Friday, March 30, 2012

How Not to Teach Art

In the NYTimes today, a review of Draw it With Your Eyes Closed, a book about teaching art.

Apparently this is a compilation of terrible art assignments that various art teachers thought were a good idea. I admit I was momentarily intrigued by "Redesign the human genitals so that they might be more equitable", but I wouldn't want to do that assignment, nor do I think it teaches art. Mechanical engineering, maybe, but art?

There’s a lot of (legitimate) pushback to the notion that art can be taught, or that assignments do anything except promote subservience and callow grade grubbing.

While I agree with the observation about the effects of assignments, I believe a great deal of art can and should be taught; namely the basic skills, such as drawing, perspective, color mixing, etc. Heck, one of the most useful things I ever learned from a painting teacher was how to clean my brushes! Art history is well worth teaching too. The part that can't be taught is the creative spark, and art teachers should step carefully and try not to extinguish it.

The editors note that “many of the anti-assignments collected in this book use the slippery logic of ‘I command you to disobey me’ and other infamous tricks of the oracle.”

Hmm ... this reminds me of Jessica Lahey and her attempt to make deep connections with her students by ordering them to write revealing personal essays, graded by her.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Whole Brain Teaching Rakes in the Shekels

Due to a reader's comment ("Whole Brain Teaching is FREE!"), I've decided to collect articles about the money being made by Chris Biffle and his Whole Brain Teaching system.

First up, I've posted on this subject twice:

Whole Brain Teaching for Profit

There's Gold in Them Thar Brains

Next, two commenters, Anonymous and Another Hole Brain Director, have chased down the following links: (Thanks to both of you for your efforts!):

2011 - 2012: Desert Sands Unified School District:
Provide Staff Training and Support on Whole Brain Teaching ... Chris Biffle, Consultant; $6,000.00 (page 7)
Nov. 2011: Lancaster School District:
Chris Biffle will teach Whole Brain Teaching to 3d Grade Teachers for $2,500.00 (item 41)
Oct. 2010 - March 2011: Gilroy Unified School District:
Contract not to exceed $10,000 for Chris Biffle to teach Whole Brain Teaching
April 16, 2011 & May 7, 2011: Lemon Grove School District:
2 one-day Whole Brain Teaching seminars: $3,700.00 to Service Provider Chris Biffle (pg. 15)
July 2009: San Bernardino City Unified School District:
Chris Biffle to present workshop on "Power Teaching Challenging Students" — not to exceed $1,500.00
Aug. 2009: Hemet Unified School District:
Approval to Hire Christopher Biffle; not to exceed $12,500.00 (item K-23)
Aug. 2008: Hemet Unified School District:
Approval to Authorize Hiring Chris Biffle; not to exceed $5,500 (item K-49)
Feb. 2008: San Bernardino City Unified School District:
Urbita Elementary School to hire Chris Biffle to present two two-hour workshops — not to exceed $700.00

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Textbooks in the Olden Days

From On the Banks of Plum Creek, by Laura Ingalls Wilder:

Then Ma took them into the bedroom. She knelt down by the box where she kept her best things, and she took out three books. They were the books she had studied when she was a little girl. One was a speller, and one was a reader, and one was a 'rithmetic.

She looked solemnly at Mary and Laura, and they were solemn, too.

"I am giving you these books for your very own, Mary and Laura," Ma said. "I know you will take care of them and study them faithfully."

Imagine a world where textbooks could be handed down from mother to daughter. How did the publishers make money?

Those of us with late readers in the family will be pleased to hear that Laura was at least 7 when she started school in Plum Creek, and she barely knew the alphabet. Her future husband Almanzo was still in the primer class at the age of 9. It doesn't seem to have held them back much ...

Monday, March 19, 2012

Rearranging Deck Chairs on the Titanic

A commenter asked me what I think of this blog post:

Luria Learning Blog: The Perfect Homework — 4th Grade and Up

What do I think of it? I think "meh".

The post bemoans what a hassle homework is — for teachers. I don't doubt it. But instead of asking the deeper questions about what the homework is for, and while we're at it, what the schoolday is for, she proposes teaching a particular system of note-taking, and having the kids write summaries of their notes every night for homework.

Well, maybe that solves something for the teacher, but I don't see it solving much for the kids. If they don't care about the material, or didn't understand it, not much will be achieved by their writing a summary. How many summaries will they have to write before they loathe the whole process? (Not many, for my kids.) It's only 4th grade, so it's still really the parents' responsibility to see that it gets done.

This is something I see in a lot of teachers' forums and blogs: an obsessive interest in trivialities. Should I organize with colored folders or numbered tags? Who the hell cares?

Kids Learn What They Want to Learn

From Satan is Real, by Charlie Louvin:
... when we got enough tobacco together, we'd wander off and get some brown paper sacks, chew the edge up, and roll us some cigarettes. I was only five when I learned to roll a cigarette. I had to, because nobody would help me.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

School Uniforms and Gender Messages

Hienuri mentioned in a recent comment that in his country almost all students wear a uniform. Here in the U.S., uniforms are worn mostly in Catholic schools, some private schools, some charter schools, and a few public schools. I have never worn a uniform to school; neither have my kids.

The last time I saw a lot of kids in uniform is when we were visiting England, where school uniforms are standard for both state-run and private schools. The part that interests me is how girls are dressed for school. They wear neckties and blazers, which in every other context are only worn by boys and men. What's the message here? I think the uniform says that for the purpose of school girls are honorary boys. As we all know, a girl being dressed or treated as a boy is taking a step up, whereas a boy being treated or dressed as a girl is being humiliated. (Thanks, guys!)

It's partly a historical accident. School uniforms were originally designed for boys because only boys went to school. When schooling became more customary for girls, it was easier to just fold them into the existing structure. The school uniform tells us that male students are the norm, and female students are an afterthought. (Similarly, in the U.S. we have school sports teams that are called the "Lady X", where X is the school mascot. The message is that the male team is the norm, and the female team is an afterthought.)

While girls are dressed as honorary boys from the waist up, they wear skirts below. We can't have them wearing the pants! The skirt in the uniform would have just about killed me as a child, if I had to wear them; I hated anything girly. Thank God I grew up at a time of unisex children's clothing.

Schoolgirl uniforms usually have short skirts; this dates back to a time when short skirts for girls, matched by short pants for boys, were a signifier of childhood. (My father once mentioned his "first pair of long pants" as a big moment for him.) Today, little boys are no longer dressed in short pants, but the short skirt remains in the schoolgirls' uniform, where it is now wildly inappropriate. Catholic schoolgirls in our area routinely hike their skirts up to show as much leg as possible, and you can imagine the distracting effect this has on the boys. It would be more modest to put the girls in pants, which doesn't mean it'll happen any time soon.

Cross-cultural footnote: I'm using "pants" in the American sense, meaning "trousers", not in the British sense, meaning "underpants."

A Response from the Principal of Fragrant Hills

This goes in the bulging file entitled "I Don't Get It":
Dear FedUpMom,

Thank you for your email. I am sorry that the morning routine was difficult one. I do want to explain that our school colors are black and gold and there are times throughout the school year in which we have spirit days and we do encourage the children to wear these colors. It is not mandated and we want for families to feel comfortable with what the children are wearing to school.

The PSSAs are a stressful assessment. The goal of the Basketball game this afternoon was for the staff members to play a short game with the children cheering as a way to come together as a school community in a fun way and for the students see us working hard and doing our best- even basketball is not a sport in which we excel. We saw this as a way to model for the students that we want for them all to do their best and work as a team when appropriate. The goal of the afternoon was not to celebrate the PSSAs but rather to celebrate the hard work the children engaged in this school year.

I hope that this provides some additional insight into the goal of this afternoon and we will be very mindful of your feedback when we are holding spirit days in the future.

[Principal of Fragrant Hills Elementary School]
What the #$%^@&*#? The kids were cheering while the teachers played basketball? What could possibly be the point? I can guarantee you that my daughter would have vastly preferred running around the court herself, and gotten a lot more out of it.

What does the PSSA have to do with teamwork? If the kids try to help each other on the test, it's called cheating. (Does the school want that?)

I'm glad I don't work in that school — I don't know the rules for basketball! (Yet another example of assuming that sports are a universal interest.) I'm sure Younger Daughter doesn't know the rules for basketball either.

This doesn't descend to the level of Stupid Principal Tricks, but I think it shows the same myopia and lack of understanding of the child's point of view. I don't think young children find it the least bit reassuring to watch their teachers do something badly. They know the teachers are in charge and they want to be able to trust them and feel confident in their judgement.

I could never have predicted when Older Daughter first started school the sheer level of wackiness of the stuff that goes on. People can have debates about whether schools are too traditional or too progressive, but stuff like this doesn't fall clearly into any camp. It's just head-scratching peculiar.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Another e-mail to Fragrant Hills

To the Principal:

Younger Daughter missed the bus to school today because I discovered at the last possible moment that she was supposed to wear black. She refused to go to school without black clothes. She doesn't have any black clothes (I'm not a fan of black clothes for young children.) I eventually put her in one of her older sister's black shirts.

Then I found the notation in her homework folder that she's supposed to wear black for a PSSA pep rally! I am completely opposed to the current focus on standardized tests, which in my (widely shared) opinion is wrecking public education. It's bad enough that you're holding a pep rally for a standardized test, but to ask me to dress my child to show support is too much. Please don't do this again.

Sincerely, FedUpMom

She Had to Wear Black

Another fun morning in the FedUp household ...

I woke Younger Daughter about 10 minutes before her bus would arrive. I got her some new clothes and told her to get dressed.

Younger Daughter: "I have to wear black* clothes today! It's for a game!"

Me: "What? You don't have any black clothes! Nobody told me about this! The bus will be here in 5 minutes!"

I dug around and found the darkest clothes I could — dark purple and green. She sulked and refused to put them on. After a brief tantrum (mine), I eventually found a black t-shirt belonging to Older Daughter (as a card-carrying teenager, she has plenty of black clothes), which Younger Daughter wore as a sort of dress over her own clothes.

You can imagine my feelings when I finally found the notation in Younger Daughter's homework folder — she's supposed to wear black for a PSSA (standardized test) pep rally. AAARGH!

* I suppose I should explain that the school colors are black and yellow. Since when does an elementary school have school colors?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Jessica Lahey and the Myth of Too Much Homework

In the NYTimes Motherlode column, Jessica Lahey opines on The Destructive "Too Much Homework" Myth.

She claims that there is no problem of homework overload, and if there is, it only applies to "uptown" middle-class parents, so it's not worthy of national attention. Thanks a whole arfin' lot.

Interviewing a Family Member

Please do let me know if there is an assignment such as interviewing a family member — something that simply couldn't be done at school but that is important to the things you're doing in class — and we'll be happy to work on that together. — from an anonymous parent letter on Alfie Kohn's website.
The above quote is one reason I initially thought that Alfie Kohn had written the parent letter himself — it's right out of his book The Homework Myth (which I mostly recommend highly):
"Why can't they just do this at school?" is a reasonable question to ask ... But it's a question that answers itself in the case of certain assignments, such as having children interview parents about their family history ...
Interviewing parents is one of those ideas that sounds good in theory but, in practice, is a raging pain in the rosy arse*.

First of all, many kids don't have a family member who is available to be interviewed, even in the high-achieving suburbs, and it's not fair to put these kids on the spot.

Second, parents and kids alike are burnt out by the constant demands of school. I know we are in my family. The interview assignment would not come across as a welcome "meaningful" assignment; it would come across as one more invasion of what used to be our free time.

Third, I can't believe the parent of a first grader would mention the family interview as a reasonable assignment. Maybe her kid is precocious, but I think an interview would be way beyond the capacity of most 6-year-olds. My 8-yr-old second grader couldn't conduct an assigned interview (although she does a good job of quizzing us on certain subjects, like her adoption. But I digress.)

I would like to see no more homework that requires parent participation. Let the teachers teach the students, and only assign appropriate homework that the students can reasonably take complete responsibility for. That means no homework in elementary school, when kids aren't old enough to have the organizing skills that homework requires. Then, when the kids are old enough for homework, it should be minimal, and only assigned when necessary for learning the material (yes, there should be actual identifiable content that the kids are learning.)

It shouldn't be a part-time job for parents to send their kids to school. Enough already. Involve me out!

* please excuse the British spelling; I've been watching too much Downton Abbey!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Truy Misplaced Modifiers

After a long and rather confusing discussion over at kitchen table math, I believe we've reached a consensus that Groucho's sentence, "I shot an elephant in my pajamas", is NOT an example of a misplaced modifier.

In the interest of helping Catherine's writing students, I proposed the following example of a truly misplaced modifier:

Some years ago I was listening to the radio and an ad for an amusement park came on. The slogan at the end was: "XYZ Amusement Park — it's just not for kids any more!"

Now there's a seriously misplaced modifier ("just"). They wanted to say that XYZ Amusement Park was fun for both adults and kids, but instead they implied that they don't even allow kids any more. Of course, they should have said "it's not just for kids any more."

Readers, if you have more examples of truly misplaced modifiers, please send 'em on in!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Bad Advice from English Teachers

Older Daughter is in an English class where they write multiple drafts of every paper. One recent draft was "corrected" by other students. Older Daughter got a comment from the correcting student that said "Remember, don't use ; or :. They're not formal!"

Sainted Husband sent the English teacher an e-mail saying that he's published several books and served as the head of the linguistics department at a famous university and has never heard that there was anything wrong with ; or :. He got an e-mail back from the English teacher, who said that he discourages the use of ; and : because "the kids write so many run-on sentences."

Well, wouldn't it be better to teach the correct use of ; and :, instead of giving the kids the impression there's something wrong with them?

In another example of bad advice from English teachers, I was very surprised to read this post on Catherine Johnson's teaching blog, about Groucho Marx's famous elephant joke. I usually agree with Catherine, who is a founder of the kitchen table math blog, but not this time.

The Groucho joke is not an example of a misplaced modifier; there's nothing wrong with his original statement, "I shot an elephant in my pajamas." Linguists would describe it as grammatically ambiguous but pragmatically unambiguous. That's why the joke works; grammatically, it's possible that the elephant is wearing the pajamas, but pragmatically, everyone hearing the statement for the first time assumes that the speaker is wearing the pajamas.

Catherine's proposed "correction" (really, there's nothing to correct) is that the statement should have been "Wearing my pajamas, I shot an elephant." This is in no way more correct or preferable to "I shot an elephant in my pajamas."

Ambiguity is an inevitable part of natural language. It's not a bug, it's a feature! There's no getting rid of it.

Here's an example of ambiguity used by linguists: "I saw a man with a telescope." Did the speaker see a man by looking through a telescope, or was the man that he saw holding a telescope? This one is both grammatically and pragmatically ambiguous.

Here's another one: "Visiting relatives can be boring." Is the activity of visiting relatives potentially boring, or are the relatives visiting you potentially boring? Again, this one is both grammatically and pragmatically ambiguous.

For more discussion of different types of ambiguity, see this post about writing recommendations: Linguistic Humor, Ambiguous recommendations.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Duty of the Student

From The Golden Treasury of Poetry, edited by Louis Untermyer:
It is the duty of the student
Without exception to be prudent.
If smarter than his teacher, tact
Demands that he conceal the fact.