Friday, October 24, 2008

Teaching writing

I had a call from an old friend the other day who wanted me to write about the question, Why can't kids write about history? This teacher believes that students today have better and more sophisticated ideas about societies and the way they work and interact than the students she met earlier in her career, but she sees more and more of these bright, inquisitive, and creative students struggling to write well about history. Where are the facts, the evidence, she asks, that support all these good ideas? Aren't schools teaching old-fashioned analytical and expository writing any more?

These are great questions, and they are probably as old as formal education; one can imagine Roman tutors and medieval monks wringing their hands over the poor writing of their students.

I suppose there are a couple of millennia worth of good answers, but I think part of my friend's concern is that her school, like so many others, has long embraced progressive principles. Unspoken in her question is a century-old critique of progressive education in general: the idea that somehow "progressive" writing instruction focuses on narrative or on the experience and opinions of the writer far more than it does on the construction of classically defined and structured argument.

For what it's worth, I really dislike this issue, in no small part because I think there is some truth to the critique; the last three or four decades have been very much about helping young writers to discover their "voices" and to reflect on and write about their own experience, to the detriment, in some quarters, of solid expository writing. In addition, the essays that were once familiar reading in schools as models of the expository form (think Bacon or even Montaigne, for example) have died the cultural death that has come, often appropriately, to so many dead white males. Thoughtful, tightly written non-fiction has drifted out of our schools as textbooks and test-prep have wedged their way in. An AP Biology student doesn't have time to read the reflections of Lewis Thomas, for example, en route to scoring a 5 on the examination.

I like to believe that the New Progressivism offers some help here, by reminding teachers that there is nothing un-progressive or anti-child about high standards. If good formal writing involves the generation of a strong thesis, the amassing of supporting evidence, and then the use of that evidence to build a connected, internally consistent argument, students need to learn how to do this.

It's actually countercultural, for those who like to think of themselves as that. Pay even the slightest attention to the current presidential campaign and see how the discourse has been reduced to sound bites, unsupported assertions, and statements of opinion. A couple of years ago Stephen Colbert and his writers created the word "truthiness" to describe the idea that something must be true merely because someone says and repeats it emphatically enough. In his little tome On Bullshit, Harry Frankfurt speaks to the unfortunate power of lies, including the Big Lie, to embed themselves in cultural consciousness enough to pass as truth, and of the increasing willingness of purveyors of ideas to depend on truthiness, or bullshit, to make their cases. I'm a big fan of Jon Stewart, but some nights I just want to deconstruct the program and derive and then lay out, with actual evidence, the points that The Daily Show makes and "proves" to its audience by implication, ironic reference, and even innuendo.

Therefore, it seems to me, there is something important and even urgent in teaching our students the classical structures of good expository writing and the paramount importance of supporting assertions not with more assertions but with actual facts. It's not hard to do this, although it may not be as much fun as assigning students the chance to probe their own psyches or to write deep short stories about dysfunctional families (that might resemble they way they view their own, as the families of bright adolescents so often do).

New models of great expository writing abound, and the pages of the New Yorker, The Atlantic, Seed, Slate, Orion, and a host of other fine print and online magazines are filled with it every week or month. Go back a couple of decades to the best work of John McPhee or Annie Dillard or the more recent writing of Seymour Hersh for more examples; politics, culture, and the environment continue to inspire some of the best expository writing of our day.

But I want students to be able to write compellingly and extremely well about history, and literature, and injustice in their own community, and the state of the environment. In part I want them to acquire this skill because it is satisfying, and because their college professors and future employers will appreciate it. I even want them to learn it because good writing reflects well on the schools and teachers--New Progressivist and otherwise--that foster its mastery.

Mostly, however, I want students to be able to write well because of the good ideas to which my friend referred. We are a world sorely in need of good ideas, but to prevail, theses ideas will need to be presented with strength and substance--the Age of Truthiness must end some day soon, and then we will be desperate for alternatives that are authentic and above all, supported by the facts. Someone is going to have to save the world, and I think it's going to have to be people who think cleverly and who are able to convery their ideas as well as they think.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Starting from scratch

A cool conversation today with some folks who are pondering adding a high school to their PreK-8 school in California. What a great project, and what a great opportunity!

The whole idea certainly raises some fascinating questions.

What if you could start from scratch in your own secondary school? What might you want to keep from your own school, or what would you jettison first? Programs, policies, schedules? Advanced Placement courses? Who would you bring with you, or who would you recruit?

Of course it all really depends on your mission, and what you are trying to accomplish. (There's that backwards planning thing, writ large--it works for designing schools as well as units.) But it's hard to imagine anyone with the nerve undertaking a project like this without having some underlying New Progressivist ideals; this is all about taking risks and thinking outside the box, to use two apt cliches.

I think I'd want to go thematic and project-based, at least for the first year or two, and use that structure to focus on the development of some key skills and habits of mind. Lawrence Academy in Massachusetts used to have a comprehensive ninth-grade program that did just that, dividing the year into units built around real-world problems that students went at using all the basic academic skills from quantitative reasoning--explicit in some algebra and geometry--to the humanities--lots of research and writing--to the arts, with plenty of opportunities for creative expression.

The problem with programs that stray far from the known, experience tells me, is that quite often these things are highly teacher-specific. A single teacher or an enthusiastic cadre develop a great plan from scratch. They understand it from every perspective, they believe in it, and they are confident enough in the idea to be supple in the application: little problems don't bother them, and they can anticipate and think around big ones. In time, though, the originators drop away, and what is left is a cool shell that no one quite gets as the founders did. Soon enough, the great program winds up on the scrap heap.

If you've been in schools for a while, make a mental list of great courses or great projects at your school or schools that have been born, thrived, and died. It might be quite sad; I remember "Project Time" at one of my old schools, where we took the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas break and devoted the whole middle school curriculum to a theme--agriculture one year, Life in the U.S. in the 1840s another. The whole middle school faculty threw itself into the project with heart and soul, creating some wonderful curriculum and great experiences, but after a few years the whole thing was "just too time consuming," and it was scrapped. In fact, the founders had moved on, and no one left could explain the whole thing compellingly any more.

Great curriculum, perhaps, should come and go. Few great ideas are sustainable forever; even the hoariest of capstone projects or flagship courses must have evolved, responding to changing times, changing kids, and changing faculties.

Which raises the question, as I ramble on, of teacher-created curriculum. I know an educator who hates elective classes, seeing them as self-indulgent opportunities for teachers; but I know many more students whose intellects have been ignited in elective courses whose subject matter was indeed beloved of the teacher. Great, engaging, challenging, mind-blowing curriculum is, I think, unlikely ever to be teacher-proof--it simply must have something about it that engages the teacher, or it will never engage students. Whether the teacher loves the content, the pedagogical challenges, the values embedded in the material, or the exercise of trying to create great curriculum makes little difference.

So if I were starting from scratch, I'd be looking for some great, creative teachers--teachers who love their subject matter but love ideas more, who know more than a thing or two about curriculum, and who love teaching kids even more than they love ideas; of course, they'd also have to understand and love the mission of the school. I'd gather up a few of them even before I started worrying about schedules and policies. And what's more, I'd figure out how to give those teachers enough time and space, and not just at the beginning, to keep their creative juices flowing.


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Memory--It's A Good Thing

Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain provides an amazing discussion of both the history and neuroscience of literacy. Wolf, a professor of neuroscience and child development at Tufts University, tells a compelling and sometimes moving story of how the human mind learned, as part of our social evolution, and learns, as children (usually) to read.

I found myself focusing on her analysis of Socrates’ objections to the use of the written word, and it gave me pause to think about how as self-styled “progressives” in our culture we sometimes devalue the ability to remember, recite, and construct cogent, thorough arguments from the stuff of our memory rather than from data amassed from texts. Sometimes the use of memory really is a good thing, and even New Progressivist educators need to acknowledge those places where memory, and memorization, can serve our students well.

Calculators, for example, are great things, but the automatic recall of basic math facts is better. Anyone who has proctored a PSAT or other standardized test has groaned (silently, of course) at the sight of students using their TI-83 graphing wizard machines to do the simple multiplication steps of a problem; it’s a waste of just about everything from battery power to time.

And technology proponents who glibly announce that students don’t need to memorize simple facts (historical dates are frequently cited as the kinds of “useless” memorization that schools impose on their students) because they can always “look them up” fail to adequately acknowledge the role that deeply embedded facts play in giving structure to the rich contexts that we progressive educators try to help students construct. That the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, for example, doesn’t mean much by itself, it is true, but it is essential in understanding the flow of the American Revolution toward alliance with France and ultimate victory. And why shouldn’t students have some basic knowledge of momentous dates in their nation’s history?

The 1776 datum is also useful in giving students an understanding that the Revolutionary War preceded the American Civil War, which came before World War I and the World War II. I fear I have discovered students in my own classroom who have struggled with this, and it’s the kind of thing that “Polls Show Americans Know Nothing” news stories delight in exposing. Obviously, it’s no longer necessary for chemistry students to memorize the periodic table or to have students master the monarchs of England in order, but some things are important to have learned by heart.

I’ll risk sounding both pedantic and fussy (maybe even Dickensian, for all I know) by suggesting that educators ought to reconsider the wonders of human memory and how it can be effectively harnessed as a tool not just for superficial learning but as part of matrix of elements that go into teaching for deep understanding.

And check out Proust and the Squid—it’s terrific!


Thursday, October 09, 2008


The headline in The Chronicle of Higher Education says it all, but unfortunately the article says even more: that among the early victims of the financial crisis as it plays out on college campuses is likely to be schools' sustainability efforts. What for many schools has been discretionary spending--"slushy," as one college sustainability officer quoted in the article describes the funding for her job--will be curtailed as smaller colleges focus more tightly on services deemed essential.

The public's attention seems at last to have been brought to the idea that environmental sustainability is a survival issue, and forward thinkers in the education community have begun to articulate a comprehensive, integrated vision of sustainability as a strategic educational direction. It's lamentable, and possibly more, that the immediacies of faculty salaries and plant maintenance may limit or put an end to what some colleges are trying to do, just at what looks so much like the ideal "teachable moment."

New Progressivist schools at the primary and secondary levels have taken a range of approaches to the issue of sustainability, from whole-hog commitment to environmental studies, environmental action, and campus sustainability to more measured, curriculum-focused efforts to teach students the complex interrelationships between the human and natural environments, the economy, social structures, and even the arts. The common element is the desire to help students develop an awareness of the impact of their own lives--and vice versa--on the places and cultural milieus in which they live.

Among the more sophisticated approaches to issues of sustainability is "place-based education," in which Tip O'Neill's adage that "all politics are local" is extended to a deep understanding of the way historical and natural forces have converged to shape specific communities. An intensive study of a single city block or rural stream can yield extraordinary amounts of information about the way people have lived, the ways they have regarded their environments, and the ways in which stewardship for place might yet lead us out of our political, social, economic, and climatic thickets.

Rather than let operational sustainability efforts peter out in our educational institutions, I like to think that progressive educators will see the current crisis as little short of a mandate to guide students in digging even deeper into what has made aspects of our society so patently un-sustainable; this may seem re-active, but the work has already been started and needs only to be expanded and supported. Through place-based education, through the incorporation of issues of social justice and economic theory into our curricula, and through an optimistic commitment to sustainability as a mantra for building a better world, let us work as educators to keep the concept alive and well.

We'd love to have comments or be able to add links here that would provide a broad sampling of the ways that schools are approaching this topic.


Saturday, October 04, 2008


For an awful lot of people, including educators who ought to know better, the idea of progressivism in education implies a lack of standards and a lack of rigor. I'm afraid that the various "free school" movements that flourished in the last century did a great job of calling themselves "progressive," thus creating in the public mind the idea that progressive equals "permissive." At some point I started to collect examples of progressive schools as figures of fun, but I gave up--every badly behaved kid in a twentieth-century movie or novel seems to be the product of (eyebows raised archly) "a progressive school."

As John Dewey and others have made perfectly clear down the years, progressive education is hard work, and it implies high standards for student learning as well.
To create learning experiences that respond intentionally and specifically to student needs requires a rigorous attention to the nature and capacities of the students to be taught. It also requires a deep and thoughtful knowledge of subject matter and how itcan be presented to foster the desired learning.

Critical to optimal learning are the criteria against which the learning is to be measured. Sometimes these criteria are easy to identify--on a quiz on math facts, correct calculation matters. At other times, the criteria are a bit more nebulous; a persuasive essay has many elements beside the need to persuade, and so a teacher must decide what will matter and what level of performance in each evaluated area will be satisfactory and what will be excellent. We've been using rubrics for fifteen years or more to help ourselves make these decisions, and to clarify standards for ourselves and our students.

Some teachers still struggle against the use of rubrics, either because they see them as somehow confining or because making them seems like a lot of work. To the first objection, I would just say that we retain our right to be subjective, to reward excellence and creative thought when we encounter it. No rubric should prevent us from recognizing a brilliant exception that transcends our expectations, and it seems silly to imagine that a teacher-created rubric could so entrap the teacher who made it.

As far as the extra work goes, I guess I would liken the creation of rubrics and the enunciation of the specific standards they have to embody to the setting out of buoys in a harbor. Placing and dropping the markers may be hard work once in a while, but once they are in the water, everybody knows where to go.

Curiously, I think most Baby Boomers and even Gen Xers went to schools where standards were less than explicit, and yet somehow they are remembered as "high" or even rigorous. In traditional schools, an A may have been an A, and certain kids (some of whom probably became teachers because we were good at the work) figured out the standards for themselves. Many more didn't, and certainly were never told what they were, and they piled their confused and doubtless mediocre work under the center of the bell curve, right at the "C" level--it was possibly even a convenience for educators to have so many students performing at this level in order to justify their implied standards in a kind of inverse--or perverse--way, as being high precisely because so few students reached them.

To express and promote explicit high standards is hard work, but it is the kind of work that true progressive, and certainly New Progressive, educators have been doing all along. Let's keep reminding ourselves of this as we continue to raise the bar for ourselves as educators and for our students.


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