kitchen table math, the sequel: stop the madness

Thursday, September 13, 2007

stop the madness

over at Joannejacobs I find this quote from a teacher who has left her job because of NCLB:

“There are a lot of people living good lives in this country who aren’t able to write a cohesive paragraph and don’t know grammar,” Zunin said. “I’m more concerned about them being able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes — which is the essence of To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m more concerned with them being able to feel compassion and to question authority in a constructive way, which is the essence of Night. I’m more concerned with them looking at the nature of friendship, which is at the heart of Of Mice and Men. “


I've mentioned more than once that I don't have much policy sense, though I'd like to.

However, I do have a gut feeling about this. Normally, contemplating the train wreck that is U.S. public education, I don't have a gut feeling, just a kind of horror tempered by bewilderment. Or bewilderment tempered by horror, as the case may be.

So it's nice to have an actual, identifiable gut feeling about something educational.

My gut feeling is that this is the kind of thing that will steadily eat away at public support for public schools, and probably has been steadily eating away at public support for public schools for some time now.

The problem isn't just this teacher's open expression of disregard for grammar and the ability to write a cohesive paragraph, which is bad enough.

The problem is this teacher's open expression of disregard for parents and the broader public. She is talking about other people's children. She is saying that it doesn't matter to her what parents want for their children; it doesn't matter to her what the broader public wants.

What matters to her is what she wants, and she makes no bones about it. Teacher narcissism - not a pretty picture, and not the picture Americans carry in their hearts of the teachers they knew and loved growing up.

You hear this kind of thing a couple of thousand times and you start to think, Those homeschooling people might be on to something.

And, shortly after that, my taxes are way too high.


grammar in Irvington

I had a nice moment this summer that I've been meaning to write about.

It's not worth posting details, but after going over C's state ELA test, I realized that his grammar and usage are quite good - possibly close to excellent, and certainly proficient for his age - and he learned everything he knows about these subjects in our Irvington schools.

We have done essentially no supplementing, afterschooling, or direct instruction of any kind in written grammar, usage, and mechanics. None. Nor do I believe for a second that C. has done enough independent reading to have picked up what he knows incidentally.

I do think he's done enough independent reading to reinforce what he learned at school -- and
that's great. He should be reading, and the school correctly, and properly, assumes that we'll make an effort to see that he does.

This comment from lu lu tells me that my own district is doing some things right:

I teach biology at a community college and am frequently amazed at the fact that my students can’t write a coherent sentence (including a subject and verb, even if their tenses don’t agree). Quotes from Ms. Zunin might explain why.

C. is far past this point, and has been for a number of years, I believe.

Thinking about this, I realized that the ability to write grammatically, with correct usage, is a skill C. will use nearly every day of his adult life.

And he's got it.

Pretty amazing.



37 comments:

Pissed Off said...

When I got my license, I had to pass exams in math andin writing. I had to pass an oral exam as well. I now see teachers who have trouble speaking English and who can't write coherent sentences. It is not only sad, but it is scary. Teachers are role modes. Look at the poor example these teachers are setting.

Catherine Johnson said...

Hi PO!

I now see teachers who have trouble speaking English and who can't write coherent sentences. It is not only sad, but it is scary.

My mom says the same thing happened in the 1960s (we think it was the 1960s).

Her mom went back to teaching, and there was a completely different generation of teachers working.

Their skills were far below those of her generation.

My husband's parents had the same experience with their youngest son.

When the two older boys went through their public schools, the schools were great. Ed, my husband, went to Princeton from his Levittown, PA school, and took calculus for engineers in his freshman year -- without being a "math brain." (He is a historian.)

It nearly killed him, but the fact is he could do it coming out of a public school.

Those days are gone.

Catherine Johnson said...

I now see teachers who have trouble speaking English and who can't write coherent sentences.

Why is this?

Pissed Off said...

A few years ago, teachers were recruited from Spain--to fill a shortage--no English skills were needed.

PaulaV said...

I read the same post on Joanne Jacobs and I thought you have to be kidding. Yet, I've seen with my own eyes the cr** my kids have brought home...invented spelling, errors in grammar and math worksheets and I can't help but feel sick. I am tired of hearing everything will be fine, you are overeacting, but why do I have this gut feeling?

Yet, our state scores are high and my son's ITBS scores were good. Certainly, he is learning something from his school. Why can't I be like the rest of the pack? Why can't I be happy knowing and truly believing everything will work out?

Then again, ignorance is bliss.

SteveH said...

"What matters to her is what she wants, and she makes no bones about it."

Even if they know that it's just their own opinion, they have no qualms about foisting it on all children. In the past, I've called it an academic turf problem. They are the professionals and they don't like others telling them how to do their job. But the question is what are they professionals in?

Their own opinion.

Take away the opinion-based pedagogy and they have nothing left.

Katie said...

I once took a public speaking course at the local community college. I spent the first day of class sitting at my desk editing the syllabus for grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

It was a very long semester.

Redkudu said...

Oh, dear.

If I could just interject on behalf of the teacher in question (and others) with my own perspective...please know that this is what we are taught to believe is the essence of teaching literature in middle and high school. Not to analyze it, but to get students to superficially empathize with it/its author/its perceived contemporary social message rather than its historical importance or intended themes and etc....you see where I’m going.

Even so, I confess some frustration with much of this teacher’s perceptions of the literature she cites. I’ve taught all three of these works several times. I would disagree that the essence of “To Kill A Mockingbird” is standing in someone else’s shoes. What about the difficult question of championing basic human rights to an extreme which may result in ostracization from the community and putting one’s family at risk, among other issues? “Questioning authority in a constructive way” for “Night” seems a grievous trivialization of not only its darker themes, but also its often visceral imagery. (Makes it sound as if Wiesel was saying, “The Nazis had great organizational skills, but needed some work in interpersonal relationships.”) And to say that the “nature of friendship” is at the heart of “Of Mice and Men” is to completely ignore...well, nearly all the brutality and unflinchingly honest depictions of humanity well-studied and plainly laid out for critical inspection.

It’s a little like saying “The Great Gatsby” is all about the power of true love.

But this is what we get, in an endless stream of “best practice” lectures, presentations, and the heroic narratives of momentary education stars and starlets who “reach” a class or two before writing their book, negotiating movie rights, and moving on. It’s all a symptom of the directive teachers receive that learning should be fun (edu-term = “engaging”), and they must make it so, one way or another.

KarenA said...

Chapter One of To Kill A Mockingbird has some great passages about education. In my mind, at least, it appears that Harper Lee is mocking (no pun intended) the new teacher's naivete (and dare I say it, arrogance). On Scout's first day of first grade, her teacher, Miss Caroline, discovers that she can already read.

" . . . she discovered that I was literate and looked at me with more than faint distaste. Miss Caroline told me to tell my father not to teach me any more, it would interfere with my reading."

Scout responds to her teacher, "Teach Me?" I said in surprise. He hasn't taught me anything, Miss Caroline. Atticus ain't got time to teach me anything."

"If he didn't teach you, who did?" Miss Caroline asked good-naturedly. "Somebody did. You weren't born reading The Mobile Register."

Another exchange takes place between Miss Caroline and Scout, and Miss Caroline finally conclues, "Now you tell your father not to teach you any more. It's best to begin reading with a fresh mind. You tell him I'll take over from here and try to undo the damage--"

"Ma'am?"

"Your father does not know how to teach. You can have a seat now."

More to come . . .

KarenA said...

Scout then reflects (yes, I said reflects) to herself upon her "crime" of having already learned how to read. "I never deliberately learned to read, but somehow I had been wallowing illicitly in the daily papers."

Here is her brother Jem's response to Scout's sad tale:

"Don't worry, Scout," Jem comforted me. "Our teacher says Miss Caroline's introducing a new way of teaching. She learned about it in college. It'll be in all the grades soon. You don't have to learn much out of books that way--it's like if you wanta learn about cows, you go milk one, see?"

I'm thinking Miss Lee is mocking this "new-fangled" education.

KarenA said...

Jem declares to Scout that this new form of learning to read is called the Dewey Decimal System. Here is Scout's recount of how Miss Caroline is teaching her to read:

"The Dewey Decimal System consisted, in part, of Miss Caroline waving cards at us on which were printed, "the," "cat," "rat," "man," and "you." No comment seemed to be expected of us, and the class received these imperssionistic revelations in silence. I was bored, so I began a letter to Dill. Miss Caroline caught me writing and told me to tell my father to stop teaching me. "Besides," she said. "We don't write in the first grade, we print. You won't learn to write until you're in the third grade."

KarenA said...

It gets even better. At the beginning of Chapter 4, Scout notes that "the remainder of my schooldays were no more auspicious than the first. Indeed, they were an endless Project taht slowly evolved into a Unit, in which miles of construction paper and wax crayon were expended by the State of Alabama in its well-meaning but fruitless efforts to teach me Group Dynamics."

But, wait, there's more:

"Furthermore, I couldn't help noticing that my father had served for years in the state legislature, elected each time without opposition, innocent of the adjustments my teachers thought essential to the development of Good Citizenship."

And finally:

"As for me, I knew nothing except what I gathered from Time magazine and reading everything I could lay my hands on at home, but as I inched sluggisly along the treadmill of the Maycomb County school system, I could not help receiving the impression that I was being cheated out of something. Out of what I knew not, yet I did not believe that twelve years of unrelieved boredom was exactly what the state had in mind for me."

Molly said...

When I read that post at Joanne Jacob's, I had to wonder how many students who can't write a coherent paragraph and don't know any grammar actually have the reading skills (or motivation) to be reading any of the literature the teacher cited? Appreciating great literature is tough for the illiterate. Analysis of literature is a worthwhile goal, but the ability to write coherently is a necessary skill for almost any professional career and a great many other jobs as well. One does not rise far beyond burger flipping without grammar skills.

Catherine Johnson said...

A few years ago, teachers were recruited from Spain--to fill a shortage--no English skills were needed..

ahhh

A very large part of me thinks I should READ NO FURTHER.

If I start really digging into NYC schools & the Bloomberg/Klein folderol, it won't be pretty.

Catherine Johnson said...

Paula

The ITBS is a good test....although we do need to know how bad spelling is in kids across the country to interpret current scores.

Since I gave Chris the ITBS myself, and read and scored all of his answers informally (before sending them back to the company to be scored), I saw how good his grammar and usage are.

The other thing I realized was that when we help him with his writing, we take grammar and usage for granted.

I don't want to overstate; he still makes "kid errors." He needs more copy editing & correction than a proficient adult would need.

It's possible he shouldn't need that by now; I really don't know.

But his progress looks good to me.

Catherine Johnson said...

I would get going on spelling instruction now. My school simply didn't do it (obviously).

A couple of years ago they adopted a spelling curriculum for K-5. I think it's Houghton Mifflin. I have no idea whether it's good; I assume it is.

But it came too late for Christopher, and the school doesn't care.

We didn't teach your kid how to spell?

No problem; we'll teach the next kids coming up through the system.

As far as I'm concerned, if a school doesn't have a spelling curriculum, and then later on DOES have a spelling curriculum, that is an admission that the school has not been teaching spelling -- and should now remediate the kids who went without.

Catherine Johnson said...

OK, I got off topic.

I would definitely start teaching spelling informally now, and systematically, with Megawords, starting in 4th grade.

The other two spelling curricula I'm familiar with are Engelmann's text & Louisa Moats' books, but both are hideously expensive. I don't believe either one is sold to parents.

The Megawords books cost:

$10.90 student book
$7.75 teacher's guide

8 books in the series.

You could probably make do without the teacher's manual, but I found it extremely convenient to have one.

The authors are SPED teachers working with LD kids.

I keep forgetting to mention that Megawords also serves as a vocabulary and, to some degree, reading text.

They give you standards for how rapidly your child should be able to read the word lists out loud.

I haven't mentioned those, because I'd forgotten about them. When I first got the books I gave C. a Megawords reading test & he was quite a bit faster than the standard the book suggested, so I dropped that part of the program.

Catherine Johnson said...

redkudu

THANK YOU

This is a battle Ed and I began two years ago.

THIS IS NOT PROPER INSTRUCTION IN LITERATURE.

PERIOD.

Character education was being "implemented" in our middle school when we first got there, and the good news was that it was going to be "integrated" into everything else.

(Now writing is going to be integrated into everything else. Yes, my kid, who can't do percents, is going to be writing in math class.)

Here was the example the principal gave:

The Miracle Worker is a play about an angry disabled child and a clueless dad.

That was supposed to be the approach to The Miracle Worker, as dictated by the doctrines of character ed.

That's not character education and it's not literary analysis, either.

It's bunk.

Tex said...

Karen’s comments about “Mockingbird” are quite intriguing. Now, I want to read it again.

Catherine Johnson said...

I would disagree that the essence of “To Kill A Mockingbird” is standing in someone else’s shoes. What about the difficult question of championing basic human rights to an extreme which may result in ostracization from the community and putting one’s family at risk, among other issues?

No kidding.

I read To Kill a Mockingbird 3 times when I was young....

oh forget it

Catherine Johnson said...

It’s a little like saying “The Great Gatsby” is all about the power of true love.

lollllllll

Catherine Johnson said...

although I'm going to go with "angry disabled child and clueless dad" for first prize

SteveH said...

“I’m more concerned about them being able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes — ..."

"more concerned" I read this as devaluing other parts of education for what that teacher thinks is best. They do this in math when they talk about conceptual understanding. (i.e. rather than mastery of skills) Teachers feel that they should get to decide. I don't think they even like the idea that the school (their employer) should give them a curriculum to follow. They may be very sincere about their beliefs, but they show little understanding of opinion, assumptions, and expectations.

Tex said...

This post makes me think about the AP World History course my son is taking. He’s been coming home with comments about how the teacher expressed her disdain about all the “facts” that must be learned for the test. It seems she wants to spend more time reflecting and sharing about “issues”. Their homework this weekend is to “reflect and share” about genocide.

I probably should start asking some questions.

Admittedly, I have heard complaints about how AP courses rush to squeeze a lot of content into a short time period. But, facts are important, too. They have to be taught sometime, right?

SUsanS said...

By the time you're old enough to read To Kill a Mockingbird, you should be able to construct a coherent sentence and know some grammar.

And why can't they do both? Well, I know. Because these kinds of teachers don't know grammar themselves and they're self-conscious about it.

They not only seem to lack the insight to recognize their own shortcomings, but also seem quite happy to hoist their bad ideas right on to other people's children. I have seen this over and over again the last few years.

This is when you really have to Save Your Own if no one will listen. Grammar isn't hard to teach, but it is nuanced and takes time to soak in. The smartest thing I ever did was to start them in 2nd and 3rd grade with basic parts of speech. 15 minutes of good ole' direct instruction a few times a week for years can make a huge difference.

The question is why haven't they done it?

SteveH said...

"... the teacher expressed her disdain about all the “facts” that must be learned for the test."

"Reflecting" and "sharing" would be more useful if they are based on facts. If she doesn't like facts, then what is she doing teaching history?

I hate David McCullough's books because he doesn't give me the facts. He paints an historical picture that may be very interesting, but it is his own biased picture. He doesn't give me the facts to paint my own picture.

"Their homework this weekend is to “reflect and share” about genocide."

Based on what information? Did she give specific examples that they had to research? Did she ask them to compare them to see if they are the same or different? Are the motivating factors the same? Did she give them the understanding to evaluate the cases in the context of their times, or just according to our 21st century sensibilities?


This is just another teacher pushing her opinion. At least there is some outside force that is beyond her control. That is the benefit of AP courses. ... unless she doesn't do her job.

Why do individual teachers feel that they are the sole arbiters of education?

SteveH said...

Speaking of teachers who seem to think they are the arbiters of education. This was posted on MathNotations (see the link that vlorbik gave in an earlier thread) in response to my comments about Prof. Lynn Arthur Steen discussion of education.

"As for the issue of mastery, it is my goal for my students can achieve mastery of concepts. But what if, for whatever reason, they can't? Should they spend the rest of their time limited to arithmetic? Never get to study algebra or geometry or stats?"


"My goal."

"My students."

Bad education.

Anonymous said...

Another great spelling program is "Sequential Spelling". This program is a favorite among homeschoolers. It is also cheap and takes less than 10 minutes per day.

Anonymous said...

"Their homework this weekend is to 'reflect and share' about genocide."

I'd like to go on record as being opposed to genocide.

If I was in high school and this was my assignment, I'd probably spend the weekend coming up with a good case in favor of genocide. Just to annoy the teacher.

-Mark Roulo

SteveH said...

"Just to annoy the teacher."

I thought of just the same thing. Look up Iroquois torture justified on cultural grounds. Killing by European white settlers = atrocity. Torture and killing by Native Americans = spiritual.

susans said...

Hey Steve,

Off topic, I enjoyed your comments over at math notations. I would have jumped in but as usual you were handling it all just fine.

I still might, though.

SteveH said...

Thank you Susan. It all wouldn't bother me so much if there were choice. Although I have my own opinion on education, I would be the last one to force them on others.

Catherine Johnson said...

"Their homework this weekend is to 'reflect and share' about genocide."


aaaaaaaaaaauuuuuuggggghhhhhh

(Haven't read the thread - had just checked in - saw this - must go lie down with a cold cloth pressed to my forehead ------ )

I will return when I've recovered fully.

Catherine Johnson said...

When I read that post at Joanne Jacob's, I had to wonder how many students who can't write a coherent paragraph and don't know any grammar actually have the reading skills (or motivation) to be reading any of the literature the teacher cited?

You know....I mainly felt relief that this teacher has left the profession.

That was my dominant emotion.

le radical galoisien said...

Haha, the part of Mockingbird that spoke to me was the individualism. Also, Scout was a tomboyish girl (especially difficult in that era) and she echoed a lot of the struggles I had with my teachers at the time, so it was like major empathy for me. Except I wasn't a girl. But I had a crush on a tomboy at school. Kindred spirit, you know.

"
Admittedly, I have heard complaints about how AP courses rush to squeeze a lot of content into a short time period. But, facts are important, too. They have to be taught sometime, right?"

It's the teacher, I think.

Right now I'm struggling (e.g. being bored) with writing about the six themes of history, which are quite overgeneralised, if not a tautology.

"How does the theme of Encounters assist you in understanding the effects of the interactions of people across culture and time?"

I struggled to write an original essay without sounding cheesy or redundant.

I'm a person who appreciates and loves every chance for multiculturalism (given my cross-migrant backgrounds).

My genuine reaction was like, "well, it's kind to hard to be assisted when you haven't even been given any facts yet!"

Lsquared said...

I think you probably had a lot to do with it. Not direct teaching, but because you are a careful user of language, and C has grown up listening to grammatical sentences being spoken, and so they sound natural to him. I'm pretty sure that's why I can write grammatically.

Lsquared said...

Oops--

I think you probably had a lot to do with it.

By "it" I mean C's ability to write a mostly grammatical sentence.