Monday, February 27, 2012

Recess: Downton Abbey

(This is wildly off-topic, but it's my blog. If you're not interested, skip this post, and come back later. I promise I'll get back on topic!)

In company with millions of others, I've recently become addicted to the Downton Abbey series. For me, the appeal is mostly visual; the magnificent Highclere Castle, the antique cars, the costumes. Then there's Maggie Smith; I'd happily tune in to listen to her read the tax code in that haughty voice.

I get a kick out of the scenes of Lord Grantham being dressed and undressed by his various valets. In my real life, all the men I know well are academics; basically, we're lucky if they remember to get dressed at all. Perhaps as a result, I have long been fascinated by all the bits and pieces of men's formal wear. They take off the jacket, and there's a vest (the Brits call it a "waistcoat" — keep up, already!) and those funny garters on the sleeves, then they take off the vest and there's suspenders ("braces") underneath; it's a fascinating package enclosing the rather yummy Hugh Bonneville.

The dialogue can be fun, especially Maggie Smith's lines, and the occasional telling remark from other members of the cast, for instance, Lady Grantham's observation: "You think raising daughters will be like "Little Women", but they're at each other's throats from dawn to dusk." I liked this moment with the obligatory more-snobby-than-the-toffs butler, Carson:
Lord Grantham (talking about his previous chauffeur): "And to think Taylor's gone off to run a tea shop! I cannot feel it will make for a very restful retirement, can you?"

Carson: "I would rather be put to death, my lord."

Lord Grantham: " ... quite so."
Downton Abbey is replete with strange, cold-fish romances. I realize it's a British production, but couldn't they have scraped up a little passion somewhere? Even the stunning youngest daughter, Sibyl, generates no apparent heat with the man she will eventually marry. (As someone wrote on an imdb board, "if you're going to run off with the help, shouldn't it be at least a little bit sexy?") Either this plotline was badly written and directed, or possibly it's telegraphing that Sibyl was only interested in Branson as her ticket out of Downton Abbey, and she'll become disillusioned with him over time. We'll see.

The central romance of Matthew and Mary got spun out way too long and got snagged on too many ridiculous scruples ("but I might conceivably offend the memory of my now-dead fiancée!") I find Mary completely unsympathetic, and I can't get too interested in Matthew. They've got some terrible lines to say, for instance when Mary confesses her episode with the Turkish diplomat:
Mary: "I'm Tess of the D'urbervilles to your Angel Clare, I have fallen, I am impure!"

Matthew: "Don't joke, don't make it little, not when I'm trying to understand."

Mary: "Thank you for that."
(What was Julian Fellowes smoking when he wrote this crap?)

The most successful romance, for me, is Edith with Sir Anthony Strallen. They seem genuinely fond of each other, which is more than I can say for Matthew and Mary or Sibyl and Branson. I find Sir Anthony likeable (not "dull as paint", as Lord Grantham claims) and his goofy, manic smile charming. He's old for Edith, and now he's lost the use of one arm, but there weren't a lot of marriageable men left after the Great War. I predict these two will be married by the end of Season 3 (you heard it here first!).

I liked Bates at first, but his continual martyrdom became tiresome ("excuse me while I interrupt the obvious arc of the plot in order to tie myself naked to a tree and get shot full of arrows!") Who murdered his wife? My money's on Sir Richard Carlisle.

Readers, have you been watching Downton Abbey, or am I alone in this? Any thoughts?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Crayola Curriculum, circa 1933

Older Daughter is reading To Kill A Mockingbird for her 8th-grade English class. I was intrigued by this passage:

The remainder of my schooldays were no more auspicious than the first. Indeed, they were an endless Project that slowly evolved into a Unit, in which miles of construction paper and wax crayon were expended by the State of Alabama in its well-meaning but fruitless efforts to teach me Group Dynamics. What Jem called the Dewey Decimal System was school-wide by the end of my first year, so I had no chance to compare it with other teaching techiniques. I could only look around me: Atticus and my uncle, who went to school at home, knew everything — at least, what one didn't know the other did. ... as I inched sluggishly along the treadmill of the Maycomb County school system, I could not help receiving the impression that I was being cheated out of something. Out of what I knew not, yet I did not believe that twelve years of unrelieved boredom was exactly what the state had in mind for me.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Comments on "I Hate Homework. I Assign It Anyway."

Some of the comments to "I Hate Homework. I Assign It Anyway" were terrific. Here's a few that I especially liked:

Uly, NY

Of course your students said they need homework. This is what they've been told every day since they were very small, by their parents and every one of their teachers. They believe it, but their belief is no evidence.

(And that's assuming that they answered honestly instead of trying to give the answer they thought you wanted to hear!)

Why not make homework optional, saying it's for those kids who think they need extra practice OR who have failed a pre-test on the subject (and who therefore have PROVEN they need the extra practice!)?

Scott B., Claremont, CA

Lahey thinks she's sealed the case for homework by asking her students, but she makes a basic error of research in so claiming. These students have been doing homework all their lives. For them to pronounce all those hours worthless would induce cognitive dissonance, so any research psychologist would predict that they would rationalize their answer to validate their behavior. There may be a good reason to assign some homework, but the opinion of students forced to do it cannot count as one of them.

Cheryl, Houston

Do you have students in schools now? It really has changed. My daughter in freshman year in high school was learning biology concepts that my husband, who has a phD in biochemistry, didn't learn until he was a graduate student. My dad, in his 80s, didn't take algebra until college, I took it in high school, my kids take it in middle school. The process may have started when you were in school but it has continued -- and the pendulum has, in my opinion, swung too far the other way.

As for homework amounts--

My husband, now a doctor, works monster hours, 14 hours a day is the norm, to the point where I worry about his health. However, my kids leave the house at the same time he does, but when he gets home, at 9 or 10 o'clock, the kids (ages 16 and 13) are still working ... on their homework. School till 4, sports practice till 5:30. They rush through dinner and showers, tackle the 3 hours of homework their schools pride themselves on assigning every night, and then, if they're to get anywhere near enough sleep, it's off to bed. It is not uncommon for them to fall asleep over their books -- or to break down in tears.

Unlike you at their ages, they have NO free time. I am alarmed to see my kids -- who are still children-- associate learning with feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, with no end in sight. Unlike you, I do not think that kids today are whiners who don't want to work hard; I think we, the adults, have taken things too far and are actually doing them harm.

bookworm, new york city

I homeschooled my two children until high school and struggled on and off over whether it was the right decision.

This year, my daughter started high school and has been inundated in homework, staying up until 1 or 2 am.

My main complaints are these:

1. It is too difficult for students when every teacher gives homework every day. Trying to navigate 7 or 8 classes of homework is maddening.

2. Homework becomes a penalty for conscientious students. Schools think that more homework will translate into better students, but indifferent students just ignore the homework and dedicated students who need the homework less are then saddled with more than they need.

3. Teachers make assignments without seeing the impact on the students. For finals week you would think that homework overall would be minimal so that students could study for tests, but instead teachers liberally applied homework, so students had no time to study for their finals because they were too busy doing homework for other classes.

4. Breaks should be homework-free. Kids need downtime. Why have a break if you're spending all your time doing homework?

After half a year in school, I'm glad I homeschooled my kids. Their learning didn't suffer and they had time to learn and play. Now my daughter is missing swim team, studio art, sleep, and free time. The school keeps emailing parents about fantastic opportunities that the kids can apply for...but who has time when there's all this homework to do?

wms, kansas

I am the parent of a second grader and of a first grader. I, too, hate homework. At this point in their lives it is simply busy work. Any homework my son can fly through in less than 5 minutes is not serving to reinforce anything. It is simply a mindless task assigned to fulfill some district guideline.

I don't think that any homework should be assigned in the elementary grades at all unless a child's teacher sees that s/he needs the supplementary practice as evidenced by his/her classroom performance. Beyond that, it has virtually no benefit and takes away time from family, exercise, free time to explore their own personal interests, and time with friends.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Respectful Individuals

From a forum linked to kitchen table math, here's the graduation goals for one school district:

A graduate of the Eastchester Schools will be:

* A respectful individual
* A life-long learner
* An effective communicator
* A complex thinker and problem solver
* A competent and responsible user of technology

How did "a respectful individual" get to the top of the list?

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Education Gap Follows Income Inequality

In today's NYTimes, Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Show.
One reason for the growing gap in achievement, researchers say, could be that wealthy parents invest more time and money than ever before in their children (in weekend sports, ballet, music lessons, math tutors, and in overall involvement in their children’s schools) ...
“The pattern of privileged families today is intensive cultivation,” said Dr. Furstenberg, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. 
Tell me about it!

Flunking the Brilliant Student

I am sorry for whatever experience you had with education that got you this upset ... — Jessica Lahey.
Let's start here. Many years ago,  I was in a high school English class that was studying Othello. I wrote a paper called "Iago's Death" that expressed my opinion that Shakespeare put Iago's death offstage (in contrast to every other Shakespeare tragedy in which every important character dies onstage) because by the end of the play Iago had evolved into a much more interesting character than Othello, and if Shakespeare had allowed Iago an onstage death he would have become the star of the show.

My English teacher said the paper was brilliant, gave it an A+, and told me that for the next paper he wanted me to expand on the ideas in the first paper. This was a very difficult assignment for me because I had pretty much said what I had to say in the first paper, and I didn't feel I had anything to add to it. However, I gave it my best shot, and after staying up all night, I managed to produce a longer version of the first paper.

My English teacher gave the second paper a C. He said it would have been an A paper from anyone else, but he expected more from me.

Was this a motivating experience for me? It was not. I decided that the game was rigged against me and I didn't want to play it any more. That was the end of my brief good-student period.

(This was in one of the highest-regarded public school districts in the country, by the way.)

I am beyond skeptical of the alleged character-building effects of bad grades given to good students, touted not only by Jessica Lahey in her blog, but by luminaries like the New York Times.

I've heard teachers say that they look for opportunities to give bad grades to good students because "it teaches them that it's OK to fail". Of course, they don't really mean that. No-one wants these kids to decide that it's perfectly OK to fail the occasional assignment — hey, why not the entire course? — and go to the local community college instead of a name college.

Nor will the occasional bad grade turn a previously grade-grubbing robostudent into an inwardly motivated free spirit (and again, nobody actually wants that result.)

Grade-grubbing robostudents are the natural product of a system that constantly grades students' performance, with the underlying threat that their future depends on their high school transcript. You can't cure them with the occasional personal reflection essay, graded by the teacher. You can't cure them with the occasional bad grade. Deep problems demand deep change.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Exploring Outside the Comfort Zone

I had the following exchange with Jessica Lahey on her blog, and it was so remarkable I thought it was worth re-posting here.

(Quick recap: Jessica Lahey describes assigning a personal reflection essay to her 8th grade English class. She gave one previously straight-A student a 0 on his first draft because she felt it wasn't revealing enough.)
Feb 7, 2012 08:12 AM

There's a basic contradiction here. You're telling the kids, "Dig deep! Express yourself! Find out who you really are!" ... and then you hand out a 0 if the kid doesn't express himself the way YOU wanted him to.

It's still all about pleasing you; the kids just have to pretend that it's all about finding themselves. It's a head game.

It reminds me of the many homework assignments we've received, that, after a long list of rules and requirements, say at the end: "Have fun! Be creative!" That's not how life works. The kids can't have fun and be creative while simultaneously carrying out all of the teacher's commands to the teacher's satisfaction.
Jessica Lahey
Feb 7, 2012 08:26 AM

He had a zero for about 24 hours, and he understood it to be a temporary "try again." I suppose there's a certain amount of "you had to be there" to understand the entire situation and experience of my students. I understand that you are very angry and frustrated with schools and teachers that do not take the feelings of students into account, and I absolutely agree. However, it is my JOB to challenge students to dig deeper, look further, ask more of themselves when they need to. Teachers do need to foster, support, and encourage children in order to help them achieve all they can be, but we must also challenge kids to be their best, and sometimes that can make students uncomfortable.

I am sorry for whatever experience you had with education that got you this upset, but really, I am, and always will be on the side of the kids and their emotional and academic needs. I promise, we - teachers who ask kids to explore outside of their comfort zones - are not the enemy.

Well, if she asked the kids to explore outside their comfort zones by presenting them with challenging intellectual problems, I might be okay with it. But I don't see any reason, or excuse, for pushing adolescents out of their emotional comfort zone, by making them write revealing personal essays. How is that education?

Words Fail Me

In the NYTimes today, School Linked to Sex-Abuse Claims Will Replace Faculty.

Reading the Signs

Younger Daughter's reading has improved to the point that she often reads signs when we're out and about. The other day I was about to step into an elevator when YD called out urgently: "Mom! Don't get in! The sign says 'Do not use elevator!'"

Me: "Read the next line."

YD: " ... in case of fire. Oh."

Monday, February 6, 2012

Reading Disabilities and Comprehension

From a comment to Dyslexia's Silver Lining, in the NYTimes:
Eastern WA

This is something I've noticed over the years with my students with a reading SLD (specific learning disability, about which there is absolutely nothing specific except the kid). Usually they have other marked strengths; it makes sense to me that visualization would be one of them. Often they also adept at anything hands on. In a school setting these kids almost uniformly test as behind in reading comprehension along with decoding, but I have found that almost uniformly this is not the case. It's a result of the test used to assess comprehension; the child, who may have little to no decoding skills at all, is required to read a passage and answer questions about it. If they could just figure out the words, most of them could answer just fine. So they are stuck in silly (for them) comprehension programs when they should be spending all their time decoding.

I think this describes my Younger Daughter. The school is always doing comprehension exercises with her, when, in my humble (!) opinion, the real problem is decoding. I don't think she has any problem with comprehension.

The Teacher Says I Can't Read That

So, I picked up Blizzard of the Blue Moon at a nearby garage sale. When I brought it home, Younger Daughter, attracted to the unicorn on the cover, said, "I want to read that!". Then she leafed through the book and said, sadly, "I can't read this yet."

Me: "Of course you can! Read it to me, and if you get stuck, I'll help you."

YD: "Mrs. Second says I'm not ready for chapter books. I'm only on level H."

This is how "balanced literacy" cripples kids. Since reading isn't taught phonetically, and is believed to be about memorizing words on a word list, the reading a kid can possibly do is restricted to books containing only the very limited vocabulary that they've memorized so far.

And here's something I honestly don't understand — we've been working hard on YD's reading all year, and she's made tremendous progress, but her reading level at school has hardly budged. I'm not the only one noticing this: here's a comment from a forum where a mother describes a similar situation with her son:
He is reading books such as "Runaway Ralph", the Junie B series, the Magic Treehouse series for fun, which are all at reading level M-O, yet at school the teacher identified him as level D (on A-Z reading scale, Z being highest level).
How do teachers assess reading levels? What's going on here?

Needless to say, YD is now reading Blizzard of the Blue Moon, with our help.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

"I Hate Homework, But I Assign it Anyway"

In the NYTimes Motherlode blog, I Hate Homework, But I Assign it Anyway.

I went to the author's blog and got completely annoyed by this post:

He Pushed Them, and They Flew

The post is about the middle-school teacher assigning a "personal reflection" essay, and the students' inadequate responses.

Ack! The preceding post, Tell Me A Story, is even worse, including this knockout remark:
Middle school students don't like opening up and exploring who they really are, so I particularly love to watch them squirm through this one.
Why should we blame kids for revealing personal details on the internet, when they've been taught at school that they have no right to privacy?

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Child's Garden of Verses

Today Younger Daughter was tired, so I had her read a poem instead of a story. She read "The Cow" from A Child's Garden of Verses, and did pretty well with it. (This illustrated copy was, I believe, a present from my father: Thanks, Dad!)

I told her I would read a poem to her, and she proceeded to put bookmarks in just about every page of the book. I finally read her "The Land of Nod."

I think we should read more poetry with her; the meter and rhyme must be good for her developing sense of language.

Without further ado, here is "The Cow":

The friendly cow all red and white,
I love with all my heart:
She gives me cream with all her might,
To eat with apple-tart.

She wanders lowing here and there,
And yet she cannot stray,
All in the pleasant open air,
The pleasant light of day;

And blown by all the winds that pass
And wet with all the showers,
She walks among the meadow grass
And eats the meadow flowers.