kitchen table math, the sequel: email from a parent

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

email from a parent

Today I visited the best public school in the district. A school so good that they brought in Singapore math. All but one of the teachers at the school had more than 10 years experience in teaching. All of them had classrooms that indicated they had some autonomy, despite the district's top-down insanity--the principal had hired professionals, treats them as professionals, and in return, they behave as professionals.

But they teach Reading Workshop and Writing Workshop. Today, visiting K and 1st grades, I spoke with some teachers. The K teacher explained that they'd been doing guided/leveled reading for a decade, and RW was just catching up to have curriculur content. He said he assessed kids with Fountas Pinnell twice a year, then broke up kids into 6 groups (for 22 kids). He worked with groups every *6* days, though later in the year, every 3 days.

The idea was that higher abled kids in reading could decode well past their comprehension, basically which I don't doubt. [My child] can decode anything, for example. But obviously can't comprehend everything. So the teacher spent that time trying to teach the upper ones (I didn't ask about the lower able readers) things like inference--what else could have happened, how events would have changed the ending,  etc. He said with one kid who was reading at nth grade level he had the kid journal, and they swapped the journal every 2 days, trying to think more deeply about inferences in the comprehension.

My first thought was that in the hands of an excellent teacher, RW wouldn't be so bad. With enough nonfiction books teaching content, and enough interaction, this could be useful.

But my second thought was why do this now? Why not just wait until kids KNOW MORE STUFF to infer about? Why not wait until they are 8 or 9 and then ask about this stuff?

Third thought was that it reminded me of a comment in Martin Gardner's Annotated Alice (do you know that book? It's an annotated version of Alice in Wonderland, explaining the puzzles, puns, riddles, historical and mathematical references, etc.) Gardner wrote that he hoped his book would not be used to destroy children's interest in literature, as excerpts of it would be turned into such questions as "draw the chess board alice is walking on at the end of chapter 2. Is the white queen protected by the knight or not?" "Find five puns in the March Hare tea party about time." etc--wouldn't reading this way make reading miserable?

Then I looked at the WW stuff. and it was so dreary. They had taken a unit on Eric Carle and broken it down into the recognizable PATTERNS! "what's the pattern in the very hungry caterpillar?" "the days of the week" "what the pattern in Does a Kangaroo have a mother too?" "The pattern is the text "yes, an < animal > has a mother too, just like me and you."

Does this stuff just appeal to adults, and they have no idea how much kids hate it? Is it a boy thing to hate this stuff? [My son] would be excited he'd recognized the pattern, and then he'd be ready to move on, no discussion needed. It would take ten seconds, not 5 days. He'd rather be doing something.

I can imagine that RW and WW at least appear to make sense if a child is already a fluent reader. It must be impossible to become one, though, if you're doing this rather than learning to read.


Anonymous said...

"'Find five puns in the March Hare tea party about time.' etc--wouldn't reading this way make reading miserable?"

Yes. This is one reason that my homeschooled child "just" reads and then talks to me about it. I'm starting to have him write summaries for penmanship practice.

Literature is *SUPPOSED* to be fun and interesting to read. It is easy to kill this with analysis (especially at an early age). I'd rather that my child not grow up thinking that literature is dull/boring/unfun because of all the analysis.

"Does this stuff just appeal to adults, and they have no idea how much kids hate it?"

Does this appeal to most adults? No, of course not. Almost no adults do this once they graduate and have a choice in the matter.

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

And my favorite on-line essay on school essays and literature (which is only slightly related to teaching 7 year olds about finding puns in Alice, but still ...):

It starts:

"The most obvious difference between real essays and the things one has to write in school is that real essays are not exclusively about English literature. Certainly schools should teach students how to write. But due to a series of historical accidents the teaching of writing has gotten mixed together with the study of literature. And so all over the country students are writing not about how a baseball team with a small budget might compete with the Yankees, or the role of color in fashion, or what constitutes a good dessert, but about symbolism in Dickens.

With the result that writing is made to seem boring and pointless. Who cares about symbolism in Dickens? Dickens himself would be more interested in an essay about color or baseball."

Anonymous said...

My son got much more writing instruction in history class than in English class. I regard this as a good thing, as the history teachers were much better than the English teacher, and the students were taught to write with content and to use appropriate citations. The 7th history teacher also did a lot of directing the kids to primary sources, rather than relying on the pablum in the textbook.

Quite frankly, I think that literature analysis and writing instruction are almost diametrically opposed fields these days, and would not trust someone heavily trained in literature to teach writing. (Forty years ago, the training in literature was different, and those trained then could be quite good at teaching creative writing.)

Crimson Wife said...

Inference is a really hard skill to teach young kids because they're typically so literal-minded. My DD is an excellent reader but she scored just okay on the reading section of the Iowa last year because she had difficulty "reading between the lines" to answer inference questions. A year later, she seems better able to do that kind of thinking so that's a skill I'm going to be focusing on for 2nd semester. Honestly, I think it's something that's developmentally more suited for late elementary rather than primary.

California Teacher said...

Great book on the topic of bizarre forms of reading instruction, though more relevant to middle and high school:

Readicide (How Schools are Killing Reading and What you Can Do About It) by Kelly Gallagher

Last year my son suffered through an excess of post-it notes. He reads widely and voraciously. Sticking post-it notes on every other page was excruciating for him, and served no beneficial purpose.

Anonymous said...

"'Find five puns in the March Hare tea party about time.' etc--wouldn't reading this way make reading miserable?"

Not if it is by Martin Gardner.


SteveH said...

Speaking of Dickens...

My son spent most of this school year in honors freshman English dissecting Great Expectations. He also managed to get his first zero ever on a quiz that asked two questions on inference. His answers weren't what the teacher was looking for. She told him that he had to study harder. Many of the kids got zeros. I came close to telling her that if my son gets a zero on anything, then it's not a reflection on him. If it happens again, I will not hesitate.

My son loves math and science because you can't get away with that. He finds this sort of inference analysis in English quite annoying because he can come up with, and argue, alternate positions. I thought his answers were perfectly fine because her questions were vague.

My son loved reading the book and would talk about Wemmick's "post office" and "Aged P", but he was not happy about answering those questions. He was also not happy about taking two months to read and study one book. Is this a new thing in education? He did this in middle school for some books. One time, he had to create and color a storyboard for "The Pearl" by Steinbeck. They took months to finish the book.

Anonymous said...

I hear ya', Steve,

We're on our third semester of honors English and it's been a rollercoaster the entire time. We also get two question quizzes where the proper inference is required. One mistake and it's an "F". I've seen this stunt pulled in a few classes. My suspicion has been that it's away of adjusting the grades in a class where there might be too many A's. It drives me nuts because of the unfairness of it all. But it also corrodes the relationship between teacher and student. They know it's unfair.

Even if the rubric is followed to the letter, it's clear that the kids in my son's class must pick the correct argument if they are to get an A or a B.

When we asked for specific help on essays, we were told the same thing about studying harder. When my son goes to the Extra Help classroom, after checking his thesis with the teacher, no less, he was told it was all fine. He spent a week on one such essay and received an F for his efforts.

I find it very difficult to talk to some of the teachers because of the lack of info coming home. I feel I'm going in blind. Plus, the fact that some teachers treat their classes like little fiefdoms where they are not to be questioned.

I also can't see most of his papers after they've been graded, along with other assignments, because, again, they never make it home. The middle and grade schools were far better with returning work than what I'm dealing with at the high school. If we were to hire a tutor, I wouldn't know what to tell them because I have very little of his work on hand.

I would have gone in and spoken to a couple of them long ago but I know I'll be ignored. I've spoken to parents who I know aren't PITAs, and they've often gotten pretty shabby treatment. It's also difficult when you don't have any evidence in front of you.

Maybe that's the point.


SteveH said...

Thanks for the feedback Susan!

"...they never make it home"

The only way I know about anything is iParent, but the work doesn't come home. I haven't seen the quiz in question. He has a 95 average in English, except for the 60 average on the quizzes. I hesitate to raise the issue with the teacher because that might make things worse. I will have to ask her for the quiz and tell her that I want to understand exactly how to help my son improve, because it has nothing to do with how hard he studies. Perhaps she will change if she knows that parents are analyzing her work. Perhaps not.

Anonymous said...

Spending a month on a book is not unusual in middle schools (I don't know about high schools yet). The teachers are trying to compensate for the very low reading skills of the average student, I think.

My son would prefer to have much more reading and less literary analysis. I would like him to get more substantive writing practice (as he got in history classes in middle school, but never got in any English class).

ChemProf said...

The bizarre thing is that spending a month on a book leaves them totally unprepared for work in the humanities in college. There, you might spend two weeks on a long novel, but typically have a new, significant reading assignment every day.

I wish I could say that "guess what the teacher wants" is also poor preparation, but I remember my own British History class back in the day, where it became clear that the professor actually wanted a book report on the books he'd assigned. We actually got marked down for looking up other sources and making arguments not from his assigned readings! He was at least willing to meet with us to explain where we'd gone wrong, though, and didn't just say to study harder.

Anonymous said...

These kids are in honors English because of their test scores and recommendations from the middle school. My son also whips through these books the first week with a great deal of enthusiasm, but by the time he is quizzed and tested and "projected" on the thing, he's forgotten or lost interest.

I agree with gasstationwithoutpumps about having more actual reading. Even if one book was chosen for analysis, have the kids read more books outside of that and just quiz or test for having read them. This gets them to read a lot more and takes the pressure off of them to make the "correct" inferences.

The only reason I can think of dragging out a book might be to avoid dumping everything on them at one time, considering the fact that they have a lot of other classes. That's probably too thoughtful. It's probably something else.

But I'm complaining about a school that assigned one book for summer reading for all of the English classes.

My son has also learned a lot more about writing from other teachers. Funny, isn't it?


We have something like your iParent where I live. I often know my son's grades before he does because the teacher will post them before handing them out to the kids. This often causes big fights because he doesn't often know what happened and may not know for a few days, depending on the teacher.


Glen said...

My son's teacher (elem. sch.) found a good book and made the class read it aloud, each child reading a couple of sentences, then passing it to the next child. Day after day after day. With frequent pauses for tedious analysis, a 250-page book moved along at a page or two per day.

My desperately wanted to just READ it, so I told him I'd get it for him. He groaned. He said his teacher had already thought of that and had forbidden anyone from reading ahead outside of class.

I bought him the whole series for Christmas.

I think this is a good faith effort on the part of the teacher to be "rigorous" and "academic." I just think it's ineffective teaching technique.

I think a far better technique would be to find a more challenging book, which would still be fun but would raise some questions in the kids' minds. Then THEY would demand analysis and explanation FROM THE TEACHER.

When a book is interesting but a bit difficult (not too difficult), you WANT help with the parts you "don't get." If you get the help (incl. looking things up yourself), the book becomes even more interesting, and your ability to read other difficult material improves. If the book is already easy, analysis is just a chore and doesn't improve your ability to read anything else.

I'd like my son to experience proper analysis and background research as bringing reading to life, not killing it.

ChemProf said...

Reading aloud in class can be useful, but only for material meant to be read aloud. In one of my first experiences with Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet in 8th grade, we read the whole play aloud in class. But, that took us less than a week, even with Shakespeare so that there was a lot of time spent explaining unfamiliar words and puns. At a few pages per day for a readable novel, I would have been bored to tears.

Anonymous said...

Glen said:

-- I just think it's ineffective teaching technique... a far better technique would be to find a more challenging book, which would still be fun but would raise some questions in the kids' minds. Then THEY would demand analysis and explanation FROM THE TEACHER.

Glen, you've missed the paradigm shift. There is no longer any concern about effective "teaching techniques" because schools are not for teaching. They are places for student learning. Learning puts the onus on the students to figure things out, not on the teacher to explain it to them. It's inauthentic when teachers explain it to them, and inauthenticity means the learning didn't occur, so that would be a failure of the learning environment.

The (false) dichotomy of learning vs teaching is just one of the current dichotomies en vogue. The main other one, skills vs. higher order thinking dove tails nicely with teaching vs. learning--it demands nothing of the teacher and everything of the student.

Glen said...

Actually, I was just complaining about the paradigm shift, highlighting in ALL CAPS the need to return to teachers teaching. But, yes, sage on the stage: bad, and all that, so it won't happen.

So, I'm just venting. The paradigm shift away from teaching at school has too much inertia. Teachers are no longer taught, and they can't teach what they no longer know, regardless of their attitudes, so my complaints won't change anything. A theory of what they shouldn't do guided their evolution into people who couldn't do.

So, I have to accept a paradigm shift of my own, where I take on the role of Teacher-in-Chief for my own kids, whether they stay in school or not.

SteveH said...

I don't think the stretching out of the coverage of a book is a remedial thing. In the case of Dickens, it's a matter of making sure that the kids understand the old language and analogies. (Some kids didn't know what a blacksmith was.) My son thought it was a too slow and that the interpretations or inferences were too vague.

The teacher is teaching only in the sense that she forces the kids to write down definitions and provides some help with analysis or inference. Much of this is done in class in groups, so that is a cause for inefficiency, and the teacher will guide, not teach. That is a big problem when it comes to interpreting books. It would be better if the teacher used the class as one big group with herself as the leader.

This is a concern for me because it relates to critical reading and being able to answer questions for which there is no exact answer. I have always had a problem with this. For SAT questions, I find too many questions where I disagree with the answer. I wouldn't find it helpful to spend hours discussing these nuances with other clueless kids. I would rather have a teacher go through lots of examples and explain what the clues are. You can't send the kids off to discuss these things by themselves and then give them zeros when they don't come up with what's in your head.

Allison is correct about learning versus teaching and skills versus higher-order thinking. Ironically, it seems to come from all of the rote teaching done in ed schools.

If we didn't have iParent, we would be completely in the dark. Also, I often know his grades before he does. As Susan says, this doesn't mean that we will ever be able to examine the results and close the feedback loop. After his zero grade was the note: "More study needed". That was long ago and I still haven't seen the quiz.

So, as "Teacher-in-Chief", can anyone offer effective home solutions to the problem of reading interpretation and inference?

ChemProf said...

The more I read this thread, the more I see why my students are amazed when they get their homework back in the next class session.

Anonymous said...

I sometimes get homework back to my students in the next class session, but only for Friday due dates. The weekend is about the only time I have to grade.

Next quarter is going to be a heavy grading load---I'm expecting to have to read drafts of senior theses: probably 5 drafts each of 10 theses during the quarter, or about 200 pages of text a week. That would not be so bad if these college seniors could write, but I'm going to be having to correct middle-school level English problems.

Anonymous said...

Do your elementary school classes do "popcorn" reading? My 2nd-grader has that, and she hates it because she gets annoyed hearing the other kids mess up the words. She also can read quite fast and hates waiting for everyone else. I help out in class and find that most of the kids are interested in the reading when THEY are reading but often space out when someone else is reading. I guess that sort of makes sense for this age group, but wondering if there is a more efficient way to practice reading. It works OK when you have 3 kids but when you get 7, it's a long time before you get back to the first kid.

Anonymous said...

SteveH, several homeschoolers at the WTM boards have recommended a book called Figuratively Speaking.


ChemProf said...

I hadn't heard of "popcorn" reading, so did a quick google search. Interestingly, in all the teacher boards I found, there was a general agreement that it wasn't a good way to teach reading -- frustrating for the slower readers and irritating for the faster ones.

Anonymous said...

I've never heard of it, either, ChemProf. Does the classroom not break into reading groups? Boy, that would be a misery.

Thanks, SillyOldMom. I'm in same place as Steve with all of this.


Lesley Stevens said...

In my junior year of high school Honors English, we spent something like 8 or 10 weeks on East of Eden. It was a little slow for my tastes but interesting, and the teacher was definitely a leader and instructor, rather than a "guide". This was in '91/'92. However, I'm fairly certain that is the only time I had a class spend so much time on a single work, or with such detailed analysis.

Summer reading is a funny thing to me. In the fairly well regarded school district I went to, there was no such thing as assigned summer reading. When I first came across the idea, I thought it seemed rather outrageous, but I gather it is widespread.

I did the same thing with Romeo & Juliet it 9th grade and MacBeth in 11th grade, and it was fine. On a regular grade level chapter book, though, I imagine it's excruciating.

ChemProf said...

It sounds like "popcorn" reading can be done in reading groups or with the whole class. What Anonymous described sounded like doing it in a reading group with 7 kids. It is just a different way of having each student take a turn to read -- each one reads a couple of sentences or a paragraph (as set by the teacher) then calls on a different student). In a way, I'd think it was worse than round robin, since you don't know when you'll be called, there's no incentive to read ahead. The teachers were criticizing it for just the reasons Anonymous was -- in particular, students spend a lot of time listening to other students misread.

Yeah, in a whole class it sounds like a special misery. In reading groups, I think it would depend on how homogeneous the group was.

Anonymous said...

Following up on my original question, in our classes the "popcorn" reading is done in reading groups that are leveled by ability. Still, I find that there is some fluff time in there if there is more than 3 or 4 kids, only because it's hard for kids to pay attention while waiting for their turn.

Regarding the blog comment about "why now" when teaching inference, I think it you can do it in a way that makes sense and is fun too. For example, I remember reading "Fly Guy" with my then-1st grader. The fly goes "buzz" and then the boy says "look, it knows my name!!" So I ask her, what do you suppose the boy's name is? It's Buzz obviously, which I thought was pretty funny and clever and not such a big stretch for a kid to figure out. So I guess my response, is why NOT now?

I've been continually amazed at what my child can understand and so I don't have a problem with the CONCEPT of the RWWW, assuming it is implemented well. Obviously, I wouldn't ask a child to make inferences based on historical or cultural information that they wouldn't possibly know.

I am new to this blog, so forgive me for just jumping in, but I'm finding the conversation most interesting. :)

Anonymous said...

--It's Buzz obviously, which I thought was pretty funny and clever and not such a big stretch for a kid to figure out. So I guess my response, is why NOT now?

Because when you decide to spend 45 minutes teaching this, you are unable to spend 45 minutes teaching something else. And they spend more than 45 minutes doing this. Did it take your daughter 45 minutes to learn the boy's name? Or 45 seconds?

It's not "do this or don't do this". It's "do this and pay the opportunity cost of not doing something else."

What could you be doing with that 45 minutes? You could be teaching history--of Egyptian pyramid building, or Roman centurions, or Greek warriors, medieval knights, or something. You could be teaching the countries of the world or the states of the US. You could be teaching about the Founding Fathers, famous inventors, famous explorers. You could be teaching *CONTENT*. And then you'd REALLY have something to infer about--not just a question is a picture book, but something about how the world came to be the way it is. How about learning to infer why it was that someone would pay Columbus a lot of money to sail west to India? Or learning to infer that the earth was round based on angles and lengths of shadows in various cities? Those inferences would tell you something.

The focus on fiction in RW is atrocious. It's almost entirely mediocre fiction based on the "if they are reading anything, it's good!" model. But there is so much more that they could be reading, so much more they could be learning about.

This age, grammar school, is the age when kids can soak up everything. Lists and lists of everything. That age passes, and it becomes painful to learn such. Better to fill the sponge now when it is easy. Then learn to reason about what you know when you know something.

SteveH said...

"You could be teaching the countries of the world or the states of the US."

My son's first grade teacher told us that "Yes, he has a lot of superficial knowledge" when we told her that he loved geography and could find any country in the world. We were quite naive back then.

"Then learn to reason about what you know when you know something."

When my son was at a private school they wanted the kids to get together each week to share their views of current events. I told the headmaster that they don't have enough history and geography to make that meaningful. It would look like "active learning" only if you have very low standards.

"if they are reading anything, it's good!" model

That's what they believe in our town. They didn't care much what my son read for free reading, and in class, the books tended to be preachy or highlighted kids from disfunctional families where the parents are the opposite of role models. I was quite annoyed that those educators with low expectations felt willing and able to teach morality to my son. One time, some teachers wanted to have the kids do role-playing to learn about race relations because they had to have racist tendencies growing up in a mostly white community - by definition.

He did read The Pearl in 7th grade (that is preachy in some ways), and now, in 9th, it's Great Expectations. These are good books, but the problem now is more subtle inference and meaning.

My son can often argue alternate viewpoints that he thinks are equally good. This is such a fuzzy area and I don't know how to make it less so. I could have him study many SAT reading questions because they give slightly different alternatives and explain why one answer is correct.

I reread Great Expectations and could also come up different interpretations. If you study a book at length, certain things become obvious, but you forget how non-obvious they were when you first read it. There is also the question of whether you know something because you figured it out, or whether you know it because you read it from an expert.

Anonymous said...

While having students read aloud in class is generally a waste of student time, I don't feel the same about teaching kids how to make inferences. One has to learn that fairly young in order to be able to read to learn, and it only takes a small amount of additional time beyond teaching decoding.

I agree that the English classes focus too much on reading fiction and doing "literary analysis" and would rather see them spend more time on grammar, punctuation, sentence construction, paragraph structure, and other essentials of being able to write.

I am of the school that reading anything is good, and that reading everything is better. More vocabulary is obtained by reading piles of fantasy novels than by studying SAT word lists. Direct study is not always the most effective way to learn things.

Anonymous said...

"...I don't have a problem with the CONCEPT of the RWWW, assuming it is implemented well."

I think this may be a key stumbling block for many educational techniques. We have something like 2M K-12 teachers in the US. Given a group that large (and, in this case, other factors...) the typical teacher is going to be average. Which means that you can't assume that *ANY* teaching technique is going to be implemented "well" across the board.

I would prefer a technique that was more "robust" and provided a good learning-versus-time ratio if taught "adequately" than a technique that worked great for 2% of the teachers, okay for 8% and failed miserably for 90%.

This sort of tradeoff is *not* limited to teaching, either, About 15 years ago, I was part of a team selecting a new programming language and constructing a new software architecture for a new and huge project. One of our goals was to make selections that did *NOT* require top 10% programmers for success. [NOTE: We pulled it off :-)]

I don't think we must design/select teaching approaches that assume that teachers are idiots, but it would be better if we were selecting more robust teaching approaches ... ones that were expected to work we even "average" teachers. When a technique is praised with something like "in the hands of a good teacher it ..." I suspect that it *REQUIRES* a good teacher. Which is a recipe for large scale failure.

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

"...and, in this case, other factors..."

Reading this, I realize that this could be construed as a subtle slap at teachers in general and/or their smarts/abilities/etc.

This isn't what I had in mind. I was thinking more about salary structure, the politics involved in curriculum development/choice, etc.

2M of anything will tend towards average, but 2M doctors might well have a higher average: The pay is better, the prestige is better, etc.

Sorry for any offense.

-Mark Roulo

Crimson Wife said...

I agree with Allison about it being much more time efficient to wait to teach inferences until later on. The teacher could spend a lot of time trying to get literal--minded young kids to make inferences in the primary grades, likely with limited success. Or she can use that time to have them soak up the background material that will allow them to make inferences later on when they're cognitively better able to do so.

Anonymous said...

I made the comment about the "Buzz" thing. I can see your point now. Taking a minute to point out an obvious inference is fine on occasion but you would want to focus more on building knowledge for younger grades. I'd say by 2nd (for some kids) and definitely by 3rd, you'd want to bring it up more with content knowledge being still main focus.

Anonymous said...

The idea that reading anything is good has been around for over 50 years, to my certain knowledge. I remember hearing it in the early fifties, as an argument for letting kids read comic books (not Classic Comics)for book reports. My teachers didn't buy that; they pushed books with good content and good writing/language for school use. I agree with that distinction. I have always been an omnivorous reader and have no problem with kids choosing whatever they like for personal reading, but reading for school (including book reports or book lists) should reflect the content,vocabulary and style that will make the most positive contributions to kids' knowledge, vocabulary and awareness of good writing. A former HS English teacher always says that you can't teach good writing to kids who don't have a solid background of good reading. It is also the best way to increase vocabulary, as gasstation says; I never studied vocab words and my first exposure to a Thesaurus was when my oldest hit JHS and had specific assignments using one. My reading made the SAT, GRE and Miller's Analogies pieces of cake.

Readers'/Writers' Workshop would have driven me- and my kids - straight up the wall. I don't even agree that early ES kids should be doing creative writing. They should start by learning - from copying, then from dictation - the proper structure of sentences and only then to independent writing. Even then, I see answering content-oriented questions as much more desirable than creative writing. Not everyone wants or needs to do creative writing, but any academic work requires solid expository writing. It is valuable even in non-academic situations; job applications, memos, want-ads, notices and social correspondance.

Crimson Wife said...

I think there's a place in the curriculum for creative writing, just as there's a place for copywork, dictation, and narration. We do all of the above in our homeschool. The problem is that over the past 3 decades or so, the balance has shifted almost exclusively to creative writing. And worse still, there is little or no guidance provided to students as to how to structure a narrative.

Anonymous said...

There is room for both expository writing and creative writing in the elementary and middle school curriculum. I'm not convinced that copy work and dictation are of much use for developing writing skills (other than penmanship).

My son has gotten almost no creative writing in any of his classes for several years, so I think that the shift you are seeing may be a regional one, not a universal one.

Anonymous said...

I think that copying and dictation help kids develop an awareness of the structure of (correct) sentences, even before they start learning parts of speech. They can be taught to capitalize the first word, days of the week, months of the year, proper names etc. Of course, this assumes that the work is corrected by the teacher. Expecting kids to compose complete sentences on their own - even very short answers - before they have that awareness is often very frustrating and if it isn't corrected, it doesn't teach them much.

Anonymous said...

The problem with a lot of creative writing in the early grades is the pressure it puts on young kids when they're still trying to just hold the pencil correctly. Not for all kids, obviously, but for quite a few. Dictation and copywork gives them the practice without bringing in the extra component of naval gazing.

Also, I find a lot more invented spelling and bad punctuation being approved by teachers because they so love to see made up sentences, and consider them inherently superior to copying since the children are "thinking."

I'm not against young children writing creatively, but not at the expense of isolating the skills for practice.

Middle school is different, but the love of journaling there is just a continuation of this stuff. Undoing all of the bad spelling and writing habits that can happen there in the name of "creativity" is not fun.


Redkudu said...

My HS students beg for popcorn reading. In fact, they beg for anything to be read aloud. I suspect and fear it's because they cannot read for any lengthy time and construct meaning from what they've read - so often things are read in chunks, then questions asked for understanding, then they go back to the next chunk. They never get a whole view of a single piece. A 4 page story makes them groan, and a novel? Forget it. For me, the extended length of a reading unit is usually due to building up a) their tolerance for reading long passages/works, and b) helping them to understand that when they've read something lengthy, they can't always depend on their memory or assumptions of the story to answer questions related to it. That's really just laziness that's been built into them. Why read something twice or more when I can just bubble these multiple choice questions? If I get it wrong, so what?

I am beginning to feel some hope here in Texas, however. Our new ELA state standards are surprisingly rigorous - specific grammar to be taught, not just the "interpretive" approach to reading and writing. Our new End of Course exams are also stepping up the rigor (you understand I'm comparing this to what we had) with a growing shift away from vague literary understanding to specific literary techniques and forms.

They are also moving away from the essay choice being simply a narrative essay at each grade level (creative writing). They've added a second essay now. So, in 9th students have to write a narrative essay and an expository essay. In tenth they move to an expository and a persuasive essay. In 11th it's persuasive and literary analysis. It isn't ideal, but at least it pushes for literary growth in my opinion.

The only "creative writing" we do in my class is brief (once a week) journaling (because it is still something they love), and pieces they construct to mimic whatever we are learning about. A sonnet when learning about sonnet forms. An expository essay when learning about expository essay forms, etc.

California Teacher said...

Mark said: "I don't think we must design/select teaching approaches that assume that teachers are idiots, but it would be better if we were selecting more robust teaching approaches ... ones that were expected to work with even "average" teachers. When a technique is praised with something like "in the hands of a good teacher it ..." I suspect that it *REQUIRES* a good teacher. Which is a recipe for large scale failure."

No, it requires a mystical, magical, superhuman teacher!!

You've made an excellent point. I've heard many times about particular approaches being great in the hands of a "really good teacher". I think it's been said a lot about Everyday Math as well as Writers' Workshop. I've come to believe this meme is a cop-out for approaches that aren't so great after all, or are so complicated and buggy as to be rendered ineffective and frustrating for LOTS of teachers, including many fine ones. I often wonder if any of these curriculum fads were ever field tested in classrooms of more than 10 kids.

Follow the money. Lucy Calkins is a very rich woman, and the publishers of Everyday Math are raking in the dough. The promotion behind these approaches is amazing, and the "professional development" for them is very seductive. They spread throughout school systems in a "monkey see, monkey do", bandwagon fashion. It would be funny if it wasn't so dystopian.

SteveH said...

"I've come to believe this meme is a cop-out for approaches that aren't so great after all,.."

Everyday Math is fundamentally flawed, or at the very least, designed to make life impossible for teachers. On one hand, it provides a get-out-of-jail=free card in that it specifically tells teachers to "trust the spiral". Don't worry. If you follow the process, kids will learn when they are ready. However, when the bad state test results come in, they get hit with the idea that the solution is just more training; it's the teacher's fault, not the curriculum. In our state, however, the proficiency cutoff is so low that the results don't cause any reconsideration of their fundamental assumptions; just a little angst. Everyday Math tells educators what they want to hear. Bad results cause them to talk about more training or to blame the students or their families or society. They will never question their own assumptions because they have nothing else.

Our K-8 schools don't care one bit about what my wife and I do at home to make sure our son is a good student - not Ivy League ready, but just a good student. They know that good students have parents who care about education, but they don't want to know the details. I wish I kept a log of everything we've done for our son over the years. This is not just about checking homework or going to museums. I enable the schools to continue their fantasy ideas of education because I don't want to sacrifice my son and I don't want to cause him problems by creating a stink.

Education is a huge money making opportunity because so many educators are susceptible to marketing that targets what they learned by rote in ed schools.

cranberry said...

Education is a huge money making opportunity because so many educators are susceptible to marketing that targets what they learned by rote in ed schools.

Teachers don't buy curriculum packages. I wouldn't blame teachers for poor strategic decisions. I'd bet that in any system, there are only a handful of people the salespeople need to convince--starting with the superintendent, including the curriculum planners, and maybe (maybe) the department heads. Committees in such strongly hierarchical organizations usually end up endorsing the boss's decisions.

My eldest child experienced Writer's Workshop. As implemented, it was horribly wasteful of class time. If you add up all the time spent on one-on-one conferences with the teacher (during class) for each student, then the presentations-to-the-class of the "work," it's an incredibly inefficient system. My child could noodle away writing, as she enjoys writing, but it did nothing for her knowledge of standard English grammar, sentence structure, or persuasive writing. Given a free choice of topic, no one will choose to tackle something that's challenging.

SteveH said...

"I wouldn't blame teachers for poor strategic decisions"

I can in our town. Anti-content and anti-skills and full-inclusion don't just come from the top. I don't see any uprising from our K-8 teachers. Teachers might not like some things they are expected to do, but I don't see them getting on any sort of Core Knowledge bandwagon. In our schools, teachers do have a lot of say in the selection of curricula. I specifically remember this when they changed from MathLand to Everyday Math.

In some places, teachers might not like what's shoved down their throats, but that doesn't mean that what they want is even half-way along the path to a focus on content and skills. I will never get pulled into a teachers versus administration argument. I've never gotten the impression that all we parents have to do is support teachers (and their unions) versus administrations. In fact, our administration seems more interested in measuring results and setting expectations than the teachers.

momof4 said...

Thanks Anonymous and Redkudu; there are a few islands of sanity. Part of the problem my kids had with both creative writing and journaling assignments was the pressure from (most of their)teachers to write something very personal, preferably emotional, which they considered an invasion of their privacy. I had many conversations with their teachers, from ES through HS on this issue. Most of their friends felt the same, but at MS-HS level there was grade-pressure to get the "check plus"; one HS teacher pushed for accounts of their dreams (she was big on dream interpretation)to the point that some kids made up entries. I don't know if there are any generally-accepted teacher guidlines for journaling, but I think that pushing for private information or feelings is flat wrong. I also question the educational value of not correcting all work for grammar and spelling, especially something that is done daily (as was most of my kids' journal assignments).

ChemProf said...

momof4 -- ABSOLUTELY! So many of the prompts are overly personal (and Katherine Beals over at Out in left field has pointed out that they are also pretty close to diagnostic questions for autism). I had the same experience with journaling in High School - my junior year teacher liked to read the journals to other teachers in the teachers' lounge. When I switched to writing in French, she freaked out. I eventually got permission to write stories, if I had to write, but what she really wanted was to read about our personal lives. How this benefited us was never clear to me. And of course she never marked grammar, spelling, etc. in these journals.

momof4 said...

Sorry about the grammar error in my last post; I didn't proofread, so I guess it makes the post "authentic." Perhaps I should have added that none of my kids are on the autistic spectrum and none are shy. Given how much my kids hated it, it must seriously be torture for ASD and shy kids.

Cranberry said...

I wonder how it's possible to reconcile the current drive for confidentiality with reading student journals aloud in the teachers' lounge?

My child who was subjected to writers' workshop swears that she began making things up. Thus, an approach which markets itself as "authentic" teaches students how to lie in self defense.

I suppose that's a useful skill.

Redkudu said...

"I don't know if there are any generally-accepted teacher guidlines for journaling, but I think that pushing for private information or feelings is flat wrong."

I agree completely, and I think it's even worse when students are encouraged or required to either read or share the main idea of what they wrote with their peers if it's emotionally complex. I certainly don't want to bring up and spend time discussing those in class.

For my journaling I give the students a page of possible prompts and about 10 minutes. I categorize the prompts into persuasive, informative, literary, and expository, which match the purposes of literature we study. Then they get 3-4 possible prompts in each category. On the days we journal, the students can choose whatever they want from any category.

I keep the prompts fairly mild but thoughtful, then do something that is a little Writer's Workshoppy - I have the students share their writing with 1 other student in class. The only requirement is that they then have a written "conversation" in which the reader responds to what was written, the writer responds to the reader, and the reader gets the last response. (About 5 minutes)

After that they get partner talk time. (About 5 minutes) Then I ask the readers to mention something they liked - an idea, a sentence, a choice of words. They must have their partner's permission to share this. Sometimes this generates class conversation, sometimes not. (5-10 minutes) Takes about 30 minutes max, and we don't necessarily even do it once a week.

Here's an example of a persuasive prompt:

Express your opinion. Our town has many historical buildings, which can be both beautiful and valuable. However, many of them are in very bad shape. Write a persuasive piece in which you argue to either a) put more money into saving the historical buildings or b) spend money on pulling the old buildings down and putting up buildings with a more modern look. How might each decision affect the town's prosperity?

Ultimately, I don't see the study of literature or personal writing as an opportunity for, or obligation to, group therapy.