kitchen table math, the sequel: 1/5/14 - 1/12/14

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Speaking of 'instructionism'...

...which I was doing a couple of hours ago, Chris's best friend from NYU was here today, in need of a brief session of instructionism himself.

Chris had been telling me his friend -- D. -- "can't do commas."

(I don't absolutely know Chris can do commas, by the way, though I think that, on the punctuation front, he's pretty much arrived. Will have to ask Ed, who's been advising Chris on history papers this year. Suffice it to say Chris knows enough about commas to be able to copy-edit D's papers.)

UPDATE 1/12/2014: Ed says Chris's punctuation is fine. It was basically fine by the time he graduated high school.

Anyway, I'd been mulling D's situation, and had decided I could probably fix all of D's comma problems in a couple of weeks, max.

The reason I was pretty sure all of D's comma problems could be remedied in a couple of weeks is that I've just about got sentence punctuation boiled down to the absolute, bare minimum of things you need to know in order to punctuate declarative sentences in college papers, and guess what?

There are only 8 basic sentence punctuation patterns.

That's not very many, eight.

To learn the 8 patterns, you need to know:
If you are a native speaker (D. is), you already know these things nonconsciously (though I'm not sure that's true of the distinction between restrictive versus nonrestrictive modifiers), no matter how random your commas.

So I figured I could simply tell a smart kid like D. how to use commas in sentences, and he would know. His writing is good -- I've seen it -- it really is just the commas that are the problem.

So today Chris and D. did Hunter College's Exercise B, and I looked it over.

Turned out D. had never heard of "comma splices."

Or dependent clauses.

Never, in 13 years of public-school English class and 1 year of writing instruction at NYU (tuition $48k).

His only tactic for deploying commas was to listen for pauses as he wrote. Listening for pauses is a good idea as far as it goes, but, as D. pointed out, it's not going to fix comma splices. It's going to cause comma splices.

I suspect that listening for pauses may have caused both of the mistakes he was making:
  • He was hearing the pause between sentences loud and clear, and was inserting naked commas* between sentences he wanted to join. 
  • He wasn't hearing the pause between opening dependent clauses and main clauses -- or, more likely, he was hearing the pause but was experiencing it, correctly, as softer than the pause between sentences. So he was failing to place commas after "introductory elements."
The instant I explained to D. that, generally speaking, in college prose you're not supposed to use  commas to join sentences, he got it. He correctly punctuated the last four sentences on the page without further ado. 

I'm pretty sure he instantly got introductory subordinate clauses as well. I told him that, with "introductory elements," you can just listen for the pause and use a comma or not, depending. 

I'm pretty sure that observation is true (once someone tells you that introductory elements are usually followed by commas). At least, it seems to be true with my students, but take it with a grain of salt. Somehow, for native speakers, hearing introductory elements appears to be natural even for students who have never in their lives placed a comma after an introductory dependent clause. So it seems to me. 

In any event, D. was having no trouble hearing the pause. He heard the non-pause that results when you move the dependent clause to the end of the sentence, too:
  • When you get to the corner, turn right. [slight pause between clauses]
  • Turn right when you get to the corner. [no pause between clauses]
We didn't have time to get into restrictive versus nonrestrictive clauses, which is a challenge for my students.

D., by the way, is very smart. Had all 4s and 5s in multiple AP classes; wrote his friends' college admission essays. And didn't know what a comma splice is.

Someone should have just told him. It simply is not the case that smart people -- or good readers -- "pick up" punctuation by osmosis. We're not built that way. We're built to register the gist of a sentence, not the particulars.

Plus which …. there's nothing magical or even important about commas versus semicolons. Using semicolons instead of commas to join sentences is a convention; twenty years from now comma splices will probably be  correct. So just tell students what the convention is and move on.

But somehow, telling is not possible.

Not even at the college level, not even in a full year of college-level writing instruction.

* "naked commas" meaning commas unaccompanied by a coordinator (and, but, or, so, nor, yet, for: the FANBOYS)

Over and over

To recap, the list of people with really bad ideas thus far:
It's annoying enough that policy elites have to have bad ideas, but why do they always have to have the same bad idea?

Kofi Annan has a really bad idea

re: One Laptop Per Child
"This is not just a matter of giving a laptop to each child, as if bestowing on them some magical charm. The magic lies within -- within each child, within each scientist, scholar, or just plain citizen in the making. This initiative is meant to bring it forth into the light of day."
—Kofi Annan

"Instructionism" defined

Instructionism refers to all of the educational theories based on the idea of the teacher teaching, usually according to a predetermined schedule, rather than on students learning from their own experiences at their own pace. This includes any form of rote learning, and most forms of book learning in actual use, as well as drill and practice.

Instructionism | One Laptop Per Child
Compare and contrast:
The scientific laboratory is a place for exploration and discovery, where the principal topic of investigation is human ignorance in whatever form it currently takes, using the sharpest tools and brightest lights that human ingenuity can bring to bear. The school laboratory is almost always a place for regimented repetition of "experiments" whose outcome is known in advance. Similarly, a research library is a different sort of place to explore human ignorance about other kinds of questions. Here we look for interpretations of what has previously been recorded, often by comparing differing source accounts, often by finding questions that we can attempt to answer by other means. The school library is more often a place for looking up the "right" answer. A textbook can be an account of the frontiers of knowledge and understanding, presenting conflicting theories and attempts to find evidence to distinguish among them, or it can be a compendium of socially approved "facts".

Instructionism | One Laptop Per Child

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Polar vortex la-la-la

Every few months I'll learn some horrible new thing I have never heard of in my entire life, which at this point is starting to seem weird, and a little bit creepy. Are there a lot of horrible things I don't know about? Not obscure horrible things--I'd just as soon not know about those--but regular horrible things, the kind of horrible things you can find on Wikipedia?

Things like Miller Fisher Syndrome, for instance. Until 2013 I had not heard even the words "Miller Fisher Syndrome." Then one Wednesday my next-door neighbor and friend started coming down with a cold and by Friday she was completely paralyzed.


I had spent years avoiding spinal cord injuries by not riding a lot of horses or bicycles, and come to find out all it takes to end up helpless and hallucinating in the ICU is catching the wrong kind of cold.

(My neighbor is fine now, thank God. She recovered quickly, too, much more quickly than I expected after a couple of sessions with Google.)

Anyway, Miller Fisher Syndrome. A new one on me.

Then yesterday I read the news and found….polar vortex.

I grew up a a farm, for pete's sake. My dad's crops lived or died by the weather. I thought I knew every catastrophic, life-altering storm and/or temperature change on the menu; in fact, I was confident I did. Yet somehow, in all these years, the words "polar vortex" never came up.

What next?