Saturday, July 31, 2010

We Lurch From Fad to Fad

So I've been reading the new book by Diane Ravitch, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.

I read for at least 20 minutes every night, then I log the amount of time I read and the number of pages. My husband signs the log, so as to encourage me to take responsibility for my reading, and he nags me about it if I forget to fill the log out. Once a week, I write out an answer to a question he assigns; for instance, "what do you think will happen next?" or "tell me about a similar incident in your own life."

When I finish the book, I'll build a diorama in a shoe box, illustrating an important scene. I'll most likely forget about the diorama until the last possible moment, and then the whole family will run around like the Keystone Kops in an effort to scare up the necessary craft supplies.

I love reading! Don't you?

Well, of course I'm not doing that. But that's how a lot of our kids are being taught to approach reading. Diane Ravitch gave me a name for the madness: it's called "Balanced Literacy", and it's just one of the many educational fads that she documents.

As Ms. Ravitch writes:

Such approaches had been criticized in the early days of Balanced Literacy. In 1987, educators P. David Pearson and Janice A. Dole warned: "We have to consider the possibility that all the attention we are asking students to pay to their use of skills and strategies and to their monitoring of these strategies may turn relatively simple and intuitively obvious tasks into introspective nightmares."

Any parent who has lived through this regime, which hit us out of a clear blue sky like the output of a passing pigeon, can tell you the result. Balanced Literacy is a sure-fire, guaranteed technique to make even the most literate child resent and avoid reading.

There has got to be a better way.


  1. LOL Ummm... we just read until there is a natural "break" in the text and/or we are just feeling "done." Some days almost nothing, and on others we may get quite a bit of reading in.

    I think if I had to send my younger kids to school (for whatever reason) I would just lie on the forms and write that they read 645 minutes each night. Maybe someone somewhere would catch a hint of sarcasm there. :)

  2. Mrs. C, if the schools had a dime for every fake reading log that gets turned in, they could hold all their in-service days in Hawaii.

  3. Heh, As I watched, I wished I had a video of the mother carrying her California Mission model to her son's class last school year- She was so proud of her craftsmanship and money spent on miniature tree, fountains animals, moss. Oh what detail and symmetry ! I bet she got an 'A'

    Same deal with the science fair the last two years. The kids happily turn in their projects and cannot answer even one basic question such as "What was the experiment about?" And the science fair wasn't even mandatory!

    Of course the teachers know this but I guess it's too damned easy to resist.

    Other people's kids are sometimes the problem. And so are other people's parents.

  4. FedUpMom, I apologize for the off topic comment here- but I wanted to bring up something I'm curious about, interested in- That is, the importance of prior knowledge, background knowledge, and content knowledge.

    What makes a good reader? Turns out background knowledge is King.

    If you folks can share the sorts of activities you and your kids do, probably for "fun" such as trips etc. It's often a measurable difference between social class- the great enrichment a middle class family provides versus a lower class family..
    How it plays out in the "fourth grade slump"

    I'm hoping it'll be a good topic to learn from each other, encourage each other. Not meant to pry into your personal nor your children's personal lives too much.

  5. I dunno, I'm skeptical of the "background knowledge" theory. On the one hand, if it brings a halt to all this "text-to-self" nonsense, I'm all for it. On the other hand, if it leads to the memorization of disconnected factoids (e.g., state capitols), I'm not enthusiastic.

    Seems to me that the best way to acquire background knowledge is to read a lot, so it becomes a circular discussion.

    As for activities, I'm not the world's purest educational mom. We watch plenty of TV, for instance. This summer we've been bowling a lot (gets us out of the house and moving around without dealing with the $#%$# heat). Does that count as "background knowledge"?

  6. Yes it does count! If your kid (let's say a poor reader) tomorrow reads a passage on bowling and then is tested your kid will do better than a "great reader" who hasn't bowled before. Beyond the game, there's renting v owning own shoes. Other games, fees, time for lanes...

    We watch a lot of tv too, and my kids- a lot of youtube. One kid has peculiar particular interests and a huge amount of knowledge of those interests by pursuing through the net.

    6yo recently has been into making lemonade and juices etc.

    Both kids interested in cooking. One kid interested in shopping/choosing ingredients. Does it fit our budget? And so on... It's all knowledge, kids are learning all the time. Thing is- if there's no time to pursue your own interests because you're tied to busywork, I think you're missing out on the good stuff.

    Me? I believe background knowledge is where it's at. Me? I can't stand hearing teachers devoting much time to teaching "critical thinking skills" to young children.

    I promise a great chemist, great at thinking critically about chemistry will not be able to think critically about running a restaurant kitchen as well as an experienced chef for example.

  7. OK, are you saying that it's better for kids to have real experiences than to be stuck doing busywork that some educrat dreamed up? I'm with you about 800%.

    On the watching TV front, I watch a certain amount of TV, and DVDs, and youtube, with older dd. It's not "educational" in the usual sense (she's not much into documentaries), but if a word comes up that she doesn't know, I explain it, and there's a whole cultural background that we talk about too.

    Recently we've been watching the Poirot mysteries with David Suchet. We talk about the patterns you see in these mysteries, such as red herrings, and the way the obvious first suspect is never the guilty party. "It's always the one you least suspect!" She's getting pretty good at predicting plot points.

    Is that background knowledge? I guess it is.

  8. If some say I don't know what you mean by educational fad, just say " baby beethoven" and you'll get your point across.

    Many are looking for a short cut a fad promises ...nope, keep dreaming.

  9. Recently we've been watching the Poirot mysteries with David Suchet. We talk about the patterns you see in these mysteries, such as red herrings, and the way the obvious first suspect is never the guilty party. "It's always the one you least suspect!" She's getting pretty good at predicting plot points

    so you spend time with your child and explain things too? You are pretty radial FedUpMom!