further we go. We're done fooling around.

e.g.: I'm going to get the Mathematics A Teacher's Manual.



The school is going to order a copy of the Teacher's Manual for me, OR the school will need to provide me with a written statement explaining precisely how its refusal to provide answers to the textbook problem sets advances Christopher's education.

We're pretty much down to zero fear of school or social retaliation, public shunning, etc.

Not sure why, exactly.... probably because so many other parents feel the same way. Other parents don't necessarily share our thoughts about what should be done to improve the situation, but there is very widespread dissatisfaction with the quality of the schools.

The budget passed by a margin of 110 votes - and this was a seriously pared back budget. It has to be clear to the board by now that there are more than a few parents voting against it.

I think the "Irvington Parents Forum" has probably made a fairly significant difference (though there's no way of telling...)

One of my thoughts in writing it was that I could assume the bad cop role -- and I could be public about my issues with the district.

That would prevent the administration from telling parents they were the only ones with a problem AND, I hoped, it would tend to embolden other parents to voice their own complaints in softer forms.

I assume that's happening.

The district is now hiring NY Public Agenda to manage the strategic planning process.... we're going to have a community "conversation."

I don't know what to think about that.

We've entered the typical "be careful what you wish for" zone, where we've gotten (some of) what we want and it's a case of Meet the new boss.

I'll have to write a post about the TRAILBLAZERS survey & the Dartmouth evening....

Still, I'd rather be here than back where I was two years ago.

Catherine Johnson said...

Won't he get suspended or something worse if he takes even a construction paper sword or musket to school?

This is the virtue of having a career-changer for a teacher!

She used to be a prosecutor; one of her own kids is a boy enrolled in middle school.

She probably thinks it's normal for boys to like guns and swords.

ms-teacher said...

I'm going to speak on the other end, as I tend to be a big enforcer of note-taking, reading the text, answering questions based on the reading of text and finally taking quizzes on what one has learned.

I get complaints ALL THE TIME from parents who complain that I don't assign enough "fun stuff" like projects. Instead, I insist upon (the mean teacher that I am) work being turned in on time, complete sentences, studying for tests and even trivial things like a name on the paper. Nothing burns this teacher's buns more than when I have an irate parent calling me up complaining about their child's grade, due to poor test scores and missing work, and them asking me for "extra credit."

First of all, if you child can't do what I assigned in the first place, why should I assign extra?

(Btw, I had a rather ugly phone conversation yesterday with a parent who was upset about her daughter's grade for the reasons I've posted. Yes, I'm still highly irritated!!)

Exo said...

(I realized that they don't know how to use a protractor nor how to find a diameter of the circle - and they are taking regents in math this June!

These kids are in accelerated math???

They're taking Regents Math A? )

Yes, I teach three "Delta" classes (we have three "houses" in our school, and each house has a "Delta" class) - they take Regents Math A, Living Environment, and Spanish...And there were rumors that since HS curriculum in math is changing, there will be no Math Regents in 8th grade, but so far we are keeping the regents..

Catherine Johnson said...

I get complaints ALL THE TIME from parents who complain that I don't assign enough "fun stuff" like projects.

What grade do you teach?

Does the school give letter grades?

Why do you think this is happening?

LynnG said...

Thank you so much, Catherine -- I've wanted to send that e-mail many times.

If we're going to kvetch for awhile about inane projects, how about the high school health teacher assigning a ten line poem on inhalants!

The health teacher is about as unqualified to teach poetry as anyone I know.

And don't get me started on the subject matter. . .okay, INHALANTS? Give me a freaking break. This is how my son is supposed to take ownership of his learning, right?

My spouse, the physician, asked if his study of drugs and inhalants included any mention of how the blood/brain barrier is effected by drugs? My son answers, what is a blood/brain barrier?

This is high school folks. Write a poem on inhalants. See how multi-disciplinary we are?

My 5th grader is doing another paper bag book report (decorate a paper bag on the theme of some book you've read). She did the exact same book report project in 2nd grade.

We've written skits on the evils of smoking, we've done coloring books on allergies (again in the high school), we are now making a poster for spanish on global warming and constructing a car powered by rubber bands.

ms-teacher said...

Catherine, I teach 6th grade at a middle school. Yes, we do give letter grades. I generally teach Language Arts and History (Ancient History), which I think too many people assume should be "more" creative.

I'm all for creativity. My own three children are highly creative, however, it needs to be relevant creativity. Too often I think teachers given fun/creative assignments w/o really thinking about how it's relevant to what they are teaching.

EvilMathTeacher said...

This is precisely why I call myself "evil math teacher". I was always the "meanest" teacher. Kids would ask me to make class "more fun".

So instead of doing projects, I ruined my life by looking for more effective ways of teaching math; i.e., Singapore, Russian, Chinese methods. This investment in the kids caused me to lose perspective. When some of the kids didn't work AT ALL, I actually was frustrated with them and tried to motivate them any way I could. The other teachers are "having fun" and my kids are in the office or their parents are calling and telling the administration that I don't like them, am a racist, am mean blah, blah, blah....

Then I am told that I have great scores BUT I don't have good classroom discipline because the children who are 2-3 grade levels below the average kids, who are themselves 2 grade levels below Singapore, are complaining. THEY DON'T WANT TO DO ANY WORK! THEY WANT TO DO PROJECTS!

If I don't have good classroom discipline, then how could my scores increase so much. I'm not at school to do projects. I just want to have fun doing math with students.

On the field trip day, these same complaining students who had received discipline all year were excluded from attending the outing to a major theme park (so educational) and I was chosen to stay behind. These same kids wouldn't even watch the movies I chose for babysitting all day.

As for grades, nobody fails. I just curve the grades until the A students reach 130% and thankfully the grades program prints 100%.

If the kid shows up and takes a test s/he automatically receives a 50% per the administration. Nobody gets anything lower than 50%. Also, we are not allowed to give more than 10% D's and F's each quarter.


Catherine Johnson said...

I'm all for creativity. My own three children are highly creative, however, it needs to be relevant creativity. Too often I think teachers given fun/creative assignments w/o really thinking about how it's relevant to what they are teaching.

boy.... it distresses me that parents in 6th grade are asking for projects -- do you have thoughts about why that is?

Does it seem to be mostly about grades?

What is your sense?

SusanS said...

My sense is that the school has brainwashed them with all of the buzzwords associated with it. I've heard those words often, but never had an answer until hanging out with you guys.

ms-teacher said...

I think it's because their kids go home and complain about school not being "fun."

My job as their 6th grade language arts teacher and history teacher is to prepare them to write well, identify important historical events and their significance, have critical thinking skills such as is required in literary analysis, etc.

Occasionally, I will do something that's "fun" in the classroom, such as making their names using hieroglyphs. However that is usually only after we have finished a section and we have a little bit of free time. I learned fairly early on in my teaching career that I didn't much like grading projects as it leads to too much subjectivity.

SusanS said...


Can I just bring my son over and drop him off in your room?

It is so aggravating when you realize that your kid is in such a time-wasting situation and short of pulling him out (over one class) and homeschooling him, we're just stuck with it. The year started off pretty well, but about halfway through it all changed.

Catherine Johnson said...


How many teachers feel the way you feel, do you think?

ms-teacher said...


How many teachers feel the way you feel, do you think?

that's tough to say, but I can tell you that many of the veteran teachers at my school site have been very much against DI because of extensive use of scripts. It even hasn't helped to show them the research that it works.

I used to think I was deficient in some way because I don't much like assigning projects. One of my colleagues is very big on projects (for instance, this year she had the kids do an Egyptian museum). I mentioned this on a blog and Rory from Parentalcation rightly asked me how much value did the kids really get out of it. In all honesty, his question really made me stop and think!