Sunday, October 30, 2011

My Cat

Courtesy of kitchen table math, here's a great video of a kid "learning to read" using Whole Language. Notice the dull-as-dishwater "leveled reader" the kid is using, and the way the kid is encouraged to guess the word by looking at the picture. ARGH!

On Surprises in Reading

[Educators] have devised thousands of ingenious exercises to train children in this insane method of reading. They make them complete such sentences as "There are fish in the l_____", "The package was tied up with str____", or "I went to the zoo and saw a kangaroo j_____". The child is praised if he obligingly reads, "There are fish in the lake", "The package was tied up with string", and "I went to the zoo and saw a kangaroo jump."

Unfortunately — or fortunately — life is not as simple and dull as all that. Real-life sentences are apt to read "There are fish in the lagoon", "The package was tied up with straps", and "I went to the zoo and saw a kangaroo just as tall as you are."

A child taught by look-and-say will go through life and miss all the interesting and unexpected stuff in print. He's been trained to assume that what comes next is always the expected word and therefore never discovers the fact that, as often as not, printed matter takes surprising turns. — Rudolf Flesch, Why Johnny Still Can't Read: A New Look at the Scandal of Our Schools

The previous principal of our Upper Tax Bracket elementary school once told an assembly of parents that she always reads the ending of a book first, "so I know where it's going." This was my first clue that we would not see eye to eye. Why would anyone do such a crazy thing? Authors go to a great deal of trouble to make their stories unfold at a particular pace and in a particular sequence. Why would you wreck that? If the principal goes to see a movie, does she first catch the end of the previous showing?

I used to be utterly baffled that teachers are always telling kids to try to predict what happens next in the story, or to guess the story after looking at the jacket cover, but now that I've been researching the pedagogy of reading, I get it. Whole-language types actually believe that reading "comprehension" PRECEDES the reading of the words on the page! As Alfie Kohn says, it’s easier to decode a word when you already know what it means. This is the exact opposite of the way anyone who actually cares about reading would approach it, but why should that slow them down?

I even resent the very widespread practice of describing the opening of a book on the jacket blurb. This is especially bad news with mystery stories. "When the body of Mr. Allington is discovered in the garden shed, impaled on his own swordfish ..." Yeah, thanks for that. Now the first 20 pages of the book, which were a subtle lead-in to the discovery of Mr. Allington's body in the garden shed, have been ruined for me.

Friday, October 28, 2011

A Pox on "Progressive" Whole Language

To hear [educators] talk, the word method is the only method of teaching reading that fits into the whole of modern educational theory.  It's all part and parcel, they say, of modern, enlightened education.  

I say it isn't so ... The fact is, I am on the whole on the side of progressive education.  I have a Ph.D. degree from Teachers College, Columbia, and I am a sincere admirer of John Dewey.  I think education should be democratic, free of senseless formalism and drill, based on interest and meaningful experience, and inseparably joined to the real life that goes on around the child.  — Rudolf Flesch, Why Johnny Can't Read.

What really distinguishes Whole Language teachers, though, is not just a broader array of strategies for helping children learn to decode text, but the belief that reading is more than decoding text.  A child filled full of phonics rules may be able to pronounce a word flawlessly without having any idea what it means, much less what its relation is to the words sitting next to it.  (Some critics refer to the process of getting kids to call out the words in front of them as “barking at the page.”)  Whole Language teachers insist that reading is first and foremost about meaning.  — Alfie Kohn, On Teaching Reading, Spelling and Related Subjects

Frankly, I'd rather watch Younger Daughter "bark at the page", correctly,  than guess wildly without even looking at the page, as she was taught at her "progressive" private school.  As Rudolf Flesch says of a struggling whole-word student, "Characteristically, he doesn't look at the word in the book, but stares into space."

According to Alfie Kohn, "Once they can recognize the first letter of the word, that, along with other clues from the context, can help them predict the rest."  Thanks, Alfie.  That's why I've got a kid who, confronted with the word "on", guesses "octopus".

A Whole Language teacher would rather spend her classroom budget on the kind of children’s stories that can be found in bookstores and libraries.  The underlying assumption isn’t just that reading material doesn’t need to contain controlled vocabulary, where new phonemes or skills are introduced on a specific schedule.  Rather, it’s that such texts ought to be actively avoided.  Better to have a child read a well-written story about an interesting subject.  — Alfie Kohn.

Well, sure, that's the theory, but in practice schools teach whole-word reading using "leveled readers", coded from A to Z, that are just as boring as Dick and Jane.  A typical "leveled reader" book would be something like "Kate Gets Dressed".  Each page of the book has a sentence beginning "Kate puts on her ...", with a big picture on top.  Under the picture of Kate putting on her socks, what do you think the text is?  This enables kids like my daughter to fake reading, without ever actually learning to read the words the book allegedly teaches, like "socks" and "mittens".

As Rudolf Flesch points out, once they've learned phonics, kids can read anything they want.  It's the concept of whole-word learning that dooms kids to boring books.

Alfie Kohn claims that Whole Language actually teaches decoding better, "Because it’s easier to decode a word when you already know what it means."  That's ridiculous, and a terrible way to teach reading.  What if the author wrote something unexpected?  And why should we ask small children, with their limited life experience, to correctly predict what the author wants to say?

... a child may be temporarily stumped by a tricky word.  In that case, the Whole Language teacher might invite him to speculate about what the word could be.  Or she might say, “Skip that word; we’ll come back to it later.”  And if he tries and makes a mistake?  Suppose a child is slowly reading aloud from a story that includes the sentence I think my car needs new tires.  He gets through the first six words and then pauses before blurting out, “Trees.”  A skills-oriented teacher would likely say, “No.  Look at the letters again.  What comes after the t?”  But a Whole Language teacher is more likely to respond, “My car needs new trees??”  Does that make sense to you?”  Then, once he gets the word right, she’d probably call his attention to the way it’s spelled.  — Alfie Kohn.

Again, a terrible way to teach reading (and notice how it's being pushed by the district of Upper Tax Bracket!)  If we can predict beforehand what the author will say, why bother reading at all?  What if the kid is reading science fiction or fantasy, and the sentence is "I think my car needs new wings"?  Notice that Kohn is suggesting kids should read only books that make sense to them, so they can predict what the words should be.  Think how very limiting that is, especially to a small child!  It's the exact opposite of what I want the reading experience to be for my kids.  If reading doesn't communicate something new and surprising, really, what is the point?

You can bet that when I work on reading with Younger Daughter, I do exactly what Kohn says I shouldn't do. I say, "look at the word! What's the next letter after t?" If I used Kohn's method, I would "probably" get around to teaching the phonics, after telling my daughter she should have magically intuited the word from context.

On teaching spelling, Kohn suggests "They might be invited to write a word as many different ways as possible and then to evaluate the different spellings, finally checking out which one is in the dictionary."  How is that less annoying than just telling the kid the correct spelling?  And how likely is it that the kid will even remember the correct spelling after he's just laboriously written out all the possible wrong spellings?

This is the kind of thinking that gives "progressive" education a bad name.

Tests Are Biased

A friend sent me a link to an excellent Onion video. Are tests biased against students who don't give a *bleep*?  The purpose of school is to prepare kids for the real world, and in the real world, people don't give a *bleep*.  Caution -- adult language! 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Comprehension Strategies

The above is a "skill card" sent home as part of the "reading bag program." I'm supposed to practice these with Younger Daughter every night as her "home reading coach."

The scan is a bit hard to read: here's what it says:

Before Reading

Tell the title of a favorite book and some specific details about the book.

Preview the story by creating a story from reading the title, looking at the cover and reading the pictures.

Connect events during picture reading with words like "and then ... next ... or after that ..."

During Reading


Read in short phrases most of the time.

Recall what you know about the topic.

Ask yourself questions as you read.

Make connections as you read.

Think about the reason why things happen.

Picture what is happening (visualize).

Try to understand the characters' feelings.

Think about similar experiences and stories as you read.

After Reading

Start at the beginning and tell what happened. Include most of the important events from the beginning, middle and end in sequence.

Refer to most characters by name in retell.

Is this fiction or nonfiction, and how do you know?

What part of the book did you like best and why?

What connections did you make while reading (personal experience, background knowledge or another book)?

Keep in mind that we're supposed to accomplish all this within 10-15 minutes per night of reading! The "Before Reading" instructions alone could easily take up 15 minutes, time that would be better spent actually reading (or actually teaching reading, as is the case with us and Younger Daughter.)

The "Before Reading" skills are exactly what Younger Daughter should not do. She already faked her way up to level E in the leveled readers at Natural Friends; the more she learns to make up stories based on the pictures, the better she will get at guessing and faking, and the harder it will be for her to learn to actually read.

As for the "During Reading" and "After Reading" activities, what a turnoff. No wonder we're raising a generation of kids who hate books. Kids don't need to be instructed in how to appreciate a story; story-telling (and story-listening) is a universal human experience. Read to your kids, find books your kids will enjoy reading, and get out of their face.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Word Attack Strategies

The above is a "skill card" sent home as part of the "reading bag program." I'm supposed to practice these with Younger Daughter every night as her "home reading coach."

The scan is a bit hard to read: here's what it says:

Stop if something doesn't look right, sound right, or make sense.

Look at the picture.

Say the first letter sound.

Reread: Go back and try again.

Blend: Say the first two letters.

Cover part of the word.

Chunk: Look for parts you know.

Say "blank", read on, and come back.

Think of a word that looks the same and rhymes.

Try a different sound for the vowel.

Once again, what's the one strategy that's not mentioned? Why, sounding out the word letter by letter, the one strategy we're trying to teach Younger Daughter.

Trying a different sound for the vowel is not a bad idea, but it should be at the top of the list. And "Look at the picture" shouldn't be on the list at all. That's how I got a kid who would look at the word "Chester" and say "chicken", because there was one in the illustration.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Mom, or "Home Reading Coach"?

More deathless prose from the Upper Tax Bracket School District, found in Younger Daughter's backpack:

Dear Parents, 

We are ready to start our reading bag program at 2D! ...

Once your child has completed their 15 minutes of reading, they will write down the books they have read in their reading record book.  You will sign the log sheet to show the reading has been completed.  Use this time to sit with your child as the home reading coach.  The reading should be easy and fun for your child.  It should not be a struggle. 

Please be sure to practice the skill card with your child as part of their 10 - 15 minutes EVERY night as well.  There is a white card for decoding strategies and comprehension strategies.  There is a colored card that is for the next attainable level.  These strategies will not only help your child be a better reader, they will help your child advance to the next reading level.

... Thank you,

[no signature]

P.S.  Have Fun Reading!  

Next up, the comprehension and decoding strategies!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Easing Up On Homework

In the NYTimes, At Elite Schools, Easing Up a Bit On Homework.

I can't get very worked up about this article.   Apparently some elite NY private schools are starting to discuss the stress they put their students under, and talking about reducing some of the homework load.  It doesn't sound like any radical changes are in the works.

The comments, as usual, are more interesting than the article.  I liked the unintentionally hilarious account by a Dalton grad, (or as he calls himself, "a Dalton alumni" — don't get me started!) explaining that the great thing about his very expensive private high school was that he learned to get through Lit classes without reading the assigned books.  Ain't learning grand?

Dalton teaches you to learn, and to learn very very efficiently. For example, I never read a single book for English class because it was, in my opinion, a huge waste of time. The only time I would read was if there was a reading test, like the one on Macbeth. Besides that, doing all the reading was highly inefficient. The teacher doesn't grade you on how well you read the book; the teacher grades you on the paper you hand in. Instead of reading, I'd take great notes in class and sparknote the book if I could. Then when it came time to write the essay, I'd research what other scholars had said, synthesize what I found, then put my own spin on it. Took half the time.

Ovarachiever's footnote:  it is never right for a person to describe himself as an "alumni", because "alumni" is plural.  One person is either an "alumnus" (masculine) or an "alumna" (feminine). 

When Big Sister Grows Up

OK, it's my blog, I get to post cute things the kids say.  Today I overheard a conversation that went like this:

Older Daughter:  "I'd like to have a small house on a really big piece of land full of enormous trees, and I'd hang a swing from every tree."

Younger Daughter:  "You could do that, when you grow up to be a human."

Saturday, October 22, 2011

More Progress!

This morning Younger Daughter read the title of "Why Johnny Can't Read, and What You Can Do About it."  In general, she is doing much less guessing and much more sounding out (although if she's being careless, she still guesses — for instance,  she tried to read "knight" as "kangaroo" this morning.)

When she makes mistakes now, they are more likely to be what I think of as "good" mistakes — that is, mistakes that result from applying phonetic rules to strangely spelled words.  For instance, she was looking over my shoulder the other day, and correctly read "grown", except she pronounced it to rhyme with "crown."  In my book, that's a good mistake, but a weird spelling.  Why should "grown" and "groan" have wildly different spellings but the same pronunciation?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Patronizing Much?

In Younger Daughter's backpack this week, a helpful missive from our school district:

The Upper Tax Bracket School District values parents and teachers working together as partners to maximize the educational experience of all students. The fall Parent/Teacher Conferences ... provide an opportunity to establish early communication, develop a collaborative relationship, and create common goals. This partnership recognizes and values the teacher's expertise and the parents' unique insights as they work together to establish shared expectations for the child's social and academic growth.

As you prepare for the fall Parent/Teacher Conferences, the following ideas and questions were developed as a resource for parents.


What does my child need to work on most?

How can I help?

... HOMEWORK ...

How much time should my child be spending on homework?

Does my child assume responsibility for homework assignments?

How can I support my child at home with the responsibility of homework?


Be sure to ask the teacher for specific suggestions on ways to help your child do well.

In other words, the proposed partnership consists of the school saying "Jump!" and the well-behaved parents politely asking "How high?"

Notice that the teacher is presumed to have "expertise", while the parents can offer "unique insights".  Thanks for the partnership, guys.

I'm amazed that they think parents routinely "prepare" for teacher conferences.  Really?  The 10 minutes I've spent blogging this thing are more preparation than I've ever done before.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Feel-Good Speakers

An Anonymous commenter said:
What's INSANITY to me is that my program will, on the one hand, promote the Sir Ken video about how schools are based on the factory model and that kills divergent thinking and we need to differentiate, and then, on the other hand, they'll slobber all over how awesome WBT is.

How can they NOT see that WBT is THE MOST factory model based education system ever?? And that it is the least likely to encourage divergent thinking? I'm baffled.
Anonymous, I've had similar experiences.  I remember the time I mentioned Alfie Kohn to the former principal at our local public elementary school, Fragrant Hills.  To my amazement, she said "oh, Alfie Kohn, isn't he wonderful!  You know, we had him here for a talk."  I was momentarily struck dumb.  I thought, if she likes Alfie Kohn, why is she defending tedious homework assignments for first graders?  Why is she protecting the fifth-grade math teacher who is bullying my child into major depression?

The only explanation I can come up with is that teachers and administrators view people like Alfie Kohn and Sir Ken Robinson as inspirational speakers, and they do find them inspiring, in a transitory, feel-good sort of way.  Listening to speakers like this allows teachers to feel that what they do is noble work.  They don't confront the vast gap between the theory presented by these speakers and the actual day-to-day life of the school. 

It's like listening to a popular, charismatic preacher who gives a terrific sermon on the glories of heaven on Sunday.  Then you've got the rest of the week to go right back to your lustful, gluttonous, dishonest ways.

I've seen teachers complain that "Alfie Kohn sounds good, but he doesn't give practical tips", but now I'm starting to think that's really the key to his popularity.  If he had a practical plan, somebody might have to carry it out.  They like him better as the pie-in-the-sky visionary he is, who presents no real threat to business as usual.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Whole Brain Boo-Hoos

I've decided that one of the functions of this blog is to be a voice on the internet in opposition to Whole Brain Teaching.  Chris Biffle is relentless in purging dissent from every website he controls, such as the Whole Brain website and the various teaching videos on youtube.  I was banned from posting on his youtube sites after I asked polite questions.  So one function of Kid-Friendly Schools will be to express criticism, to correct the internet impression that WBT is universally accepted.

Also, the posts pretty much write themselves!

Here's an example of the casual cruelty that ensues when teachers are encouraged to focus on compliance, instead of the well-being of their young charges.

From the Whole Brain teaching forum:

and the boo.hoo's fell [terrible punctuation brought to you by Annette Warren, a Whole Brain model teacher!]

The power of the scoreboard was felt...and the tears fell, oh my. My first graders lost today. We counted the smilies and frownies and I won. The bet was a minute early out so a minute late is what we did. Standing behind our chairs hands over our eyes thinking how we could do better. I had stepped out the door to announce to mommies and daddies why we were late. When i came in I heard" Ms. Ladybug (they call me this) Katie is crying for real! 
Once she started another little one started, so i walked the girls out and explained they took our score board real serious, theclass I think we win tomorrow:-)

(a response from another WBT model teacher, Andrea Schindler: )

Lol those little cryin darlins!!! If I hadn't have done kinder I don't think I could have handled criers. But i learned. They stop. Sounds harsh but they really do!

Ps howd they do the next day:)?

(a follow-up from Annette Warren: )

My little cryin first graders did exceptional the next day and now all I have to say is "do I need to go to the scoreboard?" They give me the your out gesture and a loud no way. We have a little monkey under frownie star and he is holding practice tickets...he has not passed out on yet, guess we don't monkey around in first grade.

(a response from a WBT intern: )

Annette, I always smile at your posts! I am truly enjoying how powerful the scoreboard can be for so many students! I am preparing to get the students on board for practice cards. We have already been in school for 11 weeks. I think its time!!

Tee hee, what a giggle, making 6-year-old children cry.  Lovely.

P.S. I'm trying to teach model Whole Brain Teacher Farrah Shipley how to spell "comprehension". Wish me luck!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Just Add 90 Minutes

In today's NYTimes, Thomas L. Friedman writes a love letter to Rahm Emmanuel, currently the mayor of Chicago:

Emanuel’s pride and joy is the new mandate that he and his schools chief, Jean-Claude Brizard, pushed through for next year to have the school day for Chicago’s 400,000 students extended by 90 minutes and the school year by about a week. The teachers’ union leadership has accepted that this will happen but wants more say on how to use the time — and more money. Parents are thrilled, but it will clearly require more talks with the union.

Of all stupid ideas, the idea that we can improve school by making kids spend more time there is one of the worst. Kids already spend too much time at school, much of it wasted. If "parents are thrilled", as Friedman claims, it can only be because it solves some of their day care problems.

I liked this comment, from "nina":

Hogwash! We have one of the worst public school systems in the country, hence, our children are woefully unprepared. Very many of our teachers here are unequipped to handle the very bright students as well as the really behind students. The really smart ones get bored; the ones who need real help get social promotions. It is just a mess. All of the teachers lack adequate supplies (so many schools don't send textbooks home it's a shame; even in classrooms, there are often not enough books for classwork) and many of their buildings are in need of repair. So many teachers are untrained in real-world pedagogy, so a longer day just gives students more time to suffer in the classroom. Many teachers don't do an adequate job with the time they already have, so the solution is NOT to give them even more time in the day.

... I spent so much time educating my own child during k-8 that I am tired (she may as well have been home-schooled)--parents should SUPPLEMENT the training kids get at school, not the other way around! The paltry few great teachers we do have still have to work miracles without proper resources.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

None of Your Business

(My previous post was mysteriously eaten by Blogger, so I'm reposting it.)

The other day I brought Younger Daughter to school late. Everyone in the office was on the phone, so I looked around and found this form, filled it out, and gave it to the teacher.

You'll notice that in the case of either absence or lateness, the parent is required to state a reason. The implication is that the reason must be accepted by the school. If the reason isn't good enough, will you get a phone call?

It's one more subtle way that the public school tries to exert its authority, not just over the child, but over the parents.

I was astonished the first time I brought Older Daughter in late to her private school, Natural Friends. I had a conversation with the person behind the front desk that went like this:

Me: "I'm bringing Older Daughter in late this morning."
Desk-person: "OK, she can go join her class."
Me: "Do you need me to fill something out? Sign something?"
Desk-person: "Nope."

P.S. On the form for Younger Daughter, the reason I gave for her lateness was "Bad Morning." True enough.

Friday, October 14, 2011

None of Your Business

If you're having trouble reading it, the relevant lines of the form say:

Is late due to                                     Time?

Great Blunders of History, part 1

James Boutin of An Urban Teacher's Education wrote a post in response to a question I asked him about curricula for world history.  He mentioned that his goal is to present history as a series of narratives, which I agree is the most engaging approach.

For me, history is especially interesting when you get the sense that things could have gone differently.  You can get this sense by contemplating mysteries and errors.

So, here's one of my favorite historical blunders — made by an archaeologist. 

In 1907, Theodore Davis, a leading Egyptian archaeologist, was digging in the Valley of the Kings when he came across a small pit containing various funereal artifacts, one inscribed with the name of Tutankhamun.   After some further investigation, he concluded that this pit must be all that was left of the missing tomb of Tutankhamun, and since it was found, "the valley was exhausted", and there was no point to any further excavation in the Valley of the Kings.

In 1922, Howard Carter found the real tomb of Tutankhamun.  The steps leading to the tomb were less than 10 feet away from where Theodore Davis had stopped digging.

It is now believed that the cache found by Theodore Davis was the leavings of a funeral feast engaged in by the priests involved in Tutankhamun's burial.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Involve me Out!

"Include me out!" — Samuel Goldwyn.

The current emphasis on "parent involvement" started when study after study confirmed that the strongest predictor of a child's performance on standardized tests is the income level of the parents.

To me, the obvious conclusion is that the schools have no effect on student achievement, which means that most of what they do is a waste of time.  This is why we need true school reform (beginning with the curriculum!), not corporate reform.

Of course, this isn't the conclusion that educrats came to.  "Hey, the kids of middle-class parents do better academically.  We should try to make all parents behave like those middle-class parents!"  This is why we have homework in elementary school.  It's not even about the kids — it's about "parent involvement".  The fantasy is that assigning homework will result in educational family time, with Mom and kids sitting around the kitchen table, all doing their approved work — Mom balancing the checkbook, and Daughter writing her rainbow spelling words  (just listen to Janine Bempechat!).

Those of us who are already middle-class parents are rightly insulted by these attempts to strong-arm us into doing what we were already doing, and probably more effectively than the school's way.  For parents in poverty,  they may be actually unable to carry out the school's directives.  Maybe the parents can't read the instructions because they are illiterate, or don't speak English.  Maybe they're too frazzled by working a poorly-paid job that takes two hours of bus time to return home from.  Maybe the kinds of problems they face in their daily lives make the rainbow spelling words look like a cruel joke.

Schools should solve their own problems instead of trying to control parents.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Teachers Judge Parents

In the NYTimes, Parents Don't Change, But Children Do.  This is yet another essay written by a teacher complaining about parents.

The teacher says "It may be acting out, or it may be turning inward, but when there is a giant hole in a child’s life, that is one thing that is never invisible."  Well, maybe that giant hole was caused by a miserable school experience.  Maybe the child is being bullied (by a student or a teacher), maybe the child is confused by a bad curriculum, maybe the child is bored senseless. 

The teacher talks about a child whose grades went up, and says "Most children are not as self-motivated by an intrinsic desire to succeed."  It isn't possible to have an intrinsic motive to succeed if the terms of success are defined by someone else.  In other words, the desire to get good grades is not an intrinsic motive, but an extrinsic one.  The desire to learn can be an intrinsic motive, but the teacher doesn't mention it.
The teacher says, "In four years, I have never seen a parent who started out absent get involved."  In other words, in four years, the teacher has utterly failed to reach out to absent parents.  Whose fault is that?

I am one of those dutiful parents who shows up for the parent-teacher conference, and in my experience it is almost always a waste of everyone's time.

Instead of asking, "how can parents be encouraged to be involved in their child's education?", I'd rather ask, "how can schools be encouraged to take responsibility for their students' learning?"  Teachers can't control parents, as the essay notes, and their time would be better spent looking for ways to improve their own practice.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Fran Lebowitz: America Hates Smart People

From "Public Speaking":

America's always hated eggheads. When they invent the term "elite", they don't mean rich. America loves rich people. They mean smart. "We don't want these elites in here, we don't want any smart people in here."

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Alfie Kohn vs. Janine Bempechat on Homework

Here's an interesting radio debate between Alfie Kohn and Janine Bempechat about homework:

Cursed by Students, Homework Finds Skepticism Among Researchers

As I've remarked before, I don't always agree with Alfie Kohn, but I can safely say that I never agree with Janine Bempechat, from her first utterance, where she claims that homework is beneficial because "it helps kids develop the ability to endure boredom", through her summing-up (which elicits a shocked "Wow!" from Alfie Kohn):

I think fundamentally we're talking about cultural models of learning, and in all the complaints about homework, what I hear is a subtext of people feeling sorry that children have academic work to do, and I think pity is the kiss of death where children's learning is concerned.

Talk about not taking kid's unhappiness seriously!

Bempechat consistently takes the teacher's point of view, while patronizing parents and children:

Teachers like to give homework because it's a primary way to involve parents, and it's critical to involve parents in their children's learning.

After she acknowledges that the research is clear that homework has no correlation with achievement in elementary school, she goes on to say:

At the elementary school level, teachers give homework in order to foster adaptive beliefs and behaviors around learning ... it's very short-sighted to argue that we should throw homework out just because kids — it doesn't make them do any better.

So, the fact that homework doesn't help kids do better academically isn't enough to support an argument that we should throw it out? What kind of support is she looking for? Would we have to show that homework causes cancer? What?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Fran Lebowitz on Reading

I've been a Fran Lebowitz fan for a long time. She's all over youtube at the moment because of the excellent Martin Scorsese film, Public Speaking (available on Netflix!)

Here's a clip of Lebowitz discussing Austen. I was especially interested in her remarks on reading, starting at about 1:18.

To lose yourself in a book is the desire of the bookworm .. I mean to be taken.  That is my desire  ...  I want to be taken. 

... This is the opposite way that people are taught to read now -- people are consistently told, you know, "what can you learn about your own life from this novel?  What lessons will this teach you ...?  How can you use this in your ...?"  This is a Philistine idea.  This is beyond vulgar, and I think that it's an awful way to approach anything.  A book should be the same.  It should take you away.  A book is not supposed to be a mirror, it's supposed to be a door.

Foreign Policy Homework

From today's NYTimes, U.S. Envoy Puts Match to Bridges With Iraq Tell-All:

The day-to-day reconstruction projects, he argues, were done as much to satisfy the bureaucratic need to demonstrate measurable progress as actually to make measurable progress.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Goodbye, Steve Jobs

We all knew Steve Jobs was dying but it still came as a shock to hear that he had died.

Steve Jobs was the kind of genius that our society used to be good at producing.  He was a child of the '60s who took LSD and dropped out of college (which he perceived to be a rip-off of his working-class parents).  He started a company in his garage which ended as one of the most important companies in the world and changed our culture forever.

Although he worked in computers, he was never a techie.  He was all about the human interface — the comprehensible graphics, the user-friendly click wheel, the product that you can take out of the box and use immediately, without reading a manual (who wants to do that?) or installing software.

Any middle-class parent today whose young-adult child followed Steve Jobs' path would be spitting tacks.   Drop out of college, and then spend a year sleeping on your friends' floors and studying calligraphy?  Travel to India and return as a Buddhist with a shaved head?  No!  Do your homework, take your AP classes, graduate from a top-tier college, and grab one of the few well-paid jobs left!

Creativity, innovation, and genius are fostered by freedom.  Where will our next Steve Jobs come from?

"Love What You Do"

Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle.  — Steve Jobs, 2005 Stanford Commencement Address

I have extremely mixed feelings about this oft-quoted advice, for reasons I'll list here:

1.)  Steve Jobs, like a lot of men, was able to devote himself to the work he loved because he had a wife who took responsibility for running the house and raising their children.

2.)  Sometimes the work you love doesn't pay well.  If you love to paint pictures, or sing, or dance, or write a blog, or raise the aforementioned children, you are not likely to generate a living wage doing what you love.

3.)  A great deal of work is unlovable.  Bedpans must be changed, toilets must be cleaned, iPods must be assembled.  Nobody loves this work, but it must be done.  Our economy had a spot for one Steve Jobs, but thousands of toilet-cleaners.

4.)  Our society is not fair.  We don't all get the same shot at finding — and getting paid for — work we love.  Steve Jobs had all the advantages that accrue to tall white men.

5.)  Now that the global economy has been wrecked, with no relief in sight, people are less likely than ever to be able to do the work they love.  At this point, it's almost cruel to tell new college grads, probably carrying a huge load of debt, that they shouldn't "settle", when they're lucky to find a job at all.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


A recent conversation with Younger Daughter:

YD:  "I've decided to be a vegetarian."

Me:  "OK."

YD:  "It's too bad I can't have Christmas."

Me:  "No, that's being Jewish."

YD:  "... oh ... right.  Is [Older Daughter's friend] Jewish?

Me:  "Yes, she's Jewish and also vegetarian."

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Mother Speaks Out

Here's an interesting blog post from the mother whose son got kicked out of a Harlem Success Academy (first discussed in my blog here:   Cherry-Picking Charter Schools):

My Special Child, Pushed Out of Kindergarten at a NYC Charter School

I learned from this post that parents at HSA are actually required to buy their kids' uniforms!  How can that be justified for the children of the poor, in a school supported by taxpayers?

Monday, October 3, 2011

Taking Kids' Unhappiness Seriously

From The Homework Myth, by Alfie Kohn:

When our kids complain about constant, compulsory homework, some of us respond with compassion:  "Honey, I know you don't like it, but ..."  What follows that "but" is either an effort to defend the homework or an assertion of its inevitability (which suggests we're unable to defend it.)  We try to be understanding, but our message is clear:  How the child experiences the assignment ultimately doesn't matter.  "My son cries about homework every other day, and I have to tell him he has to do it", says the mother of an eight-year-old.  Other adults, meanwhile, are unsympathetic, confident that children's concerns can safely be ignored.  

... The first thing that strikes me about these two reactions, the gentle and the harsh, is that they differ in tone but not really in substance.  In the final analysis, both fail to take children's unhappiness seriously and both are therefore disrespectful.  Even more important, if we fail to appreciate the significance of children's reactions, how those reactions color the way they think about learning and about themselves, we're not just beign rude.  We're being foolish ... people of any age are less likely to derive value from doing what they experience as unpleasant or simply worthless.

From an Anonymous comment on Spelling Word Extension Activities:

While I sympathize with the fact that a lot of homework is busywork and parents might find it pointless, I fail to see how the difficulty of getting your child to do her work should be a factor in the teacher's decision as to whether or not to assign said work.

I see this argument crop up a lot amongst parents. "It takes forever just to wrangle my child into doing homework, and it eats up so much time in the evenings!!" This is usually paired with "the work is easy mind numbing busy work". So, if both of those things are true, it seems the problem is not that your child is having difficulty understanding the work, she just doesn't want to do it.

I don't want to do a lot of things- reports at work, cleaning my toilets, memorizing theorems for geometry, etc. etc.- but just not wanting to do them is not excuse enough for me not to do them. If you have such an issue getting your child to do her own homework when it is a simple spelling exercise that it seems she understands how to do perfectly well, it doesn't seem that is the fault of the teacher.

I agree with Alfie Kohn on this one. We need to take our children's unhappiness seriously. It's not trivial or irrelevant or a less worthy argument to point out that my kids avoid homework at all costs, and it's a headache to get them to do it. It's a central part of the problem. If my kids actually liked their homework, I would never have started campaigning against it.

If we're going to make our kids do something they don't want to do, we'd better have a compelling reason. If we're going to make every weekday night stressful and unpleasant for our families, it should only be because we have no other choice.

The vast majority of the homework my kids have been assigned is pointless, tedious, unnecessary busywork. It's not worth the unhappiness it causes.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Conference at the Public Elementary School

So, last Wednesday we had our first conference at the local public elementary school, Fragrant Hills, to discuss Younger Daughter's situation.  It was attended by the obligatory cast of thousands, namely:  my fed up self, Sainted Husband, YD's first grade teacher, her student teacher, the principal, the reading specialist, a district teacher trainer, the school counselor, and a district school psychologist.

The meeting began with me asking the first grade teacher whether YD's behavior had been OK so far.  To my immense relief, she said it had.  Sure, YD could be loud, or stubborn, but it was within normal bounds and the teacher was able to work with her.  Hallelujah!  (I believe I even said that.)

The school had done a bunch of assessments with Younger Daughter.  To no-one's surprise, she is below grade level on both reading and math.  The reading specialist said, "with your permission, I'd like to pull Younger Daughter out for intensive reading help, especially phonics."  Me:  "Yes, please!"

I explained that we had been working hard on reading with YD at home.  I wonder if the day will ever come that someone from the school shows an interest in this, or asks what techniques or methods I'm using.  As it was, nobody responded.  I said that we were trying to get Younger Daughter out of the habit of guessing at words, and I gave a recent example, where she looked at the word "bats" and, instead of sounding it out (as I've seen her do successfully!), guessed "basket".

Later in the meeting the first grade teacher said that she would send home little books that they were reading in class, and the teacher trainer chimed in enthusiastically that we should work on these books with Younger Daughter, because she had already heard them read, and knew the story and the vocabulary.  I didn't argue with them, but this is exactly what I don't want; it's too easy for YD to guess and fake her way through a book that she's already familiar with.  I'll stick to our own books and phonics drills.

The district psychologist asked whether we had followed up on the recommendations in the report written by the psychologist who observed Younger Daughter back at Natural Friends.  The recommendations were all about getting Younger Daughter assessed for an alphabet soup of possible diagnoses.  I said that we hadn't done any of that, and I was skeptical of the recommendations.  I said that I now believed that Younger Daughter's problem was a mismatch between the teaching methods used by her previous school and her particular needs, and I don't think Younger Daughter has any medical problem.

And that was pretty much it!  All in all, I think it went very well.  Everyone in the room seemed confident that they could work with Younger Daughter.