Thursday, May 28, 2015

Writing: Not Unteachable, Often Mistaught

P. L. Thomas just put up a post about the teaching of writing, a subject that is near and dear to my heart, and the post is absolutely spot on (by which I mean I agree with it completely).

Thomas spins a bank shot off one of Vonnegut's writing quotes (short form: "Writing can't be taught") to re-enter that most contentious of English teacher topics-- the Five Paragraph Essay.

Ultimately, the five-paragraph essay allows both teachers and students to avoid the messy and complicated business that is writing—many dozens of choices with purpose and intent.

Yes- exactly.

Many English teachers don't like to teach writing because it is hard. More to the point, it is hard to reduce to simple set of rules and steps and a checklist one can use to grade the finished product. The problem has always been exacerbated by students themselves, many of whom would be most happy if the task of writing could be reduced to a simple set of steps that can be easily followed. "Give me my comfortable hoops," say some of my students, "and I will jump through them happily!"

I am not a five paragraph snob. I have used it my entire career and will continue to do so, primarily because many students come to me as fans of the Uniblob-- a giant mass of verbage and almost-sentences that have fallen out onto the page like toothpaste squeezed out a tube by a spasming fist. If we can get thoughts organized into paragraphs and some sort of simple progression, I absolutely call that a win.

But, as I'm not the first to observe, the FPE can be like training wheels-- useful when you're getting started, but an obstacle once you're really ready to ride.

The FPE ultimately becomes a Fill In The Blank question with five large paragraph-shaped blanks. The FPE encourages students to start by asking the wrong question. They ask "What can I use to fill in each of these blanks" or "What can I write to satisfy the assignment." These questions are most likely to produce inauthentic, lifeless, pointless pieces of writing-- but inauthentic, lifeless, pointless writing that meets the requirements of the teacher's (or standardized test scorer's) checklist.

The correct question to start with is, "What do I think about this?" A good follow-up question is "What's the best way for me to say it?"

The answers to those questions are absolutely personal. In his piece, Thomas compares himself to a colleague-- one puts words down as a first step, and one as a final step. That broad variety is, of course, normal. Some writers must be still to think, and some must be active. Some must be silent and some must be vocal.

There is no One Right Way to write. This is maddening for some teachers and some students. Where the hell is our list of rules? Unfortunately, the real list is short and only sort of helpful:

1) Figure out what you want to say.
2) Figure out a good way to say it.
3) Say it.

Most writing problems are really thinking problems, and the traditional way to solve them is to take thinking out of the equation. This is solving the problem by substituting a different problem. This is having trouble deciding what to order in a restaurant, so you go watch a movie about food instead. Templates and FPE are just a way to say, "Never mind thinking. Just fill in the blanks with what you believe the authorities will find acceptable."

There is nothing less open to standardization than writing, and yet for generations, long before the advent of Truly Terrible Tests, teachers and textbook publishers have tried to make it so. But you cannot standardize, templatize, or rulify writing without turning it into something else entirely.

I kiss my wife because I have a particular feeling, and I follow the impulse born of that feeling at that time. If I kiss my wife because I am concerned about satisfying some Higher Authority's Rules about how I should behave toward my wife, the action I take may bear a superficial resemblance to a kiss, but as I stand there carefully arranging my lips and checking for the approved level of moisture, angle of approach, degree of impact pressure, duration of contact, and any other rules I've been told I must follow for such interactions, the resulting action is something else entirely.

So, can writing be taught at all?

God, I hope so, or I don't know what the hell I've been doing for the past thirty-some years.

Here are some things that I believe work.

Tools. We teach students a variety of tools and techniques. This includes technical tricks like Ways To Make Transitions Happen and analytical tricks like Count All the Forms of Be in Your Paper and See If You Can Make Some Go Away. This also includes sharing and discussing process, so that students can learn a variety of ways that they could, for example, pre-write.

Permission. Particularly if they have wandered down the path of One True Way. I cannot even begin to guess how many students I have dealt with who insist on using approaches to writing that do not work for them at all, simply because they are convinced that's what they are Supposed To Do. Give students permission and encouragement to experiment and wander and try other things.

Write. Write write write write WRITE write write. I am pretty sure that if I simply had students write all the time and I never gave them a lick of feedback, but just kept them writing, they would get better. Feedback, reflection, discussion, sharing and assessment all speed up the process, but the activity central to improving writing is to write. Frequently, regularly, in a variety of modes and purposes, but write.

Individualization. I start with the premise that there are no child prodigy writers, which has to mean that everybody starts in the same place-- Downtown Suckville. Every writer is on a journey from Suckville to Awesome Town, but there is no bus or train that runs there, so every writer has to make the journey in her own way at her own speed. In fact, the trip metaphor only works if we allow for black holes and secret tunnels, because travelers don't even hit checkpoints in the same order. This week Chris may be ready to figure out conclusions but Pat is still wrestling with using less passive voice. Alphonse may be trying to work out writing tools that Fiona doesn't even care about. Every teacher of writing must make her own compromises, because you won't have time to handle the individual nature of learning instruction perfectly. Only you can figure out how you'll deal with that. But there is no tool more important to a writer than individual voice and that is, of course, individual.

So I believe that writing can be taught and fostered and mentored. The tricky part is that there are sooooooo many ways that a teacher can mess things up and get in the way. Templates and the FPE are prime examples of how that can go wrong. Thomas is right; Vonnegut is wrong. Writing is often mistaught, but it is not unteachable.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A Voucher By Any Other Name

The New York legislature is getting ready to look at Education Tax Credits again. I know this because advocates are busy pushing it on twitter, including and most especially the Catholic Schools of New York. "We need your help to pass the education tax credit," they declare.

How does a education tax credit work? (These things have been around forever.) Simple, actually-- say we're giving a tax credit of $500 and you owe $2,000 in taxes this year. You send your child to an approved private school. Voila-- you owe $1,500. The government is going to give you $500 to help pay for your child's private schooling.

If you're thinking, "Well, that sounds pretty much like a voucher," you are correct. It is pretty much like a voucher. Here's Andy LeFevre, director of ALEC's education task force back in 2008.

"Tax credits have become popular in many states and are looked at in a little more favorable light in states than vouchers," said LeFevre. "And it's something that unions have a much harder time fighting against than a voucher program. I think they realize that the end goal is the same as a voucher; it's just a different way to come about it."

Catholic Schools of New York concur. They like how things worked out with a similar program in Florida, where the program now generates half a billion dollars in revenue for Catholic and private schools--er, I mean, a half a billion in scholarships for the students.

New York's initiative is so exciting it has its very own website at (No doubt they meant to get "" but it just wasn't handy). The site declares boldly that "every child deserves a quality education" because that's a pretty controversial position to take. There's a nice Cuomo-centric video reminding us that ETC provides scholarships for "low and middle-income students." So many glowing happy pictures that you would think thousands and thousands of poor kids will finally get to attend private school.

Let me predict how many poor students will get to attend private schools because of ETC.


That $500 figure above in my example? That's not hypothetical. That's the proposed credit. Five hundred dollars. Enough money to buy a couple of books or a uniform or two. It is not enough to make private school a possibility for families that could not otherwise afford it. However, if every family already attending a private school gets $500 and kicks it into the private school kitty-- ka-CHING!

In a crazily cynical charmingly conciliatory gesture, the architects of the bill have also included tax credits for public school teachers who buy supplies ($200 max, or as elementary teachers like to call it, "September").

Oh wait-- did I mention this:

Individuals and businesses can receive a tax credit for up to 75 percent of their donations made to not-for-profit organizations that award scholarships to private and out-of-district public schools based on financial need of the students’ families.

So tax credits to support rich folks who funnel money to private schools.

Clearly this is a bill that is All About The Kids and not in any way a method of diverting tax dollars to private and religious schools-- it's a way to divert tax dollars to people who divert dollars to private and religious schools, which is a totally different thing. I may not be able to give you twenty dollars to run down and buy me some beer, but I can give twenty dollars to my buddy who can give you twenty dollars to run down and buy me some beer. Totally different thing.

The website is not just informational. It is an advocacy site, with tools for emailing your legislator to push the bill. I would never tell you to go gum up that process with off-message emails. But if you want to tell a buddy to do it, I'm totally cool with that.

The First Hurdle

Watching a roomful of students slog through Pennsylvania's algebra-flavored Big Standardized Test today, I'm reminded of one of the many flawed assumptions of test promoters.

Before you can compile the test answers, before you can crunch the numbers and sift the data and build your house of test-driven cards-- before you can do all that, you have a first hurdle to fling yourself over.

The students taking the test have to care.

Of all the bizarre, imaginary scenarios that test-promoters believe, this is perhaps the most reality impaired: a room full of sixteen year olds coming to school and thinking, "Boy, I cannot wait to do my very best on these. I can think of nothing more important to me right now than making sure that the state and federal government have accurate data about the kind of job my school is doing."

All discussions of test-generated data start with the assumption that the students were really trying, that they really wanted to do the very best that they could. I do not know where that assumption comes from. I can't help noticing that while many reformsters are parents, very few are parents of teenagers.

People often act as if teenagers are mysterious, otherworldly creatures. I've spent my entire life around teens, and I can tell you the secret to understanding them-- they are human beings. That's it. Teens are essentially rough cut version of their adult selves with some impulse control and long-term vision issues. But they're just people.

So imagine the following scenario. At work, you are periodically required to complete a seris of tasks. These tasks are not really related to your usual job, and what connection they do have is only to a very small sliver of your total job. Performing these tasks does not help you do your job better, nor does it help your supervisor lead you. The tasks themselves are long and boring and require your actual work to come to a halt for days at a time. There's no benefit at all to doing really well; you just need to do well enough so that you can be done and get back to your regular work.

I would present you with a clearer analogy, but there really isn't anything like BS Testing in the adult world. Maybe when you have to go on line and watch one of those workplace slide shows and take an idiot quiz at the end (True or False: Stealing equipment from the office is okay.)

In that situation, do you imagine that you are trying your hardest, doing your best, or caring at all?
Test promoters have spent so much time pushing PR about the high noble valuable purposes of the BS Test that they've convinced themselves that students believe it, too. They do not.

In fact, getting older students to take any test seriously has always been one of the challenges of school (for the littler ones, who would eat fried weasel brains just to make the beloved Miss Othmar happy, motivation is less of a challenge). The entire institution is organized to coerce students into telling us what we want to know. You can't "pass" this course unless you try on this test. You can't "pass" this grade until you "pass" the course. This is why that smart-ass smart kid drives some of her teachers into a rage-- they all know she's not trying at all, but they don't have enough leverage to get her to really care about doing her best.

A small sub-industry of BS Testing has sprung up. Pep rallies. Bribes. Threats. Up the road, an administrator hauled all of students into an auditorium just to berate them for their lackluster test efforts. Occasionally, there's success-- the SAT and ACT command fear and attention because students are convinced that Big Things are riding on the test results. This is why BS Tests are destined to be high stakes-- because it's the only way we can think of to make students at least pretend to care.

And if the students don't care, the data aren't there.

Behind the test results are not students intent on showing The State what they know, but students with a hundred other thoughts in their mind, and not one of them was "Boy, this is really important."
The BS Tests offer nothing relevant or beneficial to students, and our older students are perfectly capable of seeing that. The flop-sweaty pep rallies and super-secret swears of silence just underline that the whole exercise is a waste of their time, and guess what-- teenagers don't react any better to having their time wasted than anyone else.

You can say that it's my job to fix that, my job to convince them that the BS Test is Valuable and Important and they should totally care, that because I have the classroom relationship with them, I have the juice to make it happen. But the very first step in that relationship with my students came last fall on Day One, when I promised them several things including 1) I would never willingly waste their time and 2) I would never lie to them.

So here we sit, stuck at the first hurdle, a room full of teens calculating just how much effort and care they can afford to throw at what appears to be a pointless waste of their time. I wish very test-touting reformster who ever tried to sell the data as being True and Real and Valuable had to sit here with me and actually watch these students take the test. Better yet, I wish those reformsters had to apologize to my students for wasting their time.

Originally posted at View from the Cheap Seats

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Joy, Data and Jumbo Shrimp

Sir Michael Barber is the Big Cheese of Pearson (Motto: All Your School Are Belong To Us), and he recently decided to celebrate Oxymoron Day by delivering a speech entitled "Joy and Data."

While that speech spurred some twitter snark, nobody who wasn't actually in the room ever got to hear it. Barber is like that; he doesn't seem to feel any impulse to get people to like him, agree with him, or praise him. It's hard and foolish to judge from out here in Ordinary Shmoe Land, but don't think that will stop me-- Barber seems like a man who is so powerful, and so sure he's right, that he's not going to waste time trying to justify his ways to anybody who doesn't actually matter.

And Barber's ways are big. Big. His premise, as unloaded in a few different papers, is that if we could collect all the data, we would know everything, and we could predict everything and control everything. We just need all the data.

We do not, however, have all the data about his speech. So we have to depend on what slipped through the tweeterverse.

Barber is aware that not everybody sees the beauty in this relentless cataloging of everything. Quotes the tweeterverse:

There's a tendency to see data and conflict with joy and spontaneity.

Well, yes. When Knewton, a Pearson data-grabbing group, describes how collecting data would let them tell you what breakfast you should eat on test day, that seems like a spontaneity-killer.

Valerie Strauss has collected some tweets from Jenny Luca highlighting some of the key points. None of them are encouraging.

The future of education will be more joyful with the embrace of data. Also, don't get things wrong-- the data does not undermine creativity and inspiration, nor does it tell us what to do, nor does it replace professional judgment. And I don't even know how to link to all the places where Pearson has contradicted all of this. I would be further ahead to find links to Jeb Bush condemning charter schools and Common Core. But you can try here and here and here and here.

If we lump all of Pearson's visionary writing together, the picture that emerges is a Brave New World in which every single student's action is tagged, collected, and run through a computer program that spits out an exact picture of the student's intellectual, emotional and social development as well as specific instructions on exactly what the teacher (and, in this Brave New World, we're using that term pretty loosely) should do next with/for/to the student to achieve the results desired by our data overlords.

And here's the scariest thing about Barber. One idea keeps popping up, as in this closing thought from Pearson's 2014 paper on the digital ocean--

Be that as it may, the aspiration to meet these challenges is right.

What I see every time I read Barber is a man who is not following a business plan or a power grabbing plan or even just a money-making scam-- this is guy who seems to feel he is following a moral imperative to Make the World a Better Place. That's what's scary-- you cannot reason with a religious fanatic who is intent on remaking the world according to his own vision.

Yeah, the worst thing about a Barber speech centered on Joy and Data is not that he might be making some cynical marketing ploy or a cheap PR bid, but that for him, those two things really do go together.  

A Great Teacher Story

The Sunday Theater section of the New York Times featured a fun angle on the Kristin Cheneworth vs. Kelli O'Hara competition for this year's Tony-- a visit from the woman who taught both of them in college.

The Oklahoma City University website lists Florence Birdwell as "a force of nature." She has been teaching voice-- musical theater and opera-- for decades. The woman started teaching in 1946. She is 90 years old.

The NYT writer watched some teaching sessions. Birdwell is a great source of quotes.

She turned and addressed the class. “Anytime you make your voice more important than the words, you lose it and the audience knows it,” she said. “They don’t understand why, but they’re just waiting for it to be over.”

A 2008 interview says this about her:

Drawing on the disciplines of metaphysics, philosophy, math, technique and practical insight, Birdwell is a professor of voice who shapes students into stars. 

But a thread that seems to run through Birdwell's teaching is the idea of getting out of your own way. Her own path was not clear, nor did it unfold according to plan. In that same 2008 interview, she talks about finding her passion at age 8, screaming wordlessly into a canyon. But when she was 24, an infection in her pharynx ended her dreams of being a singer. In the NYT, here's how that story goes:

“I had a wonderful voice, and I lost it,” she said. “My teacher said, ‘You can’t sing, but you sure can talk.’ ”

Birdwell talks a great deal about honesty. When telling the Times about her teaching philosphy: “Be more honest!” she said. “You have to open up a little bit of your insides. You have to learn about yourself as a person.” When speaking to NewsOK:

The hardest thing is absolute honesty. You have to work it out and think about it and deal with it. Which things are you going to put first? Who do you want to please? What are you trying to achieve in life? It has to be your own inner power that takes you and decides these questions. You have to do it for yourself and not for anybody else, otherwise you give too much in too many different ways and you cheat yourself.

Cheneworth, talking about Birdwell in an interview with ChicagoPride:

She not only taught me to sing technically, but taught me to sing from the soul about what a song actually means.

Don't sing it if ya can't mean it!

Yes, Birdwell teaches the technique, the breathing, the control. But like all good and great teachers, she teaches her students how to be more fully themselves, how to be in the world, how to connect to something that both fulfills and transcends who they are. The NYT focuses on her star pupils, but I have to believe that there are a whole raft of non-famous non-Tony-nominee former students out there who are enjoying richer, fuller lives because they crossed paths with this force of nature. Isn't that the kind of teacher we would all like to be?

Standards: Agreements and Assurances

When we talk about standards, we are really talking about two different things-- and only one of them is real.


For a while it was in vogue to compare educational standards to manufacturing standards like the standards for electrical outlets.

Those sorts of standards represent an agreement-- the interested parties come to an understanding that in order to play together successfully, we will all agree to play by the same rules. These agreements do not always come easily-- while the AC power that flows into all our homes may now seem like a no-brainer, it is, in fact, the victor of the War of Currents, a battle over whether US homes would be powered by AC or DC power. Think also VHS vs. Betamax, HD vs. Bluray, and Microsoft vs. Apple operating systems. Think about how many various charger cords you have for electronic devices; standards don't always get worked out.

When they do get worked out, it's a matter of folks saying, "Let's make it easier to play together by all driving on the right side of the road" or "Let's make it easier to make money by all using the same currency" or "Let's keep refusing to use the metric system."

Some times the terms of agreement can be dictated by power players. If I control the game, then you must agree to my rules if you want to play. "We control access to the North American continent, so if you want a piece of the action, you must build your railroad cars to our agreed-upon gauge." Microsoft and Apple have not set universal standards, but they dominate the market so effectively that they can dictate the terms of agreement for anyone who wished to play in their sandbox.

Folks who want to set the terms of agreement have two basic avenues open to them-- seduction or force. Seduction has been the preferred method in game platform wars-- "Buy our console and you will get to play the awesome new game Robotic Beavers Disembowel Ninja Cowboys" on the front end and "Create a game for our platform and you'll make a gazzillion dollars" on the back end.

Seduction works best with quality (Betamax) or opportunity to profit (VHS), but when you don't have either going for you (asbestos removal), you need brute force. That would be the part where John D. Rockefeller bludgeons the rest of the oil industry into economic submission, or the part where Wall Street makes sure that the standards for ethical and responsible behavior set by the feds do not actually forbid unethical and irresponsible behavior.

The architects of the Common Core Standards used seduction successfully with industry insiders ("Pearson, this is going to make you so rich") and tried hard to wrap their product in Robes of Excellence (Thanks, Fordham), but ultimately they had not fully reckoned with the millions and millions of end-users of their product who were unwilling to enter a standards agreement either way. That led to the use of brute force (Race to the Top, waivers, and the installation of Core-enforcing goons in state capitals). But sensing that was a long bridge to cross, the CCSS-pushing forces also tried to portray the Core as the other type of standard.


People love standards because every standard is a promise-- Do X and you will be sure to get Y.

Do this and you will be sure to get rich. Do this and you will be sure to get a spouse. Do this and you will be sure to get great children. Do this and you will be sure to go to heaven.

There are folks out there making small mountains of money writing books that make these claims. People want to know what rules to follow to get the outcomes they want from life. The marketing genius of the Core (and all its attached education programs) is to say to parents and legislators, "If your kids do this, they are sure to go to college and get a good job."

Standards as assurances appeal to the human desire to Know What To Do. They promise a clear future, with clear choices leading to the desired outcome. And they are completely imaginary. All standards of this sort are completely imaginary. Nobody can tell you exactly what you have to do to become successful or have a happy spouse or rear perfect children. At best, people can tell what has often worked for many people of a certain type under certain conditions at some times in the past. But none of that guarantees that any person who follows those standardized steps will be certain to arrive at the same destination. Insisting that life be whittled down to just the narrow path described by such standards does guarantee that you will miss a great deal of what could have been good and rich and rewarding in your life. You will be the person throwing away diamonds because your rulebook told you to look only for gold.

Promising that following these standards will make every child college and career ready is codswallup. It's baloney. We don't even know what "college and career ready" actually means, and we certainly don't know a set of steps to follow that will bring every student to that place. Collapsing education (and life) down to a single narrow path is for cowards and fools. It's trading the richness of life for the empty promise of a guaranteed future, a promise on which no standard can deliver.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day

On Memorial Day, there can be no doubt that I live in a small town.

I get up, put on my band uniform, and walk up town to City Hall, where my friends and I in the marching version of our 159-year-old town band grab our hats and our music and get ready to march down the main street (it's named Liberty Street in my town). My brother, sister-in-law, and wife all play in the band; some of the band members are among my oldest friends in the world, and some are former students.

We march down the main drag and end at a tree-covered city park, where folks gather on the grass for a Memorial Day program. Wreaths are laid on crosses, one for each war. The names of all the veterans who died in the last year are read aloud, followed by an honor-guard of local vets firing off a salute, followed by taps (played by two trumpet players, standing in opposite corners of the park, one playing as an echo of the other). You can hear the last echoes of the trumpets fade into the sounds of birds and passing traffic.

There's always a speaker and a speech that may veer off into "next to of course god america i love you land of the pilgrims' and so forth" territory, but I can't get offended by any of it. The list of the dead always includes families, and sometimes individuals, whom I know, and I can't help thinking that whether the war was fought in a good cause or a bad one, these are people who did their duty as best they could understand it, even at the risk of life and limb. 

It pops me back to a conversation I had with a teacher at an end-of-year gathering Friday night. We were talking about how younger teachers aren't so involved with union leadership, and he said that it may be in part that some people aren't fighters, that they don't want to make enemies. That may seem like a wimpy reason to my big city brethren and sistren, but here in small towns, it's a part of contract negotiations and strikes and battles over the schools-- the people we sit across a negotiating table from are also literally the people next door, the people we sing in church choir with, even the people we're related to. In small town politics there is no such thing as going at someone unrestrained with both barrels blazing as if we'll never have to face each other again. 

So I get the "let's not make enemies" concern. But I've had the same concern myself, back in my union president days, and I already knew the answer before he expressed the concern-- sometimes you already have enemies, and the only question is whether or not you are going to stand up to them.

Memorial Day, for me, is a reminder that you don't always get to choose your battles. Sometimes you battles choose you. 

After the ceremony in the park is over, my wife and I walked home, walked the dog, graded some papers, took a nap. Then we walked over to my in-laws, because I live in a small town and on a day like today, I can conduct all my business without ever getting in a car. The in-laws grilled some food, we face-timed my sister-in-law in Hawaii, we talked about Stuff, and then my wife and I headed home. 

In the end, Memorial Day also reminds me that I am extraordinarily blessed/privileged/fortunate (pick the one that suits your belief system), the recipient of many advantages and benefits that I haven't really earned. Even my battles are privileged ones--  I know that a year from now nobody is going to be talking about how I died in the service of my country or my cause, nor will I have died because I had the misfortune to be seen as threat requiring a lethal response. 

In a way, one of my privileges/blessings/fortunes is that I get at least one more year that a bunch of other folks do not. Memorial Day reminds me not to waste it, to try make good choices, to try not to sleepwalk through it. I live in a small place, a place I'm firmly rooted to, and yet in the last year, I've become more closely connected through this little box to a larger, wider world as well, and been given a chance to use my voice in that world. We are living through interesting times, as many generations before us have. Whatever gifts, battles, blessings, weaknesses, flaws, and struggles have come to me, I want to try to rise and meet them with whatever I have that might be of use. I am not a big deal, and I will not change the world. But none of the people whose names were read today were world-changing titans, either. They just did what they felt they needed to do, and I'm pretty sure that's a plenty tall order all by itself.