kitchen table math, the sequel: Sometimes kids know *less* than adults realize

Monday, March 11, 2013

Sometimes kids know *less* than adults realize

A few nights ago, I was having dinner with a friend and her very smart fourteen year-old son.

My friend told me the story of how her son, who is in *eighth grade*, had come home from school with an assignment to write an 8-10 page paper. 

The exceedingly nebulous instructions included brainstorming a "guiding question" and due dates for various drafts, but other than that, there was not one iota of specific information about how these thirteen and fourteen year-olds were supposed to go about writing this paper. 

Never mind high school, it looked like the assignment sheet for a college term paper.  

My friend, a teacher herself, was a bit concerned that the assignment was unclear and emailed his teacher. She couldn't figure out whether the paper was supposed to be thesis-driven or whether it was just a research project, but the teacher wouldn't give her a straightforward answer.

She asked her son whether he'd been given clearer instructions in class.

He shook his head.

"Do you know whether you need to have a thesis, or is it just research?" she asked.

He shrugged. 

"Wait," I said. "M., do you know how to write a thesis?" 

He hesitated and looked confused. "What exactly do you mean by thesis...?"


Grace said...

Boy, this sounds familiar. The most common instructions seem to have been "Google it". Of course, this could be because my inattentive kids rarely heard all instructions. Which leads me to another point. Why don't all these assignments have WRITTEN instructions, including due dates, posted on the school website?

Glen said...

A couple of weeks ago, my son's English class was given the assignment to write a five-paragraph essay about global warming that compared and contrasted "what people know about the harm global warming will cause" to a story in their textbook that, as the text explains, portrays life in a world devastated by global warming.

Someone asked the teacher what a five-paragraph essay was, and she informed them that, "you should all know that by now." How? Because she had taught them? No, this was an advanced sixth-grade English class, and they were expected to know such things, she explained.

And the kids didn't even know enough to realize that being told to compare "what people know about [the future]" and a fictionalized account of life in that future is ridiculous. They assumed it must be a reasonable request. Someone did ask what people she meant, and she said she meant people who knew about global warming. How do you compare a literal quote from a story with what "people" say? Do these people who know all say the same things? She did offer the suggestion that they should google to find websites that described all the bad things global warming was going to cause.

They read the story together in class. The editors of their English textbook apparently felt that nobody was better qualified to teach about global warming than the feminist, Chicano-rights activist, and creative writing teacher Alma Luz Villanueva.

Her story describes a world a generation or so from now in which people only go out at night except on special occasions, because of the unbearable intensity of the sun's ultraviolet rays. These rays require people going to the beach to wear full space suits. The ultraviolet has killed off all life in the sea, but the problem of deadly sunlight may eventually improve because, among other "remedies," scientists have "stopped all nuclear testing."

This utter confusion of warm air with sunburn with nukes is what happens when the English department stops teaching grammar and five-paragraph essays and decides that it's much more important to teach more significant stuff like "saving the planet." Sure, the kids have to write about it so it can be called "English," but teaching *how* to write is considered someone else's job, while teaching the political attitudes and associated pseudoscience---now, *that* is the job of the English teacher.

If you'd like to see for yourself, the actual textbook pages introducing the story, the story itself, the questions and associated article on global warming are available online:

The Sand Castle, by Alma Luz Villanueva

I should add that this teacher also does things that are totally out of step with contemporary California English teaching, such as making the kids *memorize* Latin roots and read Poe, for which I'm grateful. She's teaching them things that will improve their reading but seems to think that they'll figure out writing for themselves if she just tells them what to think and has them write about it.

Anonymous said...

My son had a similar assignment, though the page requirement was 4-6 pages, in 6th grade. Absolutely no instruction whatsoever. And it was to be the only academic writing assignment of the year. When I asked about the lack of instruction (in a tactful way), I was told that the teacher wanted to see what the kids could do "on their own."

I think the reason academic writing is not explicitly taught is because it's *hard* to teach. I know, I've homeschooled for 10 years and was a professional scientific/medical writer in a former life, and I still found it hard to teach. I put my kid in school thinking that they would teach him and I ended up teaching him anyway!

Auntie Ann said...

On their own, my ^$$! Kids with parents who are on the ball and walk their kids through the procedure will get it done (and other parents who will do it for theirs.) The rest will stumble through and turn in a mess. It's nothing more than letting parents do the hard and boring jobs of teaching, while the teachers get to do the fun enrichment things.

We have the same thing at our school, where the science fair requires a research paper, but the science teacher doesn't walk the kids through how to do it; and the classroom teachers don't either, in part because they don't assign things like that themselves, so why would they teach it?