Archives For Research

On a positive note, there is a new TV show ( creator: Craig Pearce) about William Shakespeare. The star,Laurie Davidson, is a casting choice who will make women swoon.

On the other hand, there will be purist English professors who will be cringing over a number of anachronisms they believe will need correcting.

Maybe why the series is simply titled Will...because there will be English teachers who will insist on separating facts from fiction.

I suggest, however, that students will remember more if they do the background research.

For example:

  • they will need to understand why Alice Burbage (for real) would have every reason to say Yes, I am that most useless of creatures: an educated woman!”.but would never have spoken this aloud;
  • they will need to discover that Elizabethan audiences, while quite raucous, did not sport brightly dyed mohawks, and there is little evidence of iambic pentameter rap battles in taverns;
  • they will need to appreciate Kit Marlowe’s place in literature;
  • they will need to consider why a character Shakespeare  might hide his Roman Catholic background in Elizabethan England.

What the series seems to get right is the tension created during religious purges throughout Elizabeth I’s reign. Students could do some quick research into those hostilities that were initiated by her father, Henry VIII in challenging the Roman Catholic Church. The TV series features gruesome scenes of torturing Catholics by (historically accurate) Richard Topcliffe that are hard to watch. His sadistic turn, even on the small screen, gives support to a description that he was one “whose inhuman cruelty is so great, as he will not spare to extend any torture whatsoever.”

Another right set of moments (Episode 3) center on our accepted understanding that most plot lines of Shakespeare’s plays are “borrowed” from other sources. For example, it is known that Romeo and Juliet is lifted in large part from a poem by Arthur Brooke (1562) titled The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Iuliet. The conceit that Will collects lines on his strolls through London’s streets for later use in plays is similar to how Tom Stoppard presented Shakespeare’s style of playwriting in the Oscar winning Shakespeare in Love. But Will’s producers who try to involve Alice as a collaborator may be taking their playwriting enterprise a (London) bridge too far.

Other accurate moments from the series opener are devoted to watching a tense dynamic between playwright and actor. In one scene, famed actor Richard Burbage, played by Mattias Inwoodhams it up during lines from an early production of Edward III;  he overplays lines about the futility of war as pickup lines for an attractive theatre-goer. In another scene, an out-of-control actor on stage escalates manically lewd behavior and moons the audience for laughs. Such exploitation by actors at the cost of a play’s meaning gives more support to why the real Shakespeare penned these lines for Hamlet:

“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to
you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it,
as many of your players do, I had as lief the
town-crier spoke my lines.”(3.2.1-4)

If teachers can see their way past the anachronisms, they may agree that  Will can help students visualize a dangerous London, its alleyways teaming with treachery.

Treachery is a Shakespeare trademark, according to Harvard scholar  in his essay in The New Yorker Magazine (July 10/17, 2017 issue) Shakespeare’s Cure for Xenophobia. In the essay, Greenblatt compares his own life experiences with the fear of the “other” or outsider that is present in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.

Dangerous topics like xenophobia or plotting against the king, Greenblatt notes, are how Shakespeare “awakens” audiences to better understanding. Sounding much like the producers of Will, Greenblatt provides an allusion to King Lear,

“At a time when alehouses and inns were full of spies trolling for subversive comments,this is a playwright who could depict on the public stage a twisted sociopath lying his way to supreme authority.”

Greenblatt continues to note Shakespeare’s temerity, again referencing plot points from King Lear:

“This is a playwright who could have a character stand up and declare to the spectators that ‘a dog’s obeyed in office’.”

and then

“This is a playwright who could approvingly depict a servant mortally wounding the realm’s ruler in order to stop him from torturing a prisoner in the name of national security.”

Shakespeare, Greenblatt argues, had the audacity to produce such acts of treachery onstage in order to place us in a different point of view, a view that “offers the possibility of an escape from the mental ghettos most of us inhabit.”

In contrast, the producers of Will, keep the treachery off the stage and onto the streets.

Whether Will lasts as a TV series or ends before the season’s summer sun sets will be determined by ratings; Will currently has the distinction of being the lowest-rated TNT drama series premiere.

Will Will continue to be or not to be? That is a question.

There are different ways to become familiar with our nation’s founding documents: reading, memorizing, studying, reciting are a few. But in our keyboard- swipe-click-centered world, rewriting by hand is not one that immediately comes to mind.

A story feature in the NYTimes The Constitution, By Hand (6/30/17) written by Morgan O’Hara explained her process for copying the United States Constitution out by hand with a few sharpies. She noted that:

Hand copying a document can produce an intimate connection to the text and its meaning. The handwriter may discover things about this document that they never knew, a passage that challenges or moves them. They may even leave with a deeper connection to the founders and the country, or even a sense of encouragement.

Whatever her original intent for deciding to hand copy the lengthy document, her explanation for discovering things about a text echoes the arguments put forth about close reading that were initiated with the Common Core. Close reading requires students to read and reread a text several times; each time for a different purpose.

The first reading is to understand what the text says. The first reading is for comprehension: Who (character); What (events); Where/When (setting); Why (plot or information) questions asked.

It is the second reading, however, that asks a reader to become familiar with how the text operates:

-What does _____ this word mean in this context?
-How is the text organized? (sequence. cause and effect, compare/contrast, description)?
-What ways does the author use punctuation to control the reading of the text?

Asking students to write out by hand the  United States Constitution with the Bill of Rights is akin to having them perform a second close read. In copying the words and the punctuation and imitating the structure (sequence),  they could, like O’Hara, focus on how the text operates. How this particular text operates is exactly what constitutional scholars, lawyers, and judges debate regularly in courts.

How the Text Operates

For example, if you copy out the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, you will notice that the framers used three commas and two semi-colons in order to to separate clauses:

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Recently, the first semicolon after thereof was at the heart of the case (January 2010) Citizens United . The Supreme Court determined that this semicolon links the free exercise of religion and the free exercise of speech and that the framers did not mean that each clause of the First Amendment should be interpreted separately. The decision gave corporations the same free speech rights as people, and that corporations should have the same free religious exercise rights as people as well.  Handwriting the First Amendment and pausing to consider that semicolon can bring attention as to how the author(s) or Founding Fathers used punctuation to control the reading of the text.

Punctuation in the Declaration of Independence is also recently under scrutiny. Danielle Allen, then a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., caused a stir when she located an extra period on an original copy of the document at the National Archives after the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (see photo clip)

National Archive copy of the Declaration of Independence (with questionable period)

Allen suggested that this period -which could be an ink blot- might be misinterpreted to mean that that the list of self-evident truths ends with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Ink blot or intentional sentence stop, Allen argues that Thomas Jefferson did not intend to separate the phrase using a period, but had intended a continuation with the phrase that follows:

“— That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

In an article that followed in The Atlantic, Have We Been Reading the Declaration of Independence All Wrong?Allen explains,

“The logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights…You lose that connection when the period gets added.”

Legislators and scholars have argued about the intent of Thomas Jefferson since the release of the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. Students should have the opportunity to add their voices to the impact of different interpretations on their lives as well.

Muscle Memory

Outside of noting the punctuation in primary source documents, there is a fair amount of research that promotes the writing by hand as a great instructional tool in developing muscle memory, which is described on the Logic of English research blog as meaning “the students can write quickly and legibly with little conscious attention.” Writing by hand helps students as a multi-sensory approach to reading and spelling. This understanding contradicts long held beliefs that copying does not improve understanding. There may have been examples of monks who copied Ancient Christian manuscripts who were unable to even read, but in these cases the goal was artistic, not  literacy. Moreover, in the 21st Century, there is an increase in attention being paid to the loss of writing by hand in our tech obsessed culture.

New research shows that a multi-sensory approach that combines the finger movements (kinesthetic) with the sensorimotor part of the brain shows how writing by hand helps us recognize letters. Researcher Anne Mangen (The University of Stavanger-2011) explained the connection between reading and writing and how the sensorimotor system plays a role in the process of visual recognition during reading, saying:

“The process of reading and writing involves a number of senses. When writing by hand, our brain receives feedback from our motor actions, together with the sensation of touching a pencil and paper. These kinds of feedback is significantly different from those we receive when touching and typing on a keyboard.”

Feedback like this may be helpful to students. Of course copying the primary documents such as the United States Constitution or the Declaration of Independence in their entirety would be a lengthy commitment. Copying entire sections or even phrases, however, can give students that same kind of motor action and brain feedback and help them better appreciate a passage for what it says (meaning) and how it says it (text structure).

At the very least, they will experience the same process of duplicating these documents in the authentic way they were created by our Founding Fathers….by hand.

If you Google the explorer John Cabot, you could get a web page from the website All About Explorers that states:

“In 1484, the explorerJohn Cabot moved back to England with his wife and eleven sons. He developed his own website and became quite famous for his charts and maps depicting a new route to the Far East. At this time he also introduced his half-brother Richard (whom the family always called “Ringo”) to his best friends, John, Paul, and George.”

While some facts in this information that might set off bells and whistles to educators-  or fans of The Beatles- there is recent research to suggest that many students in our middle school, high school, or college would not question the intrusion of technology into the life of this 15th Century explorer. After all, this website looks like a great source!

Stamford History Education Group (SHEG) report

A report released November 2016 tracked the research skills of students in middle, high school or college using a series of prompts. The study was conducted by the Stamford History Education Group (SHEG)  that “prototyped, field tested, and validated a bank of assessments that tap civic online reasoning.” The report, titled Evaluating Information: The Cornerstone of Civic Online Reasoning, details the methods SHEG used in order to test civic reasoning as well as:

“…the [students’] ability to judge the credibility of information that floods young people’s smartphones, tablets, and computers.”

The results of SHEG’s study indicated that many students are not prepared to distinguish accurate from inaccurate accounts or decide when a statement is relevant or irrelevant to a given point. SHEG noted:

“Our ‘digital natives’ may be able to fit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through social media channels, they are easily duped.”

The report concluded that students at all grade levels were unable to distinguish well-evidenced accounts from those unsupported by reasons and evidence or to tell good reasons from bad. In short, SHEG pronounced pronounced our nation’s students’ ability to research as “bleak”:

“For every challenge facing this nation, there are scores of websites pretending to be something they are not. Ordinary people once relied on publishers, editors, and subject matter experts to vet the information they consumed. But on the unregulated Internet, all bets are off.”

Educators should be concerned about this growth of fake information and how to keep this misinformation from spreading into student research. Even if the Internet gets better at shutting down fake news or inaccurate information, there will always be some bogus websites that will escape being shutdown.

screen-shot-2016-12-01-at-9-07-52-pmBut that  AllAboutExplorers website is one bogus website that should not be shut down.

AllAboutExplorers website for Research Practice:

Yes, there is plenty of misinformation on site. For example, on the Christopher Columbus page:

“Columbus knew he had to make this idea of sailing, using a western route, more popular. So, he produced and appeared on infomercials which aired four times daily. Finally, the King and Queen of Spain called his toll-free number and agreed to help Columbus.

Turns out that the misinformation on AllAboutExplorers is INTENTIONAL and all the misinformation on the site was created to serve an important educational purpose. The Aboutpage on the site states:

“AllAboutExplorers was developed by a group of teachers as a means of teaching students about the Internet. Although the Internet can be a tremendous resource for gathering information about a topic, we found that students often did not have the skills to discern useful information from worthless data.”

The educator authors Gerald Aungst,( Supervisor of Gifted and Elementary Mathematics in the Cheltenham School District in Elkins Park, PA) and Lauren Zucker,(Library Media Specialist in Centennial School District) created the site in 2006. Their collaboration has proven to be a prescient effort given the SHEG findings this month.

They created AllAboutExplorers, “to develop a series of lessons for elementary age students in which we would demonstrate that just because it is out there for the searching does not mean it is worthwhile.”

These educators wanted to make a point about finding useless information on a site that was designed to look believable. They note that “all of the Explorer biographies here are fictional” and that they purposefully mixied facts withinaccuracies, lies, and even downright absurdities.”

Some of the absurdities that have been mixed with facts on famous explorers include pages for:

  • Lewis & Clark Their dream didn’t become reality right away, however. It wasn’t until 1803, when Thomas Jefferson saw an intriguingly brief posting by Napoleon Bonaparte on Craig’s List for a large tract of land;
  • Sir Francis Drake: here he discovered an uncharted island called Java. The local drink, kofie (which we know as “coffee”) was rich and strong, and Drake soon fell in love with it. The locals also baked a cinnamon cake that was often paired with the drink;
  • Ferdinand Magellan: In 1519, at the age of only 27, he was supported by several wealthy businessmen, including Marco Polo, Bill Gates, and Sam Walton, to finance an expedition to the Spice Islands.

The authors have provided cautions not to use this site as a source of reference for research. There is even an “update” on the site that satirically mentions a lawsuit settlement on a claim that the information unfairly caused failing grades for students who used the information via the website. The authors can be followed on Twitter: @aaexplorersTheir website confirms SHEG report’s that states there “are scores of websites pretending to be something they are not.” There are also lesson plans designed to introduce students to the skills and concepts of good Internet researching:

The SHEG report should set off alarms for all educators who ask students to “look something up” in any discipline. The AllAboutExplorers website provides educators, particularly social studies educators, an opportunity to helping students to learn how to negotiate the Internet in research. Teaching students to explore the web appropriately and accurately can be improved by introducing students to the AllAboutExplorers website.

The NY Times Sports Sunday Preview  by Joe Ward on 2/7/16 for Super Bowl 50 was part rebus, part infographic and wholly adaptable for a model lesson on annotating text for students in middle or high school. The article charted the growth of the Super Bowl from different elements: tickets, football players, and attendance. Cultural icons from the entertainment industry associated with this sports cultural icon are included. Here is the model for a lesson to increase a student’s background knowledge on a topic (preferably chosen and not assigned).

NYTimes Sports Sunday

Illustration by Sam Manchester; Photographs by: Bill Ray/The LIFE Premium Collection, via Getty Images (Dawson and ladle); Pro Football Hall of Fame, via Associated Press (footballs); Ed Andrieski/Associated Press (water bottle)

 

There is the cryptic title, Size I to Size L, that requires that students understand Roman Numerals.

There is the quarterback Len Dawson of the Kansas City Chiefs smoking a cigarette during half-time in the locker room, a picture that requires understanding what was acceptable before the  the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act, banned the advertising of cigarettes January 2, 1971.

There are the references that can drive student research into the Bell Rocket Air Men, the dog Lassie star of film and TV, and the changes in size of the American football (inflated or deflated arguments, notwithstanding).

The page dedicated to Super Bowl 50 is a model for students to take any informational text and “annotate” by adding pictures, just as the editors added the picture of the 1st Super Bowl ticket ($12.00).

There can be cross-disciplinary links by having students use calculations as charts, just as the editors calculated the price increases in ticket sales and in advertisements, and the increase in player weight.

Students could also embed links within the text (as I have done) to their research as part of the Common Core Writing Standards:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.6
Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others.

Finally, teachers can teach a lesson or two on how to correctly cite evidence used in their research, or how to use a citation generator:

Ward, Joe. “Size I to Size L.” New York Times. 7 Feb. 2016. Web. 8 Feb. 2016.

Teachers can use the page as a model for other topics of inquiry.

Need suggestions? Here are some “starters” to try with students:

Students could use different forms of software to create their informational text graphic; the Google suite of software (Docs, Drawing, etc.) is easy to use to create a PDF document. Students can experiment with different fonts to mimic the NYTimes fonts on the model front page. (FYI: NYTimes fonts changed changed to Georgia, as many people find easier to read wide print. They  use Arial as the sans serif font.)

Finally, engaging students in authentic writing prompts like this one from the NYTimes is inquiry based learning that is student-directed and can be linked to John Dewey’s philosophy that education begins with the curiosity of the learner with many of these characteristics:

  • Student voice and choice
  • Strategic thinking
  • Authentic investigations
  • Student responsibility
  • Student as knowledge creator
  • Cross-disciplinary studies
  • Multiple resources
  • Multimodal learning
  • Engaging in a discipline
  • Real purpose and audience
  • Authentic model

A model lesson, ripped (quite literally) from the front page!

Dear Teacher,

As the school year moves forward,  full of…… anyone? anyone? 

And you are no doubt planning the next …..anyone? anyone?

How can you get students to be more engaged?….. anyone? anyone?

How do you get them to respond?….. anyone? anyone?

Just wait.

Instead of droning on and asking question after question, just wait.

Three (3) seconds should do the trick.

That was the minimum amount of time Mary Budd Rowe found in order to move students from passive droolers to active listeners. Her seminal study (1972)  “Wait-Time and Rewards as Instructional Variables: Their Influence on Language, Logic, and Fate Control” set the ground work for the use of wait-time in the classroom.

The “wait-time” of three (3) seconds (or more) is the length of the pause or period of silence that should follow a teacher’s question.  In gathering her data, Budd observed classroom behaviors where the time between the teacher’s question and an answer then given by the teacher “rarely lasted more than 1.5 seconds in typical classrooms.” Some classroom observations also revealed that if a student managed to get a response in, teachers tended to ask another question within an average time span of .09th of a second. Budd noted that many teachers engaged in rapid-fire questioning, especially with low-level questions based on recall.

In contrast, when there was a period of silence after a question that lasted at least three (3) seconds, Budd noted a number of positive outcomes for students. The length and correctness of student responses increased, and the number of their “I don’t know” and no answer responses decreased. The number of volunteered, appropriate answers by larger numbers of students greatly increased as well as the scores of students on academic achievement tests.

Even more impressive was the positive outcome for teachers who deliberately waited three seconds or more. Their questioning strategies tend to be more varied and flexible, the number of questions decreased, and their expectations for student performance appeared to change. They increased the quality and variety of their questions including those that required more complex information processing and higher-level thinking on the part of students.

Rowe found that wait-time on the part of teachers increased the amount of “think-time” on the part of students, shifting them from passive to active learning in the classroom.

Building on Rowe’s research, Robert J. Stahl, a professor in the Division of Curriculum and Instruction, Arizona State University, Tempe, published his own research several years later (1990)  Using “Think-Time” and “Wait-Time” Skillfully in the Classroom. In these findings, he constructed the concept of “think-time”.

Think-time can be defined as a distinct period of uninterrupted silence by the teacher and all students so that they both can complete appropriate information processing tasks, feelings, oral responses, and actions. (Stahl,1990)

Stahl noted other variables, including the quality of questions, in improving student engagement. Vague or confusing questions would confuse or frustrate students, no matter how long a teacher waited for a response.

Stahl offered eight ways to identify pauses in the classroom so that teachers could  recognize when and where “wait-time” silence can be effectively used as “think-time” and to see how these could be employed as instructional strategies. Some of these include the Post-Teacher Question Wait-Time that requires at least 3 seconds of uninterrupted silence after a teacher’s clear, well-structured question, so that students have sufficient uninterrupted time to first consider and then respond. There is also the pause identified as Post-Student’s Response Wait-Time is three (3) or more seconds of uninterrupted silence that occurs after a student has completed a response and while other students are considering volunteering. This could be way that academic discussions are facilitated. There was also the Impact Pause-Time when a teach may use a dramatic pause way to place an emphasis on material. This pause may continue for longer periods, up through several minutes, depending upon the time needed for thinking.

Stahl’s research, along with Rowe’s, demonstrated that silence-even for as little as 3 seconds- can be a powerful instructional tool. Those three seconds can be enough to provide time for students to frame their own questions or to finish their previously started answers.

Just think…and wait.

Three seconds.
How hard can that be? (..one one-thousand; two one-thousand; three one-thousand….) Anyone?  Anyone?

“…but first, I give them a quiz,” the 2nd grade teacher was telling me.
“A quiz?” I was surprised, “Why?”
“Well, how will I know they read their homework?” she responded.
“But…they are only in 2nd grade…so……” I trailed off; she blinked expectantly.

I didn’t finish my sentence.

“So… this is how the madness starts,” is what I wanted to say.

Quid Pro Quo Assignments

Homework has always been a bit of an educational  “quid pro quo (Latin). The “give something, get something” in schools where a quantitative grade marks the successful exchange of educational services, the teacher, to the student in a paper-or digital-transfer.

Quid pro quo homework follows a cycle: the homework worksheet is distributed; the homework worksheet is completed; the homework grade is entered OR the homework is assigned, and the student is quizzed to check compliance.Non-compliance can sometimes bring a punitive action.

This cycle does not facilitate trust between teacher and student.

The quid pro quo cycle of homework has been customary practice in the upper grades, but recent studies are raising concerns about the increasing amounts of homework in the elementary grades.

Increase in Homework for Elementary

The focus on back-to-school issues in the media such as the article Kids Receive 3 Times the Recommended Homework Load in the 8/12/15 issue of TIME magazine  is bringing attention on the tripling of homework at the elementary level. The amount of homework raises concerns in policy and research:

From the National Education Association Research Spotlight on Homework

“In the last 20 years, homework has increased only in the lower grade levels, and this increase is associated with neutral (and sometimes negative) effects on student achievement.”

From Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement? A Synthesis of Research, 1987–2003 (Cooper, Robinson, Pattall REVIEW OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH )

“No strong evidence was found for an association between the homework–achievement link and the outcome measure (grades as opposed to standardized tests) or the subject matter (reading as opposed to math).”

From The American Journal of Family Therapy Homework and Family Stress: With Consideration of Parents’ Self Confidence, Educational Level, and Cultural Background

Family stress, measured by self-report, increased as homework load increased and as parent’s perception of their capacity to assist decreased.

One conclusion is that the increase in homework at the elementary level is not only academically ineffective, but also stressful, particularly for families with limited educational resources.

Long Term Consequences of Too Much Homework

A consequence of assigning homework as high stakes, rigorous, or graded practice in the lower grades sets up a disturbing paradigm that becomes ingrained in the upper grades. Homework becomes less about good practice in a discipline and more about student responsibility. In the upper grades, where homework does show academic value, the homework grade is often an average of the two.

Another consequence is how quickly younger students can be trained into a exhausting pattern of expecting a grade for each assignment. Once that pattern is set, students may require a grade for anything they turn in. They may not be able to discriminate between a grade for a long-term assignment or for busy work, and in the course of 13 years of education there will be a great deal of homework that is simply busy work.

Once that habit of quid pro quo homework has been established in the younger grades, it can become an addictive monster at every other grade level. For example, the 2nd grade student who will be met with a quiz for reading homework will be conditioned to associate reading with quizzing.

Constant quizzing could mean the student may never understand how to read for pleasure or grow to love reading. Ironically, reading for pleasure has been proven to be the one academic skill that will make that student successful way beyond that second grade classroom.

from jarofquotes.com

from jarofquotes.com

Of course, homework should receive feedback, an equally critical part of the educational process, but one that serves a different purpose than grading. Feedback on homework could be a positive experience for a student. It can be unexpected, encouraging, comforting, instructional, corrective, supportive-as opposed to a graded assignment….especially for a student in an elementary grade.

If the homework given in a 2nd grade class is to read, a quiz should not be the method to check to see if students did the reading; a  sidebar conference or quick discussion about what was read might be a better assessment.

Not everything needs a grade.
When selecting homework assessments, teachers should consider the question “Is this homework simply busy work?”  as well as other questions:

  • Is a quiz necessary to see that a student has read a homework assignment?
  • Is correcting this homework the best use of time?
  • What does this homework assignment accurately measure ?
  • How many times have I had students do this same homework assignment?

Homework is Practice

Teachers can measure a student’s performance through other forms of assessment. While a teacher, at any grade level, has little control over the conditions and support for homework once a student leaves the building, there are multiple opportunities for the teacher to monitor student progress while students are in the classroom.

Furthermore, homework’s design is to provide students the opportunity to practice, which raises the question: should student practice homework be assessed at all?

This school year, it’s time to halt the increase in elementary homework and the potential madness of its quid pro quo value.

Instead, educators should heed the research that shows students in elementary grades need less homework, and when they do have homework, the emphasis should be on practice.

Students -all students-need the practice more than they need the grade.

 

This April 1865 photo provided by the Library of Congress shows President Abraham Lincoln\'s box at Ford\'s Theater, the site of his assassination. Under the headline "Great National Calamity!" the AP reported Lincoln’s assassination, on April 15, 1865. (AP Photo/Library of Congress)

This April 1865 photo provided by the Library of Congress shows President Abraham Lincoln\’s box at Ford\’s Theater, the site of his assassination. Under the headline “Great National Calamity!” the AP reported Lincoln’s assassination, on April 15, 1865. (AP Photo/Library of Congress)

News stories are generally written in what is commonly known as the inverted pyramid style, in which the opening paragraph features the “5 Ws” of journalism: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. The reason for this style is so that the reader gets the most important information up front. Given the amount of time readers have today to read the amount of news generated in a 24 hour news cycle, the inverted pyramid makes sense.

In contrast, 150 years ago a dispatch by the Associated Press took a storytelling approach  when President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination at the hands of John Wilkes Booth was relayed by AP correspondent Lawrence Gobright. Under the headline”Great National Calamity!” he chose to deliver gently the monumental news of Lincoln’s death in paragraph 9:

The surgeons exhausted every effort of medical skill, but all hope was gone.

The Common Core State Standards in Literacy promotes primary source documents, such as this news release, in English Language Arts and Social Studies. Documents like this provide students an opportunity to consider the voice or point-of-view of a writer within a historical context.

In this 19th Century AP news release, an editor’s note attached described in vivid detail Gobright’s efforts to gain first-hand information in compiling the story of Lincoln’s assassination. In the tumult that followed the assassination, Gobright became more than a witness as he:

scrambled to report from the White House, the streets of the stricken capital, and even from the blood-stained box at Ford’s Theatre, where, in his memoir he reports he was handed the assassin’s gun and turned it over to authorities.

This circa 1865-1880 photograph provided by the Library of Congress' Brady-Handy Collection shows Lawrence A. Gobright, the Associated Press' first Washington correspondent. A native of Hanover, Pa., Gobright covered both inaugurations of Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War and Lincoln's assassination during a career spanning more than a third of a century in Washington. Under the headline "Great National Calamity!" the AP reported President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, on April 15, 1865. (AP Photo/Library of Congress)

This circa 1865-1880 photograph provided by the Library of Congress’ Brady-Handy Collection shows Lawrence A. Gobright, the Associated Press’ first Washington correspondent.. Under the headline “Great National Calamity!” the AP reported President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, on April 15, 1865. (AP Photo/Library of Congress)

Gobright’s opening line for the news story identified the setting as Ford’s Theatre; he then added information of considerable interest to the Union Army, that:

It was announced in the papers that Gen. Grant would also be present, but that gentleman took the late train of cars for New Jersey.

After setting up who was or was not in attendance,  Gobright detailed the sequence of events in paragraph 3:

During the third act and while there was a temporary pause for one of the actors to enter, a sharp report of a pistol was heard, which merely attracted attention, but suggested nothing serious until a man rushed to the front of the President’s box, waving a long dagger in his right hand, exclaiming, ‘Sic semper tyrannis,’

Describing the assailant’s escape on horseback, Gobright concluded the reaction of the crowd in the audience in paragraph 4 in an understatement, “The excitement was of the wildest possible description…”

His AP’s edited version online states that the report does not contain details on the second assassination report on Secretary of State William Seward. There is his reference to the other members of Lincoln’s cabinet who, after hearing about the attack on Lincoln, travelled to the deathbed:

They then proceeded to the house where the President was lying, exhibiting, of course, intense anxiety and solicitude.

As part of a 150 year memorial tribute, the AP offers two websites with Gobright’s report, the first with an edited version of the report and the second, an interactive site with graphics. The readabilty score on Gobright’s release is a grade 10.3, but with some frontloading of vocabulary (solicitude, syncope) this story can be read by students in middle school. There are passages that place the student in the moment such as:

  • There was a rush towards the President’s box, when cries were heard — ‘Stand back and give him air!’ ‘Has anyone stimulants?’
  • On an examination of the private box, blood was discovered on the back of the cushioned rocking chair on which the President had been sitting; also on the partition and on the floor.

The NYTimes reporting of the assassination, having the advantage of several hours start, did not bury the lede, or begin with details of secondary importance, offering the critical information through a series of headlines beginning with the kicker “An Awful Event”:

An Awful Event
The Deed Done at Ford’s Theatre Last Night.
THE ACT OF A DESPERATE REBEL
The President Still Alive at Last Accounts.
No Hopes Entertained of His Recovery.
Attempted Assassination of Secretary Seward.
DETAILS OF THE DREADFUL TRAGEDY.

Their six column spread allowed space for the six drop heads, or smaller secondary headlines, above that were stacked to provide an outline of the events. The article that follows begins with then Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s message to Major General Dix, April 15, 1865 at 1:30 AM:

This evening about 9:30 PM, at Ford’s Theatre, the President while sitting in his private box, with Mrs. Lincoln, Mrs. Harris, and Major Rathburn, was shot by an assassin who suddenly entered the box and approached behind the President.

Stanton’s 324 word report has a readability grade 7.2, and includes also details about the other assassination attempt on Seward’s life:

About the same hour an assassin, whether the same or not, entered Mr. SEWARD’s apartments, and under the pretence of having a prescription, was shown to the Secretary’s sick chamber. The assassin immediately rushed to the bed, and inflicted two or three stabs on the throat and two on the face.

A second dispatch features Gobright’s reporting and appears below Stanton’s message in the second column. Following these accounts, a third dispatch  by an unnamed reporter is dated Friday, April 14, 11:15 P.M. and like Gobright’s account begins with a storybook-type lead:

A stroke from Heaven laying the whole of the city in instant ruins could not have startled us as did the word that broke from Ford’s Theatre a half hour ago that the President had been shot. It flew everywhere in five minutes, and set five thousand people in swift and excited motion on the instant.

These first-person accounts of Gobright, Stanton, and others covering Lincoln’s assassination will allow students to contrast what they recognize as the reporting styles of today with an example of the storytelling reporting style 150 years ago. Students can analyze both styles for conveying information, and then comment on impact each style may have on an audience.

More important is the opportunity to ditch the dry facts from a textbook, as these newspaper releases allow students to discover that at the heart of stories about Lincoln’s assassination, the reporters were really storytellers, and their hearts were breaking.

time clock americanYes, American teachers do work more hours than their international counterparts, but exactly how much more could be a matter of perception versus reality, and testing may be to blame.

A recent study comparing the number of hours worked by American teachers shows the difference in instructional time is not as significant as has been publicized in the past. Researcher Samuel E. Abrams, director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, has published his findings in a working paper titled “The Mismeasure of Teaching Time“. His research contradicts claims of American teachers working twice or even 73% more hours than their counterparts in other countries, correcting these claims by grade level to 12% (elementary) 14% (middle/intermediate), and 11% (high school).

The reason for the difference, Abrams suggests, was the the Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS) offered by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) used to collect data on this topic:

The most recent data reported to OECD is from the 2007-08 survey, which was 44 pages long and contained 75 questions.  Teaching time is the 50th question and it asks teachers to round up the number of hours. As a result, responses were often inflated.

In addition to suggesting that the process of answering 50 questions clouded the responses of teachers taking the survey, Abrams contended that the inflated time also came from a misinterpretation of “teaching time” calculated by the OECD as the “net contact time for instruction.” By definition, excluded from net contact time are activities such as professional development days, student examination days, attendance at conferences, and out of school excursions.

In applying the OECD definition of teaching time, Abrams concluded that one contributing factor to the over-estimation by American teachers was the large number of hours spent assessing students.

Using examples from school districts in Massachusetts, Abrams offered a breakdown of the time teachers spend assessing students in grades 2-8:

  • For students in grade two, 48 hours are lost to interim assessments tied to the state exams
  • For students in grades three and six, 48 hours are lost to interim assessments and 16 hours are lost to state exams in ELA and math;
  • For students in grades four and seven, 48 hours are lost to interim assessments and 20 hours are lost to state exams in ELA, ELA composition, and math;
  • For students in grades five and eight, 48 hours are lost to interim assessments and 24 hours are lost to state exams in ELA, math, and science. 

Averaging a student school week at a very generalized 35 hours means that students in Massachusetts grades K-8 could spend approximately 1.5-2 weeks of each school year being assessed. Spreading this time out over the school year may contribute to the perception of a never-ending test season.

The report considered the time American educators spend assessing students at every grade level contributed to the misperception of teaching time. More importantly, the study highlighted the disparity in pedagogical practice between the education systems in United States compared to other countries. Like so many other researchers, Abrams contrasted American schools with Finland’s school system. He noted that the difference in teaching time between the two countries was not as great as originally publicized, but that the difference of practice is the “polar opposite.” In Finland, the structure of the school day has 15 minute breaks between classes or 15 minutes of play for every 45 minutes of instruction, for a total of 75 minutes per day, with no standardized tests. The result is that Finland’s teachers demonstrate little confusion on defining teaching time.

The data provided by Abrams suggests that American teachers do work more than other teachers worldwide. Using Paris-based OECD figures to convert the percentage of time into regular 40 hour weeks means that American elementary teachers work 2.4 weeks (12%); middle/intermediate teachers work 2.75 weeks (14%) and high school teachers work 2.2 weeks (11%) more than other teachers worldwide.

If the demand for assessment is the reason for the difference,  I am confident that most American teachers could think of other things to do during those weeks other than testing.

I am sure their students feel the same way.

snow giff 2The blizzard raging outside recalls the looping GIF of drifting snow that opens the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times feature story, Snowfall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek.

As a model text, this example of digital writing is the kind of writing that we should be preparing our students to do.

This story of 16 expert skiers and snowboarders and their fatal decision to ski outside the Stevens Pass ski area in the Washington Cascades was written by journalist John Branch and published digitally on Dec. 20, 2012. His recount of the group’s excursion into the “unmonitored play area of reliably deep snow, a ‘powder stash,’ known as Tunnel Creek” is complemented with embedded video, photos, and other graphics, the result of his extensive research and first person interviews. The print version was published in a 14-page special section on 12/ 23/12, and according to the Times editors, generated more than 1,100 comments online.

Branch’s prose is gripping from the start:

The snow burst through the trees with no warning but a last-second whoosh of sound, a two-story wall of white and Chris Rudolph’s piercing cry: “Avalanche! Elyse!”

The very thing the 16 skiers and snowboarders had sought — fresh, soft snow — instantly became the enemy. Somewhere above, a pristine meadow cracked in the shape of a lightning bolt, slicing a slab nearly 200 feet across and 3 feet deep. Gravity did the rest.

12 journalistically short paragraphs into the feature is the first video clip, an interview with professional skier, Elyse Saugstad, Her interview is juxtaposed next to the text that describes how the avalanche “vomited” her into position:

Saugstad was mummified. She was on her back, her head pointed downhill. Her goggles were off. Her nose ring had been ripped away. She felt the crushing weight of snow on her chest. She could not move her legs. One boot still had a ski attached to it. She could not lift her head because it was locked into the ice.

A graphic map of Cowboy Mountain and the Tunnel Creek area splits the text that follows her interview. Below that graphic are two photos of another avalanche in 1910, that was responsible for the death of 96 people. Each of the six sections of Snowfall is laid out with similar interactive features, the result of a collaboration between Branch and a team of graphic editors and researchers (see end of post)*

The popularity of this kind of digital story is borne out by the Times editor’s testimony:

“Snow Fall” online accounted for more than a million unique visits; a significant percentage of the people who found the story online were first-time visitors to nytimes.com; huge numbers of those readers came to the story through social media; the average time of reader engagement was off the charts.

Snowfall‘s arrival on digital platforms will no doubt give rise to a wave of stories with similar features. As authentic practice, students should have the chance to experiment with their own narratives, fiction or non-fiction, using digital platforms (Google, wikis, blogs, etc.) that allow for embedding video, audio, graphics, and other interactive features. Several of my classes have annotated passages from texts they read in class (ex: The Annotated Prologue: Romeo & Juliet ) with digital links as part of close reading exercises. The text “Snowfall” is the next step, a mentor text that models how to create a story where all forms of media support an author’s purpose.

The blend of genre is seamless in Branch’s narrative; each of the 16 personal stories is fleshed out in detail, along with those other lives who were so effected by the tragedy. There is the expository information devoted to Tunnel Creek’s tragic history interwoven with the informational sections that capture the science of an avalanche. Finally, there is the persuasive argument of how easily “how so many smart, experienced people could make the types of decisions that turned complex, rich, enviable lives into a growing stack of statistics.” Snowfall is proof that good writing is not compartmentalized into separate genres, as the Common Core outline would lead teachers to believe.

Here is evidence that students should move between genres, adding rich expository or informational media to a piece in order to engage readers. Here also, is evidence that good writers should follow their own inquiry, as Branch did as he:

….interviewed every survivor of the avalanche, and the families of its three victims; he researched the world of backcountry skiing, the fastest-growing corner of a handsome, but dangerous sport; he traveled to Alaska to speak with snow scientists and to enlist their help in recreating in words and graphics the physics of the avalanche on Cowboy Mountain; he hiked the terrain, clawed through the avalanche’s path, and established a precise chronology of the disaster; he read formal accident reports, pieced together ski patrol and police photographs, reviewed dozens of 911 calls, and unearthed the formal avalanche warnings that all but predicted trouble the night before the accident.

While our students may not have the opportunity to complete this exhaustive marathon of research that Branch did in order to write Snowfall, they should recognize in this model the link between a writer’s own curiosity, painstaking research, and good prose. They should see that compelling storytelling, engaging literary non-fiction, is generated through participatory experience. They should move away from the desk in order to experiment and to find the answers to their questions.

Branch’s Snowfall contribution to journalism has already been awarded by the Pulitzer Prize Committee who rightfully saw it as an historic achievement; Snowfall’s contribution to student learning as a mentor text is only beginning. Continue Reading…

“Ancora imparo. [I am still learning.]”

― Michelangelo, at age 87 in 1562

In the United States, students will spend 96 weeks or collectively about two years of their academic life in summer vacation days. Our 183 day (in Connecticut) school year became standardized not because of farming, but as a result of an industrial society that opted to let urban students out of the sweltering cities during the summer months.

Kenneth Gold, a professor of education at the College of Staten Island, debunked the myth of an agrarian school year in his book School’s In: The History of Summer Education in American Public Schools. He noted that if schools were following a true agrarian school year, students would be more available during the summer months while crops were growing but unavailable during planting (late spring) and harvesting (early fall).  His research demonstrated that before the standardized school year, there were concerns that too much school was bad for the health of students and teachers:

“There was a whole medical theory that [people would get sick] from too much schooling and teaching” (Gold)

Summer vacation was the solution to these medical concerns during the mid-19th Century. The result was a standardization of education has led to our present “summer leisure economy.” The 21st Century emphasis on  academic skills  necessary for success in life now contrasts with the mid-19th Century’s standards. There is a growing body of research on the adverse impact of summer vacation on learning.

A meta-analysis of 138 influences or “what works in education” was published (2009) in Influences And Effect Sizes Related To Student Achievement by John Hattie and Greg Yates. Their  results are posted on the Visible Learning website.  They ranked the effects of completed studies (international), and using data from these studies they demonstrated that an influence greater than .04 was a contribution to student achievement.

For their finding on summer vacation,  39 studies were used to rank the effect of summer vacation on student achievement. The findings using this data revealed summer vacation as having a negative effect ( -.09 effect) on education. They ranked summer vacation at the bottom of what works in education, a dismal 134 out of 138. Many researchers refer to the achievement damage done as the “summer slide.”

So what do some teachers do to counter this effect?

At the beginning of summer, students are sent home with work packets, reading lists, and other materials to counter the effects of what is commonly known as the “summer slide.” My school (grades 7-12) is no exception, and the objective for assigning this work is to provide students the practice in reading, writing, or math they need to maintain the skills they have developed during the school year.

The reality is that by mid-August, students and parents recognize they are in “crunch time,” and the summer work assigned as academic practice morphs into a contentious activity that looms large on the calendar. Parents remind/force/argue students to complete the work. Students may wait until the last possible moment to do schoolwork. Both parents and students see the work as an incursion into their summer break from school.

Meanwhile, on the teacher side, the knowledge that all those packets and reading responses will be submitted for assessment the first weeks back at school is daunting as well.

I believe I can safely say that no one-teachers, parents, students- likes summer work.

As an example, I recently received a note from a parent whose child is in enrolled in an honors level. This level is assigned more work to do, and she offered an impassioned plea that her children work hard to juggle their academics, athletics, jobs, etc. “They need a break,” she begged stating that they already can read and write well. “Why must we do this to students every summer?” she asked.

Must we? Do students who read and write well really need more practice? Do students need a break?

I wish I could make all stakeholders, including this one, happy by declaring that summer vacation should be an “academic-free zone”, but in my educator’s heart, I do not believe that students need a “break” especially when it comes to learning. I believe learning is ongoing, and those work packets and reading lists are designed at a minimum to keep students’ minds active. Granted, some of the assignments may be poorly designed, but they are based on a philosophy of maintaining skill sets.

While many students are fortunate to have the means to travel during summer vacation or indulge in firsthand experiences that benefit them academically, there are other students in their classes who do not. The work packets and summer reading equalize academic practice for all students during summer vacation.

Furthermore, learning individual responsibility to complete work assigned is another lesson at all grade levels. Students who choose other endeavors, namely athletics or jobs, must learn to be organized. In my experience as a teacher, the students who are the most successful are those who participate in multiple activities and learn to balance their academic responsibilities. How a student completes his or her summer work is also life lesson.

Consider again the 96 weeks that students have off for summer vacation during their academic career (K-12) because of a decision made in the mid-19th Century. Yes, I want students to have time to play and to travel and to relax, but why not have some assigned academic practice during their collective two years in the 21st Century that are afforded for summer vacation?learning never stops

I am happy to concede that the summer work packets and reading lists are a poor substitute for authentic learning, and I will continue to look for ways to encourage student minds throughout the entire year, not just from September to June. In considering the note from that parent, I am thinking that interdisciplinary summer work might prove successful in reducing the amount for students and in sharing the grading workload for teachers.

Summer vacation, however,  should not be an excuse to stop learning. The artist Michelangelo explained that he was “still learning” at the age of 87. Our job as educators is to encourage students to recognize they are always learning, year round. Whether there are work packets, reading lists, or other assignments, there is no summer break from learning.

A student’s mind should not be on vacation.