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Teachers are looking to include informational text in their English Language Arts classrooms, but what about informational space?

The hard copy of the NYTimes Saturday Sports section on Saturday, July 12, 2014, was an opportunity to teach how space can be information.

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My photo; photo also featured in Deadspin blog

The photo above shows the front page of Sports Saturday. Students can note the banner is in the same location, floating at the top of the page with teaser photos for the content inside. Under the banner and centered on the page is  a feature that is usually on the inside of the sports section, a column of player trades and transactions in the different sports leagues for the day. The column is actual size, straddling the paper’s fold and surrounded by white space. Below the fold, one transaction in the column is highlighted in bright yellow. The rest of the page is blank.LeBraun trade(22)


Why the single highlighted line? What was the reason for all the white space? 

The Cleveland Cavaliers signed LeBron James.
Yes, during the same week when the semi-finals and finals for the 2014 World Cup riveted millions, the only news that mattered to sports fans was a short declarative sentence, “Cleveland Cavaliers signed F James LeBron.”

That was the purpose of the white space….to provide emphasis.

The other transactions listed from Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League, however significant in the future, were not as significant at this moment.

That was the purpose of the yellow highlighted line, “Cleveland Cavaliers signed F James LeBron.”

In determining an author’s purpose, which in this case was the layout editor’s purpose, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) offers a methodology to have student review the craft and structure of a text. Teachers use these these standards to frame questions about the text:

English Language Arts Craft and Structure Anchor Standards

Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text (e.g., a section, chapter, scene, or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.
Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.

The front page of this Sports Saturday provides multiple opportunities to discuss the difference between denotation (what is on the page) and connotation (what is implied). In helping students to consider the craft and structure of this particular layout, a teacher could use questions based on Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DOK) that might be:

• How would you summarize what you read in the written text? (denotation)
• How would you summarize what you see in the white space in contrast to the written text? (denotation)
• What do you notice about where the highlighted information is placed? (denotation)
• What conclusions can you draw about the layout editor’s choice to highlight only one player transaction? (connotation)
• What is your interpretation of the use of the white space ? (connotation)
• Can you formulate a theory for the layout ? (connotation)
• Can you elaborate on a reason the editor used the small font in the player transaction column for this news? (connotation)

Of course, the story of the LeBron signing was also inside the Saturday Sports section. Michael Powell wrote the feature article  Star Reconnects With a Special Place in His Heart where the news of LeBron’s return was celebrated:

“The man knows his region, and his audience, and his life. Even as the news broke on television, you could hear out your window Cleveland residents loosening more or less random whoops. Car horns beeped. Strangers exchanged bro-hugs and palm slaps” (Powell-NYTimes)

Students could read Powell’s article to extend their thinking about the impact of this one player’s return to a team he left several years ago. Then, there is LeBron’s own essay, co-authored by Lee Jenkins, in Sports Illustrated. In this essay, LeBron explains the reasons for his return:

“But this is not about the roster or the organization. I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get”  (LeBron/Jenkins Sports Illustrated).

In this essay, LeBron anticipates (and connotes) the level of commitment that will be necessary for continued success:

In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have” (LeBron/Jenkins Sports Illustrated).

These other two informational texts could also provide opportunities to have students practice denotation and connotation:

  • How would you summarize what you read in these written texts? (denotation)
  • What conclusion can be drawn after reading these three texts? (connotation)
  • What is your interpretation after reading these texts? Support your rationale. (denotation/connotation)

A final exercise? Have students research the cost of a full page spread in the NYTimes ($70,000 non-profit; up to $200,000 for profit). Have students discuss or make arguments on the use of white space in this layout once they know the expense of the layout editor’s choice.

The best part of these exercises is that the reader does not need to know basketball to appreciate how this information is communicated: through layout, through a feature story, and through a personal essay.  I do not follow basketball, and I am only peripherally aware of LeBron’s role in the NBA. I was intrigued, however, about the use of white space to convey information. I also considered the different size of spaces related to the text. The size of a basketball court in the NBA is  94′ by 50′ or 4700 square feet. In another measurement, LeBron has a rumored vertical leap the size of 40 inches or so (the average NBA player can jump 28 inches). Finally, the size of the NYTimes page  is 24″ x 36″ or 864 square inches.

In each case, size matters. In this context, space matters as well.

Throwbacks in education are common.

This time, Robert Pondiscio, a Senior Fellow and Vice President for External Affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institution is itching for a fight to reopen old “reading war” wounds. He has taken umbrage with the NYTimes (7/2/14) opinion piece Balanced Literacy Is One Effective Approach by Lucy Calkins: Director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University and a proponent of balanced literacy.

Pondiscio’s op-ed (7/3/2014) titled, Why Johnny Won’t Learn to Read charges back into the heat of that fight as he referenced the 1997 National Reading Panel’s review of studies on the teaching of reading.

In reminding everyone that “phonics won,” Pondiscio jettisons the definition of the word “balanced” in the phrase balanced literacy. The Oxford Online Dictionary states that when “balanced” is used as an adjective, it is defined as:

  • Keeping or showing a balance; in good proportions:
  • Taking everything into account; fairly judged or presented:
  • having different elements in the correct proportion

Screenshot 2014-07-06 17.07.23Since 1997, the term “balanced literacy” has come to mean that the parts of the phonics approach should be in good proportions with other approaches for teaching reading and writing. Pondiscio however, recasts the phrase “balanced literacy” in mythological terms, as a hydra…“a new head for whole language.” His interpretation is unsupported by definition.

Pondiscio’s wish that the “win” by phonics would eradicate whole language’s contributions to teaching literacy is overstated as some of the recommendations by the NRP could be associated with whole language:

  • Teaching vocabulary words—teaching new words, either as they appear in text, or by introducing new words separately. This type of instruction also aids reading ability.
  • Reading comprehension strategies—techniques for helping individuals to understand what they read. Such techniques involve having students summarize what they’ve read, to gain a better understanding of the material.

Beyond his use of the NRP’s 17 year-old-study, there is another problem in his choice of evidence, a quote by Susan Pimentel, one of the “principal authors of the Common Core.” Pimentel lacks the academic credentials to qualify her as an expert in literacy  (BS Early Childhood; Law Degree) in her claims that balanced literacy is “worrisome and runs counter to the letter and spirit of Common Core.” In contrast, many early literacy educators find the ELA CCSS worrisome, running counter to the spirit of new and emerging readers.

Moreover, Pimentel’s on again/off again association with the other CCSS “architects” (David Coleman and Jason Zimba) from Student Achievement Partners (SAP) was laid bare by Mercedes Schneider in a February 27, 2014, post: Schneider Dissects Sue Pimentel’s Role in Common Core Drafting; Exposes How 3 People Were Main CCSS Architects. In a blog post, Schneider documents Pimentel’s role through SAP’s tax filings and marginalizes Pimentel’s contributions with a suggestion that her inclusion on the CCSS was gender-based, “a female speaking to an audience from a profession that is primarily female, and that is good public relations for selling the CCSS product.”

Further on in Pondiscio’s op-ed, there is a reference to a NY Department of Education study on the Core Knowledge Study (2008-2012) which demonstrated, “significantly stronger gains than comparison school students on nearly all measures was for 1000 students in grades K-2 in 20 schools.” The use of this study is no surprise. Pondiscio’s promotion of this Core Knowledge program is due to the leadership of E.D. Hirsch, Jr., a Fordham Medal of Valor winner. What is missing is information on the size of the study, which involved less than 1% of K-2 student population (1.1 million total student enrollment in 2013), and its methodology in comparison to other literacy programs. Hirsch himself concurs that, “The study was too small. We need a bigger one – and one that gauges long-term as well as short-term effects.”

But what is Pondiscio most damning complaint against balanced literacy?

 “While the Common Core focuses kids’ attention on what the text says, balanced literacy often elicits a personal response to literature.” (Pondiscio)

Let me repeat his concern.

Pondiscio is distressed that a student may respond emotionally to a work of literature.

How is this a problem?

I quite am certain that a personal response in a reader is exactly what any author of literature hopes to achieve.

Reading literature is more than a decoding exercise. Reading literature at any age, especially good complex  literature, is an exercise that connects the reader and the author in an intimate bond of empathy.

Balanced literacy does require a student use evidence from a text, but the advantage to balanced literacy is that it recognizes that students cannot be silenced on what they think or feel about their reading, whether the choice of texts is theirs or not.

Pondiscio’s issue with whole language is that it emphasized reading for meaning instead of spelling, grammar, and sounding words out. In making this final part of his argument, Pondiscio reduces words to data or things devoid of meaning.

Such thinking reminds me of a line from Al Pacino’s Looking for Richard, a film study on William Shakespeare’s Richard III.

While filming on the streets of  NYC, Pacino is seen asking passers-by what is their relationship to Shakespeare. One pan handler stops long enough to explain how he feels the words in Shakespeare “instruct us”:

If we think words are things  and have no feelings in words…then we say things to each other that mean nothing.

But if we felt what we said,  we’d say less and mean more.

The pan-handler shuffles off after offering his personal explanation on words and meaning.

Pondiscio claims he wants “students to grapple with challenging texts that are worth reading,” but grappling with what the pan-handler says about the meaning of words in those texts, challenging or not,  is even more important.

My school district completed four days of first class professional development that began with a visit from Dave Burgess, the author of Teach Like a Pirate and ended with faculty-led collaborative committees organizing for an accreditation visit from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC).  In four short days, the veteran teachers adjusted, organized classrooms, and prepared the first week of lessons. The administrators indicated that schools were off to a “great start”  while the facility management personnel finished polishing the floors and touching up wall paint. One group however, looked different.

teacher appleThe new teachers’ eyes glazed over. Although some have taught for years in other districts, each one has been lost in the labyrinth of our hallways at least once this past week. There are at least fifty names they still need in order to match staff to academic disciplines and a number of faces before they begin to match their attendance rolls with students. The location of materials for various units of study has yet to be established; boxes are unopened in their classrooms.

In short, they are whelmed. Merriam-Webster online defines whelmed as

1. to turn (as a dish or vessel) upside down usually to cover something : cover or engulf completely with usually disastrous effect
2. to overcome in thought or feeling : overwhelm

According to the dictionary, there is no “over” in being “overwhelmed”. Watching the newest members of the faculty trying to mentally sort through the information they had taken in the past four days reminded me of how I felt my first few years of teaching. Putting “over” with whelmed seemed redundant; I was “engulfed completely” my first years of school as well.

Twenty-three years later, I am less whelmed by the start of school, but I still have to adapt. There are always new materials, new changes to schedules, new students to get to know. In 2013-2014 there is also a new state mandated teacher evaluation system and a set of new tests will be rolled out this year to measure the new Common Core State Standards. For these new-to-district teachers, the flood of information in the early days of the school year must seem insurmountable. There is research, however, that indicates with three years of practice, teachers develop strategies for being effective in improving student achievement in the classroom.

In particular, there is research that demonstrates that “teachers in their first and, to a somewhat lesser extent, their second year tend to perform significantly worse in the classroom” (Rivkin, Hanushek, and Kain -2005). In a follow-up interview to this study, Kati Haycock was quoted in Education Next as saying,

“And experience does matter for inexperienced teachers. As a group, first-year teachers tend to be less effective than those with even a little more experience, and effectiveness tends to climb steeply for any given cohort of teachers until it begins to plateau after a few years. According to research by Eric Hanushek and others, disproportionate exposure to inexperienced teachers contributes to the achievement gap.”

How a teacher develops on a learning curve is significant for both the teacher and the students, which is why the story from Mokoto Rich of the New York Times At Charter Schools, Short Careers by Choice (8/26/2013) flies in the face of both anecdotal data and research studies. The article addressed the high turnover rate of teachers in charter schools by first highlighting the story of 24 year-old teacher, Tyler Dowdy. With two completed years of teaching behind him, Dowdy is “exploring his next step, including applying for a supervisory position at the school.” The article described him as someone, “who is already thinking beyond the classroom, wants something more.” His interest in education appeared cursory, “I feel like our generation is always moving onto the next thing,” he said, “and always moving onto something bigger and better.”

Supporting Dowdy’s lack of commitment to the profession, was the statement by Wendy Kopp, founder of  Teach for America (TFA)  who said,

“Strong schools can withstand the turnover of their teachers…The strongest schools develop their teachers tremendously so they become great in the classroom even in their first and second years.”

Kopp’s claims, however, have little credibility considering her own lack of classroom experience. While she has taken TFA from a $22 million dollar enterprise in 2003 to a $244 million dollar business in ten years before her departure this year as CEO, there is no record of her creating or delivering lessons to students herself. She has not had the experience of developing or implementing classroom management skills, a major cause of much teacher turnover.  Teachers, new and old, experience first-hand the fallacies in her argument. Yes, during the first years, teaching can be greatly improved, but that does not mean a new teacher has become “great”. Like so many educational reformers without classroom experience, Kopp dismisses critical teacher training as something that can be condensed, like TFA’s five week summer teacher preparation program.

A five week training for TFA is luxurious compared to the two and a half weeks of training over the summer for other teacher training programs, such as the YES Prep program like Dowdy’s, where new teachers “learn common disciplinary methods and work with curriculum coordinators to plan lessons.” Yet, these teachers from these accelerated programs will look the way new recruits in my district look, glazed and anxious. These teachers will soon learn the importance of experience. They will understand that the only way to learn how to teach is to practice teaching over and over and over….in spite of being whelmed.

The headline in The New York Times (6/13/2013) was a little misleading, Study Gauges Value of Technology in Schools. The topic of gauging the value of technology is particularly significant given the investment by school districts everywhere in laptops, tablets, computer labs, Smartboards, whiteboards and projectors; but the article only referred to the use of technology in math or science.

The article by Motoko Rich referred to the “student survey data conducted in conjunction with the federal exams known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress,” This data was reviewed by the nonprofit Center for American Progress, which determined that middle school math students were using computers for math drills and other low level exercises. One of the more interesting points in the article noted that “no state was collecting data to evaluate whether technology investments were actually improving student achievement.” One of the problems noted in the report was the “lack of discrete learning goals” set by educators that results in the “use of devices in ways that fail to adequately serve students, schools, or taxpayers.”

When states do begin to collect data on the use of technology in the classroom, their studies should be broadened to include how technology is being used in other disciplines, specifically the language arts/English classrooms to facilitate writing.  In contrast to reports of math and science technology use, language arts teachers are using a multitude of digital platforms to facilitate communication between students; technology offers opportunities for students to engage in formal and informal writing at every grade level.

Multiple digital platforms such as blogs or wikis allow students to post responses to questions posed by teachers. Students can share essays in order to peer edit or collaborate on projects, or students can follow links and create data in surveys and respond to the data created.

Screen Shot 2013-06-23 at 9.38.55 PMFor example, an assignment for 9th grade students as part of a Romeo and Juliet unit to respond to a writing prompt can use multiple digital platforms to generate sophisticated responses. The assignment was posted on EDMODO and contained data from a student/parent survey on arranged marriages that students and their parents had completed on a Google Doc form. The survey results were posted on PBWorks for students to access for homework. Students needed to review the scene where Lord Capulet arranges Juliet’s marriage to the Count Paris before writing a response. Each response that was posted was available for the class to review and to discuss.

The assignment’s directions read:

The worldwide wide divorce rate for arranged marriages is 4%; this could be due to cultural taboos regarding divorce.
Look at the data on the page that you and your parents created.
What differences do you notice in your attitudes towards arranged marriages?
Now, Consider how the Capulet’s choice of Paris for Juliet may have been the better choice.
Was Romeo and Juliet’s choice to follow their passion the right decision?
Should they have followed their parent’s wishes?

Respond in a well developed paragraph that includes:

  • Introductory sentence that gives your opinion;
  • evidence from the survey;
  • evidence from R&J;
  • Why this decision is important for future couples.

This assignment required a sophisticated analysis of data that the students had created, and an general analysis of characters from Shakespeare’s play.

Here are three responses generated by the prompt:

If Romeo and Juliet had listened to their parents almost all of this never would have happened. Even though just letting their parents choose would have solved everything, it was their decision. Romeo and Juliet had every right to choose their lives. Even the data from the survey shows that most children and parents don’t approve and less than 40% of people thought parents should choose. The Capulets didn’t know anything about their daughter and is trying to match her with someone who is completely wrong for her. This is why Eharmony uses Math equations because that is a lot more reliable than your parents.

In my opinion, Romeo and Juliet’s choice to follow their passion was the right choice. In the survey, some parents said that they could pick their child’s spouse. “I think I know my daughter well enough to know what kind of spouse she is looking for.” This parent has the same idea that Juliet’s did when they arranged for her and Paris to be married. Obviously in Juliet’s case, an arranged marriage did not work. She rebelled and went for Romeo. “Where is my Romeo?” was one of the first things Juliet said when she awoke from her sleep. Romeo and Juliet were love drunk and when they died they were both insanely happy. This is an important for future couples because if they’re in an arranged marriage it may end in death because one or both people are miserable.

I think that maybe Romeo and Juliet should have followed what their parents want. In our survey, 1/3 of the parents said they would be ok choosing their kid’s spouse, and 1/4 of us said that they would be ok with that. Romeo would still be in love with Rosaline, and he and Juliet would still be alive, their families would still be fighting but still they might have  been happy. If Juliet haven’t meet Romeo she might have fallen in love with Paris, and who knows that if Romeo and Juliet were married they wouldn’t have divorced?

While there may be some question as to the effectiveness of technology in the classroom, the language arts/English classroom must be included in future studies by NAEP and in each state. There are multiple ways that digital platforms are being used to facilitate discussion and the sharing of ideas in language arts/English is far more sophisticated than the use of technology to “simply drill math problems.”

Tributes for teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week are welcome coming just as the school year comes to a close when very tired teachers are looking back to see student progress over the past eight months. Many of the tributes are touching, and some are comical. Comedy was the intent of the The Late Show with David Letterman, when the producers invited ten (10)  Teach For America teachers to deliver Letterman’s Top Ten List. In introducing the selected ten teachers, Letterman prefaced the performance with his own tribute,

“My God! If there is a future, it is in the hands of our teachers doing thankless work day after day (APPLAUSE) …..and by the way thankless is the wrong word… we should be grateful, eternally grateful, for the work these people do…”

After his heart-felt introduction, each of the ten Teach for American teachers stepped forward to deliver one entry on the list:

The Top 10 Reasons I Decided to Become a Teacher

  • 10. I hope to live up to the teachers who inspired me. . .like Ms. What’s Her Name
  • 9. It’s no fun saying the Pledge of Allegiance every day by myself.
  • 8. Honestly, I didn’t pay much attention the first time through school.
  • 7. Kids need to know the moon landing was faked. 
  • 6. If I could make a difference in just one student’s life–well, that wouldn’t be a very good average. 
  • 5. The glamour. 
  • 4. You work long hours, but at least the pay is bad.
  • 3. Hoping to teach in an all song-and-dance high school, like on “Glee.” 
  • 2. In the summer, I can watch all you losers go to the office. 
  • 1. I want to help kids talk good. 

This very funny video was posted on the Teach for America website, listing participating teachers as members of the Class of ’13. Teach for America is a not for profit organization established in 1990 under a proposal by Wendy Kopp. The original objective is explained on their website:

We recruit a diverse group of leaders with a record of achievement who work to expand educational opportunity, starting by teaching for two years in a low-income community.                 

Teach for America sent 500 teachers to low-income schools in its first year. To date, over 33,000 have completed the program, however, Teach for America has come under some criticism for the “temporary” nature of the assignments. Two years of teaching is not enough, argued David Greene in an editorial featured in the New York Times (4/30/13),Invitation to a Dialogue: The Art of Teaching”:

Corps members should intern for a year under the supervision of a talented mentor teacher, then teach for at least four years, not two. That may discourage some. Good. We want career teachers. A “temp” work force does not improve education or erase the achievement gap. Rather it helps to create havoc in schools desperately trying to gain stability, a key factor in any school’s success.

Greene explained that he has served in the past as a mentor to Teach for America corps members, and that he has seen their “tears, anxieties, heartaches, successes and achievements.” He claims, however, that the preparation for these teachers now includes “simple, formulaic scripts” instead of letting these teachers be “creative, independent, spontaneous, practical and rule-bending.” He noted:

Scripts and rules and models strictly followed cannot replace what the best teachers have: practical wisdom. In our anti-teacher world and scripted teaching climate perpetuated by corporate reformers, what room is there for the teachers we want for our kids?

Greene cautioned that the today’s Teach for America has “morphed into more of a leadership institute”, with too little classroom experience to inform the members as they move quickly from the classroom into higher levels in education administration and in educational reform.

Letterman’s producers must be applauded for focusing attention on teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week, but in the future, they might consider a different group to represent teachers. Perhaps they could recruit seasoned veteran teachers who made this career choice, or if new teachers are what they want, they might look to spotlight new teachers who do not have the benefits of training and continuing support from Teach for America. Or, they might look to recruit the teacher described below in a letter published in the NYTimes written by Derl Clausen, a high school student, in a response to Greene’s editorial:

He walks in five minutes late to first period, half-shaven, cup of coffee in hand. He walks over to the white board, his stage, puts his coffee down, and looks into the eyes of every student. He’s not given the best students, and so his standardized test scores are average. Instead, they leave with something more; they leave inspired.

He tells them about life: the challenges, the problems, the reason he’s half-shaven. He turns “Romeo and Juliet” into a lesson on love, algebra into a philosophy discussion, and science into an art appreciation class. Vocabulary, equations and historical dates will enter and leave children’s memories, but the inspiration, motivation and wisdom that he gives them will remain throughout their lives.

It’s that teacher who is worth the five-minute wait, the smell of coffee — and if anyone questions his half-shaven beard, he’ll learn a whole lot more about life.

Clausen’s describes a teacher who goes “off script”, a teacher that fits Greene’s observation that, “Often it is the least orthodox teacher who most engages and excites students.” Clausen’s portrait could be a choice worth of a Top Ten List, or maybe even a guest appearance. Clausen and the half-shaved teacher as guests on The Late Show with David Letterman for Teacher Appreciation Week 2014? Not a satirical list, but one real teacher-student relationship as part of a Teacher Appreciation Week “Top Ten”.

My two boys were raised on a steady diet of musicals and plays. I selected what we would attend with great care:

Annie, Get Your Gun
Les Miserables ( remember the Battle at the Barricades?)
The Pirates of Penzance
Oklahoma (the song-“Oh the Cowboy and the Rancher Should Be Friends”)

Do you see a pattern? When we first started to expose our sons to live theatre, my choices all had weapons or professions that could be deemed interesting to six and eight year olds. We graduated to other pieces, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“What was funny in this comedy?”) and A Servant of Two Masters (“Now, that is comedy!”) They became effective young theatre critics: Showboat was good, Cats was awful (“P-U”).

Their first big theatre experience was Miss Saigon on Broadway.  We sat up in the nose-bleed section, which turned out to be a blessing as the opening number takes place in a brothel with scatily clad singers and dancers. We did not rent the binoculars; we were really there for the helicopter scene. The overblown sound system did not disappoint; we could feel the whirr of the chopper blades in our bones.

I thought of these choices when I read Dwight Garner’s commentary in his NYTimes piece, “Going Beyond Cultural Kid Stuff With a Wary Sense of Adventure”. He had taken his 15 and 13 year old children to see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? and reviewed their reaction to the play. They liked the set, the action and the performances; he was happy they had gotten so much from the “witty but sinister play, stocked like a nightmare bodega with adult themes.”

He also posed a good question, “When is it O.K. to introduce challenging cultural material — whether it is sexy or profane, creepy or violent, or simply adult and intense — to your children?” My response to him would be what I told to my own children when they asked to see adult or intense and violent films: “If you want to see it, read about it first.”

Saving Private RyanThe Longest Day CoverMichael was 13 when the film Saving Private Ryan came out in theaters in 1998. He begged to go. I was very hesitant, I had heard that the first 27 minutes of the film depicted the landing on the beaches of Normandy (Omaha Beach) very realistically; that director Stephen Spielberg was not interested in sugarcoating the gruesome damage machine gun and explosions can exact on a soldier’s body. But Michael had a keen interest in history.
“Come on, Mom, this is supposed to be just like the landing,” he argued.
That was what worried me.
“The only way you can see this film is if you read about the landing first,” I agreed.
“Ok, no problem,” he replied confidently, “done.” So he read The Longest Day by Cornelius Ryan; 362 pages of historical prose.

There are many opportunities for a student to read a book in advance of watching a film. Reading the book or background materials prepares students for many of the adult themes in a film or play. For example, students who read books from the Harry Potter series were prepared for the dark themes or the twisted violence that was wrought upon many of the characters. I cannot imagine how confusing the series must have been for those students who had not prepared themselves by reading about characters, spells, or the magic elements at Hogwarts. Likewise, the students who read books from The Hunger Games trilogy were certainly more prepared for scale of the brutality of the society that “sacrifices” children for entertainment. In fact, I felt the book was far less gruesome than many of the moments from the film. When books are in circulation before the film is announced (Twilight, The Life of Pi), parents should take the opportunity to hold out for a little reading before letting a child see a film with a mature rating.

Granted, there are sometimes when a parent may have no control over what other parents deem acceptable. Michael already read Edith Hamilton’s brutal explanation of Roman life in her classic The Roman Way when Gladiator (2000) was released on DVD. That Thanksgiving, we were invited to our friend’s home for dinner. After dinner, I was forced into an awkward agreement when I found that our hosts had a copy of the film in the downstairs “playroom” for the boys to watch with their son while we socialized. I cringed that my younger son, Kevin, then age 12, would also be watching, too late for me to assign the required background reading. Of course, the boys were both thrilled to have me in such an uncomfortable position, and both we delighted we reluctantly agreed they could watch the film.

“Now, you have to read The Roman Way,” Michael told Kevin as we drove home that night, “or read Marcus Aurelius’s letters.”

I was duly impressed; perhaps I had not failed parenting.

David Brooks recently wrote a column in The NYTimesHonor Code (July 5, 2012),  describing a crisis in education for boys. He suggested that Shakespeare’s character Henry V would not have been a success if he had attended an American School. But how different really was Henry V’s education?  Consider that Shakespeare’s Henry V spends his youth in Henry IV Parts I and II as Prince Hal, an irresponsible squanderer of his good fortune.

Brooks lays out his premise that if little Prince Hal had been placed in an American school, and I am assuming he means an American public school, Hal’s boisterous level of pre-school/kindergarten physical play would mean that he would receive recommendations from “sly” teachers for medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. As Prince Hal made his way through our American public school system, Brooks predicts that he would be deprived of the necessary physical outlets such as recess, so he would act out, he would be “rambunctious”. That would result in numerous suspensions for the vigorous heir.

Eventually, Brooks supposes, Prince Hal would “withdraw” and “decide that the official school culture is for wimps and softies and he’d just disengage…by junior high, he’d lose interest in trying and his grades would plummet.” Well, perhaps Brooks should look at Shakespeare’s storyline of Prince Hal who rejected the official British monarchy culture and disengaged for the pubs with his drinking buddies. His “grades” did plummet without the benefit of the American public school.

Prince Hal  had little interest in trying to please his father, he rejected the lessons of his tutors, and he found company with the gregarious Falstaff and other London low-life. In one memorable scene, he “lifts” the crown before his father had passed, a stage metaphor for his immaturity and unreadiness for the responsibilities of Kingship. His education was abysmal; his honor code was lacking.

After the death of the king, however, when Prince Hal becomes Henry V, he engages in a “hands-on” education, one which is gained at the expense of his former friends and at his discovery of the betrayal of allies whom he has executed. He is long past school age when his lack of military strategy catches him outnumbered after the Battle of Harfleur. All these experiences harden him for his ultimate victory at Agincourt, but not before he gets to deliver those wonderful lines from the St. Crispin Day speech, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers…”. Immediately after the battle, where 10,000 French soliders lay dead as compared to roughly 29 Englishmen, the more battle-hardened Henry V immediately turns around and (twice) orders his men to kill all the French prisoners (Act IV; sc iv).

According to Wikipedia, in March 2010, Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Ruth Bader Ginsburg participated in a mock trial of Henry V for the crimes associated with the legality of the invasion and the slaughter of  the French prisoners. The trial  used evidence from the  historical record and Shakespeare’s play:

“The outcome was originally to be determined by an audience vote, however, due to a draw it came down to a judges’ decision. The court was divided on Henry’s justification for war, but unanimously found him guilty on the killing of the prisoners after applying ‘the evolving standards of the maturing society’.”

Therefore, I am confident that Henry the V is the not the best model to describe an honor code.

All this makes me question Brooks’s intent for using Henry V to attack the public school system. While schools are not entirely responsible for the crisis where boys are falling according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, his comment that teachers would give “sly little hints dropped” about medicating students casts teachers as covert operators. Why pick on the teachers?

He does have legitimate reasons for concern about how boys are falling behind in education citing:

  • By 12th grade, male reading test scores are far below female test scores.
  • Boys used to have an advantage in math and science, but that gap is nearly gone.
  • An article as far back as 2004 in the magazine Educational Leadership found that boys accounted for nearly three-quarters of the D’s and F’s.

In laying out his argument, Brooks complains that,

“The education system has become culturally cohesive, rewarding and encouraging a certain sort of person: one who is nurturing, collaborative, disciplined, neat, studious, industrious and ambitious. People who don’t fit this cultural ideal respond by disengaging and rebelling.”

Well, yes. Brooks has described the corporate business model that has driven education, the business model that educators have been trained to use to prepare students when they enter the “real world.” What employer does not want an employee with these qualities? Yet, there are many teachers who recognize this model is not ideal for the diversity in attitude and aptitude for their students. Sadly, many of the educational opportunities that engage disaffected boys and girls including art, music, sports, and after-school programs are the first cut in times of economic hardship.

Additionally, teachers are keenly aware that not all students fit a cultural ideal, so they use multiple teaching strategies (differentiation, student success plans, response to intervention, etc) to reengage the withdrawn student. Mr. Brooks might have discovered these had he attended a classroom session and seen teachers working with students like little Prince Hal. Instead, he lays the blame for the failure of boys in the school system solely on teachers when there are other stakeholders, namely parents, who are primarily responsible.

Brooks’s suggestion that teachers celebrate competition might not meet with a school administration’s approval if a school’s mission statement celebrates cooperation. His suggestion that teachers should honor military virtues over environmental virtues might raise some eyebrows of parents, and his disparate suggestion that teachers should ditch friendship circles in favor of boot camps indicates that he has experienced neither.

In Shakespeare’s play, on the night before the battle of Agincourt,  Henry V walks unnoticed through the camp; he is finally and painfully aware of the responsibilities he has to his men and to his country and says, ““What infinite heartsease / Must kings neglect that private men enjoy?” As more pressures: economic, social, cultural and philosophical, are applied to the American public education system, teachers could paraphrase Henry V’s thoughts and say,  ““What infinite heartsease for those who criticize without being on the front lines in the classroom every day?”

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Is a writing a blog as valuable a writing experience as writing an academic term paper? Can the writing of a blog be made academically more rigorous in order to compete with the more traditional term paper? Or does the blog vs. term paper argument cloud a more critical academic problem… that our students do not read well enough to write in either format?

Matt Richtel, a reporter who writes about technology in education in the NY Times, recently published a piece, Blogs vs. Term Papers (1/20/12) regarding Duke University’s English professor Cathy N. Davidson’s embrace of the blog in place of the traditional term paper.  He writes that, “Professor Davidson makes heavy use of the blog and the ethos it represents of public, interactive discourse. Instead of writing a quarterly term paper, students now regularly publish 500- to 1,500-word entries on an internal class blog about the issues and readings they are studying in class, along with essays for public consumption.”

The traditional term paper in any number of disciplines of prescribed lengths of 5, 7, 10 or more pages has been centered for decades on a standard formula incorporating thesis, evidence, argument and conclusion.  In the article, Davidson expresses her dislike for formula writing, including the five paragraph essay taught in middle and high schools and claims that, “This mechanistic writing is a real disincentive to creative but untrained writers.”  She notes that, “It’s a formula, but good writing plays with formulas, and changes formulas.”

Davidson is not alone. Ritchel claims that “across the country, blog writing has become a basic requirement in everything from M.B.A. to literature courses.” This movement from term paper to blog has many academics up in arms.

Running parallel to this argument of academic writing was the position offered by William H. Fitzhugh, author and founder of The Concord Review, a journal that publishes high school students’ research papers. In the NY Times article, Fitzhugh discussed how high school educators “shy away from rigorous academic writing, giving students the relative ease of writing short essays.”  Fitzhugh makes the argument that students are required to read less which directly impacts their ability to write well.

Fitzhugh wrote about academic writing in  Meaningful Work for American Educator (Winter 2011-2012) taking the position that reading is at the core of good academic student writing; “To really teach students how to write, educators must give them examples of good writing found in nonfiction books and require students to read them, not skim them, cover to cover.” Good writing reflects knowledge and understanding that comes from reading, not skimming. Fitzhugh recommends that, “Reading nonfiction contributes powerfully to the knowledge that students need in order to read more difficult material—the kind they will surely face in college. But more importantly, the work of writing a research paper will lead students to read more and become more knowledgeable in the process. As any good writer knows, the best writing emerges from a rich store of knowledge that the author is trying to pass on. Without that knowledge and the motivation to share it, all the literacy strategies in the world will not make much difference.”

From my experiences in the classroom, I see the veracity of both Davidson and Fitzhugh’s positions. I believe that the form of student writing is not the problem, and the blog vs. term paper debate, at least at the high school level where I teach, is not as controversial as at the college level.  My job is to teach students to write well, and a great deal of my average school day is currently given to encouraging students to write in these multiple formats in order to prepare them for the real world.  I know that students can be taught to write well in term papers, blogs, essays, letters or any other format.However, the students need to read well in order to write well about a topic. The conundrum is that unless today’s high school students are provided time in class, they do not read the material.

A student’s inability to read independently for homework results in a reduction in both the amount of reading assigned and the class time to process the reading.  Students who do not read well at the high school level are unprepared for the rigors of college curriculum which requires much more independent reading in non-fiction. Ultimately, the problem for teachers in high school is not the form in which students write.  The problem is getting students to both read and understand assigned readings that come from many disciplines-fiction and non-fiction. Only then can the blog vs. term paper debate be addressed as a measure of academic writing.

I had read the The Rise of the New Groupthink by Susan Cain before its publication in “Week in Review” section of the Sunday NYTimes (1/15/12) because of a link sent to me by a fellow educator. After reading the article, I did several things

1. I made the article into a Reading for Information exercise for my 10th grade students who will read the article online (we have a school subscription) and respond to a series of multiple choice questions and three short answers (see bottom for PDF):

  • What evidence in the article demonstrates the author’s bias towards Groupthink?
  • Do you think the use of Groupthink will expand or contract in the future?
  • What has been your experience with Groupthink? Has this been a positive or negative experience?

2. I sent the link to my principal.

3. I wrote this blog.

In education today, collaboration is the buzz word of significance. Many lesson plans use the verb in generating objectives: “the students will collaborate to….” The recently adopted Language Arts Common Core Curriculum uses the verb in the College and Career Readiness Anchor Standard #6 for Writing: Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing and to interact and collaborate with others. 

While collaboration is not a skill of intellectual behavior important in learning on Bloom’s Taxonomy which is the Rosetta Stone for curriculum planning, many websites suggest that learning is enhanced through collaborating.  Andrew Churches’s website Educational Origami notes that, “Collaboration is a 21st Century skill of increasing importance and one that is used throughout the learning process. In some taxonomic levels the collaboration verbs are included as an element of Bloom’s Digital taxonomy and in others its is just a mechanism which can be use to facilitate higher order thinking and learning.”  In big bold letters in the middle of the page is the statement: Collaboration is not a 21st Century Skill, it is a 21st Century Essential.

Susan Cain argues a different position. Her concern about Groupthink is explained in business models; her most important example is in the creation of Apple. She offers one paragraph dedicated to collaboration in education:

“Our schools have also been transformed by the New Groupthink. Today, elementary school classrooms are commonly arranged in pods of desks, the better to foster group learning. Even subjects like math and creative writing are often taught as committee projects. In one fourth-grade classroom I visited in New York City, students engaged in group work were forbidden to ask a question unless every member of the group had the very same question.”
Is it any wonder that one of the questions I posed for the Reading for Information prompt dealt with the author’s bias? I would hope that her experience in that 4th grade classroom is one of anomaly, and I wish that Cain had spent more time in many classrooms and in different schools to test her position. My experiences with collaboration in the classroom is not one of sameness, but one where student strengths and weaknesses are most evident.
Recently, I assigned a creative paper where 9th grade students collaborating in groups of threes needed to update the trials of Odysseus with a new character “Fresheus” (freshman+Odysseus) and the trials he encounters during a school day (Polyphemus =bully, etc).  Watching the students test ideas, find a way to communicate outside the classroom (Google docs was the vehicle of choice), and revising their work, I had a clear sense of who was the “leader” in each team, who was the “aider” in each team, and who was there for the ride. In grading this particular essay, I awarded the project a number of points out 40 according to a rubric (ex: 32/40). I then multiplied that number by three (32 X3=96) and told the team members they had the total points (ex: 96) to divide anyway they wanted between the three members of the team. Most teams divided the points evenly, but two teams recognized the “slacker” and split the points accordingly; the slackers received D grades according to their teammates.The advantage for me was obvious-I had only eight papers to grade instead of 24, which meant a faster response time to the students. In addition, the quality of the papers did affirm that collaboration on this particular assignment was a successful strategy, but not all assignments are appropriate for collaboration.
I also know how painful it is for some of the shy, or marginalized members of the class to work with others. I have seen how a creative spirit or “out of the box” thinker is sometimes beaten down by more ordinary ideas offered by more average students. I work in a middle/high school and the social status of a student is baggage in collaboration…and I suspect social status might be baggage in business collaboration as well. However, educators know their students will be going out into the real world where Cain suggests Groupthink is dominating the corporate culture, where people are “corralled into endless meetings or conference calls conducted in offices that afford no respite from the noise and gaze of co-workers.” Educators must prepare students for this experience and challenge them to have their voices be heard in all forums-business, education, religion, politics, etc.
Cain’s clearest example of  successful collaboration is with Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. She writes, “Mr. Wozniak got the work done — the sheer hard work of creating something from nothing — he did it alone. Late at night, all by himself.” She notes that, “Mr. Wozniak wants to give his invention away free, but Mr. Jobs persuades him to co-found Apple Computer.”  Collaboration, for Cain, cannot generate an idea. There still needs to be that one creative spark to set other minds going…and that happens everyday in the classroom if the teacher knows how to pose the question and organize the response. The challenge for educators is to allow students the opportunity to work individually and collaboratively.
Interestingly enough, there is a commercial for Apple that I use in a (short) media study unit in order to show how celebrity endorsements impact consumers.  The text states:
Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do. – Apple Inc.
The people featured in the commercial were (in order): Albert Einstein, Bob Dylan, Martin Luther King, Jr., Richard Branson,John Lennon (with Yoko Ono), Buckminster Fuller, Thomas Edison, Muhammad Ali, Ted Turner, Maria Callas, Mahatma Gandhi, Amelia Earhart, Alfred Hitchcock, Martha Graham, Jim Henson (with Kermit the Frog), Frank Lloyd Wright and Pablo Picasso.
I believe that Groupthink would not have adversely impacted any of these individuals; they each confronted the naysayers of their time and proved those who doubted their genius wrong. So, Cain need not worry that Groupthink will stifle the artist because history has proved that the artist prevails-although sadly, sometimes this is post-humous. Cain’s short interaction with collaboration in a classroom referenced in one short paragraph in her article hopefully does not speak for all education. Today’s educator is charged with the responsibility  to develop each individual student’s skills to confront and navigate through the problems of the real world. Perhaps the best way to negate the adverse -or Orwellian-impact of Groupthink is to prepare students to effectively use collaboration as a tool in accomplishing a goal. Fortunately,  this generation utilizes the methods of collaboration as they already communicate on multiple platforms, some that were not available even two years ago.
Cain should also be aware that students, like artists, who know the rules do not necessarily adhere to them. Robert Frost stated, “To me freedom means riding easy in the harness”;  so might our next generation who with a growing familiarity with the rules of collaboration will move beyond the limitations -or the harness-that cause Cain concern. Regardless, there will be a new Steve Wozniak. She will labor independently until she meets a collaborator who will aide in her changing the world. She will have been a student. Educators, look for her!