kitchen table math, the sequel: Life is a just a bowl of cherries

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Life is a just a bowl of cherries

More fun with Common Core.
A few days later, though, the mood [in Ms. McNair-Lee's 8th grade English class] is more somber. In a lesson about figurative language, students are analyzing how authors compare nouns. They're mulling a quote from Lois Lowry's The Giver: [Reading Level: Grade 6] "It was as if a hatchet lay lodged in his leg, slicing through each nerve with a hot blade."

But they're tongue-tied when Ms. McNair-Lee asks if the quote compares two nouns. Finally, a boy from the front table, where Mikel sits quietly, ventures that it compares "hatchet" and "hot blade."

She takes them step by step through another quote, "The rain sounded like bullets." Does it use literal references? she asks. No, one student says, they're not actual bullets. Does it compare nouns? Yes. Does it use "like" or "as"? Yes. They're getting it. Could it be literal? No. Is this an example of a literary device? Yes, a half-dozen students say.

What kind of literary device is this? Ms. McNair-Lee presses. "Simile," says a small voice at the back of the room. The teacher remembers a question from the last interim assessment, asking students to identify the literary devices in the cited text passage. She anticipates something similar on the year-end test. "Simile," she says, smiling and nodding.

Moments later, a stumbling block: No one can identify the verb in a short sentence: "Life is a dream."

Ms. McNair-Lee resorts to a physical demonstration. She calls two students up front and has them stand on either side of her: the subject and the object. In the middle, she's the verb.

"The subject is the one doing the action," she reminds. "The verb is the action." Her frustration is tangible.

Into the Common Core: One Classroom's Journey by Catherine Gewertz | Education Week | Published Online: June 4, 2013
First of all, hoo boy.

Whatever happened to "state of being"?

Or  "subject complement"?

And forget linguistics-based grammar, which was developed in the 1950s, I think, and is a lot easier to understand than traditional grammar. For me, at least.

As far as I can tell, the action-versys0state of being explanation of verbs was always confusing to a lot of students, but it had to be better than "The verb is the action" alone. (Didn't it?)

What 'action' is the verb "is" "doing" in "Life is a dream"? (And yes, the words "It depends upon what the meaning of the word is is" are running through my mind at this moment, I admit!)

If you're an 8th grade ELA teacher teaching "close readings" and you don't know what a copula is, look out below.

Somebody better write some decent curriculum pronto. Most K-12 teachers have come out of the same public school system they are now supposed to improve via close readings of informational text. These teachers weren't taught grammar (nor was I); now they're supposed to teach students how to analyze an author's use of language---?

How is that going to happen?

I'll tell you how it happened for me, teaching at my college. After I was hired to teach freshman composition, I spent hours and hours (and hours) crash-coursing myself in grammar and linguistics, that's how. I'm still working on it. And I started with the advantage that I am a writer who has a Ph.D.; I've spent my entire adult life doing 'close readings' of the kind Common Core is talking about. Thirty-year old teachers teaching full days and raising families at night and on weekends aren't going to be able to do what I've been doing.

I was worried about Common Core giving students work that's way over their heads.

Now I'm worried about the teachers.

Whimbey on grammar

A favorite passage of mine, from Arthur Whimbey's Teaching and Learning Grammar: The Prototype-Construction Approach. I was thinking I'd posted it before, but haven't tracked it down.
When I was in the 9th grade at Brooklyn Technical High School, my English teacher stood at the board and said, ‘Your textbook defines a verb as a word that describes an action or state of being.’ On the board she wrote: A verb describes an action or state of being.

Next she wrote this sentence on the board:

Eating custard pie, Peter is a picture of happiness.

Then she called on me to identify the verb in the sentence.

It seemed clear to me that eating expresses an action, so I answered, ‘Eating.’

To my surprise the teacher said, ‘No, eating is not the verb.’

I protested, ‘But the book says a verb is an action word. Eating is an action.’

The teacher responded with what was to her an apparently clear explanation: ‘Yes, but eating is a participle, not the verb in this sentence.’

I had no idea what a participle was, but I began looking for another action word in the sentence—without success.

Sensing my frustration, the teacher offered a hint. ‘Remember that a verb can describe a state of being.’

State of being, I thought. What is a state of being?

Scanning the sentence to find a word expressing a state of being, I considered happiness. Happiness seemed to express a state of being. I figured that if I knew what a verb was, I would be in a state of happiness. Unsure but hopeful, I asked, “Is happiness the verb?”

‘No,’ came the judgment.

After another minute or so, the teacher answered her own question:

‘The verb in this sentence is is.’

But it didn’t matter. Grammar made no sense to me, and I dismissed it as something I would never understand.

Whimbey, Arthur and Linden, Myra J. Teaching and Learning Grammar: The Prototype-Construction Approach. Chicago: BGF Performance Systems, LLC, 2001. Print. (4-5).


MagisterGreen said...

Heaven help us if we were to proffer up the word "copula".

One might think of this as one of those "teachable moments", but I expect we'll just find a way to paper over this unfortunate reality and move on.

SATVerbalTutor. said...

How's this for an explanation:

To be" is the most common verb in the English language. It isn't a verb in the way that you've probably been taught to think about verbs -- that is, it doesn't express an action. But it's a verb all the same, and for the moment, that's all you need to worry about.

The forms into which "to be" conjugates are *AM* and *IS* (singular) and *ARE* (plural).

Even though these forms don't look anything like "be," they're still part of the same verb.

So when you see *am* or *is* or *are* in a sentence, know that it is always acting as a verb. It's ok if you don't fully understand why that's that case right now (we can talk about that later), but you simply need to know it.

This is usually more or less what I say when I'm teaching grammar. In the beginning stages, concrete knowledge is more important than understanding. Nothing about "states of being" or "the verb is always the action." Just "this is a verb, and this is how you identify it." And clueless teachers are more or less why I have a job. I'm teaching everything people with M.Ed's don't seem to know anymore.

momof4 said...

Another reason that I think ed schools should be closed; they can be a small department teaching level/subject-specific methods classes, content-rich spec ed including legal issues, tests and measurements and practice teaching. A recently-retired teacher relative says those are the only ed courses that are necessary. Ed schools not only aren't teaching content, they're not requiring their students to take it from academic departments; majors and minors in the ed school required exactly HALF of the academic courses as did Arts & Sciences.(the difference was in ed school BS) When I was in college in the 60s, all English majors and minors had to take (1)Structure of the English Language and (2)Stylistics, in that order. Taught by an outstanding prof, they were considered the toughest courses in the department and no one came out of them without knowing grammar and composition. English majors in the ed school were required to take neither, although some did. Sigh. BTW, I had grammar every year 1-12, with diagramming sentences starting in 7th.

Anonymous said...

If you had to get a college degree in a real major, and could only minor in Education, most of our teachers would be unable to finish their degrees.

Anonymous said...

"If you had to get a college degree in a real major, and could only minor in Education, most of our teachers would be unable to finish their degrees."

Sorry, but this is factually untrue. California has teachers get a "real" undergraduate degree rather than a 4-year degree in education.

MagisterGreen said...

Sorry, but this is factually untrue. California has teachers get a "real" undergraduate degree rather than a 4-year degree in education.

When you've got English majors who don't know much about English, what's the point?

Jen said...

" In the beginning stages, concrete knowledge is more important than understanding. Nothing about "states of being" or "the verb is always the action." Just "this is a verb, and this is how you identify it." And clueless teachers are more or less why I have a job. I'm teaching everything people with M.Ed's don't seem to know anymore."

The first sentence brought tears of happiness to my eyes. Unfortunately, it would also get you on the "not with the program" list at a lot of schools.

That's heresy at many levels -- including the programming required to get Gates and Broad money.

It's why I left a school/district, too. Initially there was a principal who understood that you have to KNOW something before you can THINK about it. She had the years in and the results to be able to buck the powers and insist that teachers teach. However, once she retired... It was right back to kids having to discover things for themselves, build a construct for their discoveries, and THEN figure out an easier algorithm to go along with it.

Not surprisingly, scores (and knowledge) fell, and fell, and fell. Now that principal will be in another school come fall. However, new principal will have to follow that same plan, and so will the teachers.

Jen said...

Just as an aside, I have a "real" non-education B.S., and a real non-education master's (snuck out at that point from what was a Ph.D. program) and then years later, got a master's for teaching.

Anonymous said...

If you're going to call something factually untrue, it would seem wise to verify your facts first.

California has such a requirement, but California is not the USA. It's not even representative or typical of the USA.

In the rest of the country, the requirement of a non-education major is rare. Also, reciprocity is nearly universal. I.E. you can use teacher certification in one state to teach in another.

For example, the teacher in the article cited is accredited in DC, which has no such rule. With her ed degree from the prestigious UDC, and her DC accreditation, she can now go teach most anywhere in the US (but not California).

So by and large, your factual correction is... not factual.

It would be nice to see California's rule extended to the rest of the U.S. That would be a good start. The next step would be to require BAs actually in the material taught (say, a BA in Math to teach Math)...

Anonymous said...

"If you're going to call something factually untrue, it would seem wise to verify your facts first."

Let me elaborate my reasoning chain:

Initial claim: If you had to get a college degree in a real major, and could only minor in Education, most of our teachers would be unable to finish their degrees.

My retort:

1) California does not require elementary school teachers to have a "real" major.

2) Most California teacher finish their degrees (I don't have data o this, but I'm pretty sure that it is true).

3) California does not import the bulk of its teachers from out-of-state (again, I don't have raw data on this, but I suspect that it is true).

4) I then claim as a form of existence proof that requiring a "real" degree does not cause "most of our teachers" to be unable to finish their degrees.

It sounds like you agree with (1). Do you disagree with (2), (3) or (4)?

-Mark Roulo

ChemProf said...

You have to watch the requirement in California -- yes, California does not allow majors in education. However, they do allow degrees in "liberal studies" and many (if not most) elementary school teachers have such a degree which is, at many schools, functionally equivalent to an elementary education degree -- no one is in the program unless they plan to teach K-8, and the requirements are aligned with the credential program.

See for example:

SATVerbalTutor. said...

@ Jen, I'm well aware -- and increasingly proud -- of the the fact that my methodologies would get me kicked out of most schools in the United States. Although I have nothing but admiration for anyone who has the guts to stand up in front of a classroom, I personally have no desire whatsoever to teach high school. I'd rather sit and write books that actually explain all the things teachers refuse to teach for a mass audience so that the information is at least available on a mass scale should people wish to access it.

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Anonymous said...


The failure in your reasoning occurs before the chain you set out. Numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4 do not address the initial claim. Most of our teachers do not live in California, did not go to college in California, and do not teach in California. Points 1, 2, 3, and 4, or whatever additional points you would like to make about teachers in California, could all be correct without affecting the initial claim.

For a point-by-point consideration:

Point 1 neither proves nor disproves the initial claim if considered for California teachers only. If your claim is true, it remains possible that most California elementary teachers could not finish their degrees if required to have a "real" degree. This does not support your conclusion.

Point 2 does not consider the question of whether most students enrolling in California colleges with the objective of becoming teachers finish or do not finish their degrees in real majors, which is the relevant question. Instead, it asserts that most people who are already California teachers finish their degrees. Given the requirement of first having a degree in order to become a California teacher, the idea that it proves anything that most California teachers finished their degrees is absurd and does not support your conclusion.

Point 3 is correct, because California has less reciprocity with other states than is common in the US.

Point 4 is unproven and not supported by points 1-3, even for the subset of our teachers who are teachers in California.

Jen said...

"The next step would be to require BAs actually in the material taught (say, a BA in Math to teach Math)..."

For all levels? Honestly, this would be a ridiculous requirement. I would argue that there are very few math majors who could or would want to teach K-6 math. Being an expert often makes it much harder to explain simple things in your field. Things that you feel are nearly instinctive, totally obvious.

I'm not saying that there aren't bad elementary math teachers -- clearly there are. But that sort of requirement isn't really productive in the least.

Having specialist math teachers in elementary grades might help -- though again, I'd argue that having Calc 1,2,& 3 is not what they'd need to be great teachers of place value and fractions, etc.

Anonymous said...

Right, you don't need Calc3 to teach k-6...but maybe there is some middle ground...some more rigorous math minor to become an elementary math specialist.

When non-mathy people teach math in the younger grades, they are sure to squelch the creative mathematical connection-making that we should want to see happening. It's not out of evil intent. But a clever 2nd grader (or even younger) will occasionally come up with an approach that is different than the one in the teacher's guide. Or ask a question that seems off the wall. A non-mathy teacher just won't be able to distinguish between clever creativity and off-the-rails misunderstanding. So they will do the safest thing available: guide the student back to the way it says to do it in the book. And for that one kid, the chance for math to be interesting that day is gone.

Actual, non-ironic quote directed at my daughter a few years back: "Just find the box, honey, and think inside of it." So maybe we don't need math majors, but we do need qualified math specialists.


Jen said...

That I have no problem with at all! Any elementary teacher who "hates math" and/or doesn't like teaching math...shouldn't!

There should definitely be a comfort level with math solidly through Algebra and Geometry, the ability to look at a child's mistakes and pinpoint the problem areas, and the ability to explain a concept in multiple ways -- NOT to every child necessarily! That is, every child doesn't need to learn 3 or more algorithms for every kind of problem.

But for enrichment, some kids can be given different algorithms and asked to figure out why they work, while kids who need extra help also need help in finding the ONE algorithm that they can both do (first) and understand (through using it enough to get it).

froggiemama said...

I would argue that an elementary math specialist should have made it through a year of Calculus and should also have some grounding in computer science - not just a smattering of web programming, but enough to give them an idea of algorithms. Why? Well first of all, even though you aren't likely to teach any calculus in elementary school, knowing calculus kind of gives you an end game - you have an idea of where all these skills and concepts are going to converge. And why computer science? Many elementary school kids are now learning Scratch and Alice and Mindstorms in camp and afterschool programs and are really jazzed about writing their own games and applications. They quickly need to veer into computational thinking. How can a math teacher be a resource without understanding algorithms him or herself?

And, I realize I forgot Statistics. Yes, absolutely, an elementary school teacher should have a good understanding of Statistics

Glen said...

Colorado is doing something interesting with respect to teachers and specialization:

SteveH said...

I think that all K-8 schools should use specialists for math. These specialists should have gone through at least calculus. This gives them an appreciation of what skills their students might need. Too many K-6 teachers don't know how important skills are and how closely they are tied to understanding. The key sorting point for many schools is when some kids get sorted on the track to algebra in 8th grade and the rest get sorted into the very little chance for a STEM career track. K-6 educators need to see exactly what skills determine that split and why this split is critical. They can't do nothing and then just put them all into algebra in 8th grade as if that will magically fix 7 years of bad math.

I also agree about the comment on programming. My son did the Lego League in 5th grade and none of the teachers could help at all with the Mindstorms programming. Another father and I were coaches and we provided all of that knowledge. The graphical programming offered with the Lego "brick" is easy and fun. Many equate mathematical thinking and programming, but they are somewhat different. A friend of my son is not so great in math, but his life is now defined by programming.

A proper knowledge of statistics would be good because that will provide a meaningful introduction to the topic. I remember one Everyday Math assignment where my son had to ask his family and relatives what there favorite ice cream is and then draw a bar graph. Too much time was wasted in collecting data and that data was turned into a bar graph where it had no more than two positive responses for any one flavor- wasted time and no meaningful learning about statistics.

We need teachers who know content and skills. Currently, we only have teachers who care about the process and that process is to trust the spiral and hide behind talk of critical thinking and understanding.

SteveH said...

BTW, that ice cream bar chart had to be drawn/colored using pictures of ice cream cones where the ice cream had to look like the flavor ... for all of those visual learners. Of course, doing the visual part did not add knowledge of statistics, and not all students are visual learners, even if you believe in that stuff. It's amazing how schools talk about different learning styles, but then force everyone to draw pictures and construct dioramas. I remember telling someone that my son's learning style was "fast". He did not have to use crayons in sixth grade to draw pictures of science terms. He could learn the terms before he could dig out his Kindergarten crayons.

A proper knowledge of math would end this silliness - one would hope.