kitchen table math, the sequel: Disappearing act

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Disappearing act

Having now spent two fall semesters in a row trawling the web for research and advice on the teaching of freshman composition, I have come to the conclusion that all useful thinking on the subject ceased in 1985.*

Prior to 1985, people are thinking and writing all manner of helpful stuff; after 1985 you get the rise of the boss compositionists and the erasure of the sentence.

The compositionists are still busy erasing the knowledge we used to have:

Before: Campus Writing Program | Indiana University - grading; sequenced microthemes; pamphlets for students, etc. Good stuff.


After: Node Chairs Move Students to New Activity

Honest to God: this is Indiana University's Campus Writing Program, and they've devoted an entire page to a furniture purchase.

* a proposed factoid that supports my hit-by-a-meteor hypothesis


Catherine Johnson said...

I would bet my last dollar that installation of node chairs has exactly zero effect on students' ability to make their subjects agree with their verbs.

Lsquared said...

You're probably right about the correlation to sentence writing, but node chairs would (no kidding) about triple the amount of desk space students have here at my university. Imagine the excitement and luxury of being able to have your calculus book, your notebook and your calculator all visible simultaneously! It's almost as good as the desks the high school has (no swivel, but still more desk space). That would be better than a SMART board (really). I wonder if I can convince some administrators around here that node chairs are the answers to all of our problems? Getting them to buy into getting just desks that are better is hopeless, but maybe with a great buzz-word like that, they'd find money for it. I'm not sure that it would be better than having a new ventilation system and air conditioning in the classrooms, but we take what we can get.

ChemProf said...

No one knows what to do with composition right now. Seriously, the faculty who teach composition at my school will tell me that straight out. I just spent a year on a committee to work out how we want to rework first and second semester composition, and have been talking a lot about how to structure these classes, etc.

That said, I hate the tiny desks that so many classrooms have. When we built our buildings, one of the things we insisted on were nice wide desks.

Glen said...

I kept thinking that Node Chair video had to be a Saturday Night Live parody of the state of today's education. I kept waiting for one of those earnest professors to profess, "It's a little-known fact that Jefferson penned the first draft of the Declaration of Independence while scooting around the floor of Monticello with his friends Franklin and Madison in small, wooden bumper cars fashioned by Jefferson himself...."

Catherine Johnson said...

Imagine the excitement and luxury of being able to have your calculus book, your notebook and your calculator all visible simultaneously!.

Why oh why can't administrators make a furniture purchase for a sensible reason like this?

A reason everyone would instantly recognize AS A REASON.

btw, assuming I can tell from the picture what the 'node chairs' are, I don't see how they are conducive to group activities. The tables don't appear to be particularly moveable - right?

Catherine Johnson said...

My college bought desks that fit together in pairs, so it's easy to have a 'partner.'

They give students a lot more space -- and if you put two of them together without a person in the other desk you've got a table.

That said, they're a mess for any kind of group work. Not easy to put them in a circle.

And, weirdly, the seats are fantastically low. When I try to sit in the second desk in order to work one-on-one with a student, my chest is hitting the desk top pretty much, and I really can't physically get over to the student's work.

They're not great.

Catherine Johnson said...

Glen wrote: I kept thinking that Node Chair video had to be a Saturday Night Live parody of the state of today's education.

That's cuz you haven't been body-snatched yet.

(Body-snatching is my alternative to what happened in 1985.)

Catherine Johnson said...

chemprof - When you have time, I'd love to hear what your committee came up with.

As to no one knowing what to do about composition, I do think a lot of the dilemma has to do with the rise of the 'boss compositionists' and composition theory. It's utter claptrap, and it's been dominant since the 80s. It is a wasteland.

I speak as a teacher looking through journal articles -- and, almost more importantly, as a professional writer. NOTHING in the composition theory texts resonates with me in any way, shape, or form.

Catherine Johnson said...

A couple of things:

Back in the 80s, I believe, people were figuring out that writing well in one field is different from writing well in another field -- and that skills in one field don't generalize well. I'm sure that's true not in an absolute sense (a sentence is a sentence, and the sentence is the core unit of writing), but in a general sense. All writers specialize.

That insight led to the establishment of composition programs with instructors who specialized, too. I think that's a great idea -- though I don't know whether there's still a basic need for a sentence-and-paragraph course. (Haven't thought it through.)

Another thing: After two years at this (and quite a few years teaching composition early on) I'm convinced text reconstruction is the way to go.

Text reconstruction combined with sentence combining, sentence decombining, sentence recombining, and sentence imitation.

Catherine Johnson said...

A couple of weeks ago, I attended funeral services for my neighbor's dad. He had been a 6th grade teacher and a principal, and my neighobor's husband found a stash of student papers from his class back in....the 1960s, I think.

He read several of them out loud, and they were wonderful. The grammar was good, the sentences were clear -- we were all marveling at the fact that these 1960s children could write.

Writing is hard, but I'm pretty sure that TEACHING writing isn't so hard.

Teaching college freshman to write as well as 6th graders wrote in the 1960s is hard because you're dealing with ingrained habits and non-habits (can a non-habit be ingrained? Probably!) AND you're trying to do so at a point where students are supposed to b writing-to-think-and-learn, not just writing to convey information and observation.

Catherine Johnson said...

o-m-g --- you've got to watch the video


The node chairs are like little wheelchairs.

Or desk scooters.

They're on wheels.

There's a tray underneath so you can scootch your backpack with you when you migrate across the room (or out the door and down the hall!)

oh, man

I see potential for all kinds of mischief with desks on wheels in my class.

The desktop is normal size.

SteveH said...

"The Nodal Classroom"

An amazing new educational paradigm! It's the Node™, brought to you by Steelcase. Ta Da! Music please.

I'll bet they can add PC docking stations with connections to the Smartboard. Oops! It's time to scoot into your new formations. Beep, beep! Ha, Ha! Now that's what I call active learning. PE across the classrooms.

Down with the Harkness Table. Up with nodal chairs. They can be so easily rearranged on the deck of the Titanic.

SteveH said...

I could be very pessimistic, but I think that the college reality keeps this silliness to a minimum in high schools, especially for those in the honors/AP/SAT track. High schools know that they will get a lot of flack from parents if their kids are not making real progress towards these goals. I know that our high school has gotten a lot of flack from parents about my son's precalc class (with its 3rd teacher so far this year) and how they are behind in the material.

I also haven't heard much lately about how "integrated math" will take over the traditional AP calculus track of classes. I know they haven't gone away, but I think it's hard for schools to offer both paths. I haven't heard of a case where an integrated sequence has ousted the AP sequence. IB might be a problem area, but that's nationally controllede. However, I've heard of schools offering different levels of IB, some of which are not viewed well by colleges.

ChemProf said...

Catherine -- the new model is everyone takes first semester composition (no AP credit, but if you took it at a community college you skip it), and students in that class all meet one-on-one thirty minutes a week with a tutor (one of our master's students, working as a TA).

For the second semester, we currently use a writing across the curriculum model, where any department can offer a "writing" class. We are looking at moving to a different model with specific writing courses split out by discipline, like "Writing for Natural Science", "Writing in the Humanities," etc. The bugs and funding are still being worked out however.

I'd agree that sentence recombining would be a heck of a lot more useful in the basic composition class that whatever they do now. I had a good student complaining they spent a whole 75 minute class period looking for sexism in magazine ads. But at least the person in charge of the reworking is serious about grammar, etc., and has even created and taught a class on academic grammar.

Glen said...

Catherine, by "text reconstruction," do you mean the process Ben Franklin described, where he took Spectator articles that he considered to be well argued, cut them up into individual sentences, randomized them, waited a few weeks (to forget the original article), then tried to reconstruct the original article?

Allison said...

re: the chairs:
went to the web site, saw the titles of the various administrative depts, saw the case study, saw (with sound off) the video. I never even saw the chair, I couldn't bring myself to.

I wish I could personally pop the higher ed bubble with a pin.

Just think: our children and grandchildren will be paying 10, 14, or even higher percentage interest rates on the borrowed money used to fund every element of that indulgence.

The brokest nation in the history of the world think education depends on node chairs. I think I'm pro Vandal now.

ChemProf said...

"I think I'm pro Vandal now." Been reading Hansen today, huh?

We are in California. The old standards were pretty good, and did have multiplication introduced in second grade (memorize x2, x5, and x10, see the rest of it). Now, we adopted Common Core which are schizoid. Multiplication isn't introduced until third grade, but kindergarteners are supposed to know numbers up to 20 (when the old standards were up to 10).

My mother would agree with you, actually. She used to teach second grade, and always taught multiplication then. The problem she has with the standards is that instead of really focusing with her kindergarteners on knowing the numbers 1-10 cold so they are ready for first grade, the standards say they have to spend a lot of time on measurement and data collection, which they aren't really ready for.

However, I would point out that even many Singapore Math boosters agree that most students need more practice than is provided. That isn't a problem in Singapore, but can be a big problem in a school where most students need a lot of repetition.

Catherine Johnson said...

Allison - you MUST watch the video.


I'm glad I did.

Catherine Johnson said...

Glen - Yes, that's what I'm talking about. I think (or I would be willing to wager) text reconstruction is a terrific way to learn to write -- and I experimented with it last year.

The problem for me was that I just don't have the materials I need. The Whimbey text reconstruction book is fantastic, but I'm teaching an English course, and the kids have to write English papers.

I'm going to have to create the materials I (think I) need myself.

Catherine Johnson said...

chemprof wrote: We are looking at moving to a different model with specific writing courses split out by discipline, like "Writing for Natural Science", "Writing in the Humanities," etc.

I think that's essential. You probably already have the 'core' papers on the failure of writing 'skills' to generalize across disciplines. If not, I can send.

When Ed and I read one of them, Ed's reaction was fascinating because, just as the author described, his concept of good writing was quite different from other concepts of good writing held by other professors. (I think he and I had different views, too, but I may be misremembering.)

The core problem in all teaching (or one of the core problems) is that people don't generalize well. When you learn something in one context, you don't take it with you to another context.

I once read, in fact, that the entire field of educational psychology started with the problem of "transfer."

It's true of writing, too. Writers specialize; there's probably no such thing as a good 'general' writer.

That said, grammar doesn't change across disciplines, nor does the sentence, which is the fundamental element of all writing.

It strikes me that fluent grammatical writing could probably be taught to everyone in one basic class.

But after that, writing has to be taught within disciplines, I think.

Catherine Johnson said...

oh wait

you watched the video already

Anonymous said...

I can't remember if I already posted this here, but UCSC does require a "disciplinary communication" course in every major (in addition to two freshman comp courses, which don't seem to do much good).

More on the UCSC general-ed requirements (which make more pedagogic sense than most such systems) at

Catherine Johnson said...

oh very interesting - I will read - thanks!

historians gain little from literary analysis and lit students little from critical reading of history

Absolutely true!

The idea that English and history are 'the same' because both involve 'reading' is NUTS. (This was the rationale given by our high school for forcing any student who was taking AP global to take an Honors English course, too: students needed to see that history and literature are the same.

A couple of years ago Ed (who is a historian) co-taught a course with a literature professor. He said it was revelatory; as he put it, "for a literature professor, books are texts, not documents" (something like that). That was the first time he really saw how completely and totally different the two disciplines are.

He didn't think the course worked at all; the disciplines are just too different.

Allison said...

No, didn't see VDH until I saw your comment and went looking...

but to your comments, a few things:

1. I don't think Common Core is schizoid at all. I find it curious she's complaining it's got too much data/measurement in it, since I hear complaints all the time about how it doesn't have enough--too focused, doing too little. In Kindergarten, CC has 3 standards in data--and one is describing length, weight, and similar quantifiable attributes, and another is learning to use "more" and "less". Units are an incredibly valuable introduction to place value, and the more exposure children have to organizing things by units, and understanding exchanging/trading in units, the better they'll do at place value. Grade 1 has 4 standards in data/measurement, and two have to do with length, and correspond to using a number line. Again, perfectly sane, and not broad at all. The next is learning to tell time, and the last is about more/less/totals, which they should be doing anyway as they do concrete counting and number stories.

More, these strands build sanely on each other each year, rather than are just random data/measurement recipes for the future. In first, you work with analog time in hours and half hours; in second, you work with analog time to five minutes, in third, again, but to one minute. the length work is similar: in K, you start learning about length. In first, you measure lengths and compare longer/shorter. In 2nd, you start to conceptualize lengths and prepare for estimation by working with rulers vs. yardsticks. This in turn supports your number sense. You learn how to measure in different units, which supports place value, and again, extends what you learned in grade 1.

Allison said...

(Cont) Your comment about Singapore was odd. Do you mean students need more practice than Singapore's Primary Math textbook series provides? If so, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of Singapore's Primary Math series.

Singapore does not implement Primary Mathematics in the "conventional" way that textbooks are used in the US. Reading the teacher's guide (or the Home Instructors' Guide for the Stds edition) makes this quite clear: lessons are to be taught from the Concrete-->Visual-->Abstract, and lessons themselves are to be built around discussions, games, and activities working with manipulatives to introduce ideas--the concrete phase. From there, the textbook then serves as an instance of the visual or abstract phase, depending on the specifics of the lesson you're at. Even after the textbook introduces the pictorial or abstract phase of a concept, practice is given with activities in games in all of these modes. The textbook and workbook problems are of course not enough practice--and aren't meant to be. They are to be used for formative assessment by the teacher to determine what activities, games, drills, etc. the students need--who needs reinforcement, where do they need it, who needs enrichment. Each lesson has accompanying it games or activities that students are supposed to be doing in order to practice both facts and methods.

So, if you teach the series the way it is intended, there is enough practice. If you just read the textbook and then do the workbook, no it isn't. But that isn't *doing Singapore's Primary Mathematics*.

Anonymous said...

"If you just read the textbook and then do the workbook, no it isn't."

Actually, for some kids, just the workbook is plenty of practice (example, my son). For other kids, much more is needed. There are "Intensive Practice" and "Challenging Word Problems" workbooks for those who need more practice examples.