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?


  1. What a blast from the past! My 9th grade English teacher insisted we all take notes in this same format! This meant he spent about half of his instructional time whining and complaining and yelling at his students for not taking notes in this format, or doing it poorly. It was the most humorous boondoggle.

    I have no idea whether taking notes in this format might be useful, because it was much more fun to antagonize our teacher by failing to do it than it would have been to do it properly.

    The other thing that got his goat was our choice of reading material. He used to go into perorations about terrible books we must never read (e.g. The Happy Hooker), and I would rush out and get them immediately.

    I literally can't remember any of the books he assigned or any thing he said about any of them, but I'll never forget his paroxysms of anger about our failure to take notes on them properly according to his fussy little plan, and his impressive moral outrage upon confiscating his backhanded recommendations. I wonder what happened to that poor sod.

    The one other thing I remember about that class is that he always liked to open the windows, which lead to an inevitable paper plane arms race. It was mad props to any kid who could get one all the way across the room and out the window before he turned around again. Ah, youth!

    Later on, while finishing a PhD, I developed a similar note-taking method, but I used only the right-hand side pages for taking the notes, and the left-hand side pages for pulling out main ideas and writing longer summaries. It worked better.

  2. Great story, Anonymous! I can't believe your teacher was stupid enough to mention The Happy Hooker to a classroom full of 9th graders. What was he thinking?

  3. I absolutely hated writing summaries of anything in elementary school. It didn't matter if I thought the book was absolutely mesmerizing and read through it all the way to the end when we'd only had to read one chapter — ask me to do a summary, and it'd be bare minimum effort.

    I also hate the interest in trivialities. I was amazed at how much time and effort were wasted in the elementary schools where I worked with things like, "Math homework goes in the red folder. No no no, the RED folder. Ricky, what color is that? It looks like green to me. You can't find your red folder? I think you'd better clean your desk out during recess."

    By the time I got to about 5th grade, I had figured out a system for organizing notes and homework that worked for me and didn't require taking home 30 pounds of books and notebooks every night. But inevitably it'd get screwed up by my teacher insisting her way was the best way.

  4. My school has really pushed Cornell notes these past couple of years. I feel "meh" about them, too. I think if one department did them habitually - like say, English - it would have a stronger effect than trying to force all teachers and kids in ALL classes to do them ALL the time. In other words, it never hurts to be taught a new learning strategy. Sometimes a strategy will really "take" with a kid who might be struggling with some aspect of the academic experience. So putting the strategy out there and making sure the kids understand it is a good idea.

    But the problem with public schools is that they latch on to one semi-good idea and assume it will be a panacea for every problem there is. The kids aren't studying for the tests? Cornell notes will solve that! The kids aren't reviewing their key terms? Cornell notes will solve that! The kids aren't engaging with the material? Cornell notes will solve that!

    No one strategy is going to be engaging to every kid, and I think that kids should have some flexibility in finding and using academic strategies that work for them. Also, no ONE idea/strategy/solution will solve the very complex problems that public schools are facing. Cornell notes are like putting a Band-Aid on severed limb.

  5. Re: Assigning summary writing from notes as homework- Speaking for my kids' (3rd and 6th graders) school- the literature they read is already distilled down to scant summaries. Summarizing a summary doesn't sound enriching to me.
    The main idea here is getting the students to review new material within twenty-four hours. I'm thinking the best way to achieve that is to do it in class. And not by choosing a couple of students to read their homework in class. Miss L, you may find the kids you're most hoping to reach will rather gamble on not being called on than reviewing the material on their own.
    Note taking was very helpful to me in college- though I rarely used my notes for studying, the act of writing during lecture increased my attention, understanding and memory.
    Most important and helpful though was always a great lecturer. The best ones did many of the same things.
    They used the board and wrote down key terms, diagrams etc. (If a professor went through the effort on the board, I certainly took notes on it.)
    They referred to the assigned books, at times directly teaching from the book.
    They gave great examples- usually more than one.
    Some of those examples would take the form of a story.
    They were masters of their subjects; they didn't b.s. their way through.

    (I can imagine, for my 6th grade son note taking would be an irritating waste of time, for the younger son- it might be irritating, but potentially helpful to him- though very challenging for him. A good teacher would certainly model the note taking on the board. If lessons were given mainly orally, I imagine he'd be overwhelmed and lost. (as I believe does happen to him now)

    TeacHer, at my kids' school, they really push this "UNRAAVEL" reading strategy for everyone. My son has been marked wrong for not using a highlighter on a reading passage though correctly answering the question.

  6. I'll provide a true link:

    Unraavel Reading Comprehension Strategy

    I think it's misleading to call this method "Reading Comprehension": it's really about test-taking, as the references to the questions at the end make clear. (Think how confused the kids will be when they read an actual book that doesn't have questions at the end of every paragraph!)

    Actually, this explains something I've been wondering about for a long time: the "reading comprehension" strategies pushed by the District of Upper Tax Bracket. If you see them as test-taking strategies, they start to make sense, in a twisted sort of way.

  7. Yep, FedUp, it's definitely a multiple choice test strategy- and not one I would ever use personally. Actually reading the passage in question is sixth on the list!
    I was giving another example like TeacHer's school demanding the entire staff and student body use Cornell notes- Our school paid a consultant (Larry Bell in the case of "UNRAAVEL") and put up purchased laminated posters everywhere.
    Link to a sixty dollar vinyl poster of "Twelve Powerful Words" (which will Raise those test scores!)

  8. I have nothing against learning how to take notes and summarise as I'm one of those people who thinks that everything's important so I waste time writing down every minuscule detail. However, I think that different note-taking strategies should be recommendations rather than requirements, and that students be shown several different methods so that they can experiment with them to see what works best.

    Re: the reading comprehension strategies... I found that odd and even mildly disturbing. Why is underlining the title and making connections to stuff you haven't read yet so important?