Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Troubling Reading for Troubled Kids

Older Daughter is now back at the local public high school for junior year (long story).  I've been helping her write an essay on "Death of a Salesman" for English class.  True confession:  I haven't actually read "Death of a Salesman", but I skimmed the wikipedia article, from which I deduce that "D of a S" is one bleak, dismal bummer of a play.

Here's a partial list of OD's assigned reading at school:  Into the Wild (a misguided dreamer starves to death alone in Alaska), Catcher in the Rye (a depressed prep-school kid), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (racism and child rape), Persepolis (a girl growing up in Iran learns that her grandfather was imprisoned and tortured by the Shah; the revolution is not an improvement), Night (a horrific first-person account of the Holocaust), and Romeo and Juliet (two teenagers fall in love and wind up committing suicide). Notice a pattern?

Depressed people are commonly advised to avoid "ruminating", or chewing over depressive thoughts.  I think this is good advice.  In an ideal world OD should be avoiding depressing reading, but that's just not possible when she's going to high school.

Why is high school English reading such a downer? I can think of a couple of reasons (both idiotic, but that's par for the course):

1.)  Dismal = Deep.  A light-hearted or happy book can't be an Important Work of Literature. If we're going to be taken seriously, we must be seen to suffer.  (This also happens in art education, where making the students suffer proves the seriousness of the course.)

2.)  Since teenagers are often troubled, moody and depressed, and complain that the world is unjust and cruel, it's thought to be appropriate to give them books full of troubled, moody and depressed characters living in an unjust and cruel world.  This is the theory that people can only understand books that relate directly to their own experience -- the old "text-to-self" concept.  Bah, humbug! I say.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Same Old Same Old

In the New York Times, Room for Debate: Should Parents Help their Children with Homework? featuring many of the usual suspects:  Sara Bennett, Alfie Kohn, and Jessica Lahey.

Sigh.  It's all the same stuff.  It seems like nothing has changed since Sara wrote The Case Against Homework (2006!)

I'm writing this post mostly to bookmark the article, which for some reason is not easy to find.

Also, I liked this comment:


New York, NY Yesterday
Assigning so much homework that young people with after school jobs or household responsibilities (caring for a younger sibling or sick family member) cannot possibly finish the homework and also show up for their other responsibilities sure separates the rich from the poor in a hurry.
Good point.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Life is a Job

From the New York Times,  Our Mommy Problem., by a woman who objects to random adults addressing her as "Mom".   As usual, the comments are more interesting than the article. I was struck by this one:

Bismarck North Dakota

I am a Mom but also sooooooo much more - runner, spouse, head of a department at a Fortune 500 company, motherhood does not define me. I'm not up to my eyeballs in my kids stuff. I monitor their grades, their work and occasionally turn up at their athletic, dance and orchestra events. They are building their own lives with my and their Dad's support. The author hit the right tone - something has to change and it starts with us. We can take the conversation back and redefine ourselves as a mom, not as "Mom". This is the first salvo - thank you.
For this commenter, motherhood is a low-level managerial job. The mother's responsibility is to monitor her kids' performance and ensure that it's up to snuff. If their assessments are high, she's managed them well.

I see a lot of this where I live. The corporate paradigm is the filter through which we see the rest of life. School is a job for kids, which prepares them for adult jobs by forcing them to be show up on time, put in their hours (plus extensive overtime!), and get their paperwork filled out correctly and submitted to the appropriate supervisor. The kid who performs well at school is rewarded with a credential which will eventually result in a well-paid adult job.

In my high-achieving professional-class district, we have "good schools", which means that a lot of our kids go on to competitive colleges and high-salary jobs. Are the kids knowledgeable in real subjects, like math and history? Can they write clearly and intelligently? Are they happy? Do they have friends? Do they have a sense of purpose and meaning in their lives? Who the hell cares? All we need to know is the name of the highest-ranked college they got into and we know where they stand.

Friday, October 10, 2014


Recently I've been re-reading some favorite books from my childhood, including Rascal, by Sterling North.  It's a nostalgic story of the author as an 11-year-old boy and his pet raccoon that he raised from a cub.

Even Sterling North called his book "a memoir of a better era", and the childhood he describes is inconceivable today.  There's no pressure, no stress, no success or failure, no being driven from one supervised activity to the next.  The only competition is a blueberry-pie eating contest.  He has long days to wander with his raccoon.  He raises money by growing a garden and selling produce to his neighbors.  He builds a canoe out of wood and canvas (how did he learn to do that?) and paddles the canoe along the local streams.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a boy like Sterling North, and have outdoor adventures like the ones he and other fictional boy heroes had.  In my desire to be like them, I collected the things they carried in their pockets;  a pocketknife, a handkerchief, marbles, a box of matches, a candle stub, a length of string, and probably other stuff that I've forgotten.  I tried to pack all these objects into my jeans pockets but it couldn't be done.  The adventure that might require these provisions never materialized either. 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Real Teachers, Real Subjects

While watching British/Irish TV, I've noticed a couple of storylines involving teachers.  The first, from Mrs. Brown's Boys, is about a man who unexpectedly turns down a promotion at work.  His secret, which his wife has figured out, is that he can't read.  The wife takes a job cleaning house for a teacher in exchange for the teacher tutoring her husband.  

The second storyline, from Downton Abbey, is about a kitchen maid who has an opportunity to run a small farm.  She's worried that she doesn't have the book-keeping skills she would need, so she sends away for workbooks to learn basic arithmetic.  Then she's frustrated because she can't make sense of the workbooks.  The cook hires a teacher to teach the kitchen maid arithmetic, and the kitchen maid is thrilled to finally understand it.

In both these stories, an adult needs to learn a particular skill, and the characters trust a teacher to impart that skill.

For me, this is what teaching should look like, especially when it comes to basic skills like reading and arithmetic.  We know what the desired outcome is and we should find the most solid, expedient and painless way to get there.

Needless to say, this is not what goes on in American schools.  In American schools, various interests make money by taking what used to be a simple goal (e.g., get the kids reading) and mucking it up with a lot of high-falutin' nonsense ("teach deep comprehension!")  The resulting shambles has no reliable effect besides making kids hate the subject.

If doctors take as their maxim "First, do no harm", I think teachers should take as their maxim, "First, don't cause the student to hate the subject."  As I said somewhere on this blog, what's the point of teaching a child to correctly analyze a novel if they never willingly pick up a book again? 
Through Chris' blog, I've learned about "close reading", which is apparently being promoted by the Common Core.  Here's a horrifying example, where a kindergarten teacher beats "The Hungry Caterpillar" to death:


Boys and girls, can you say "developmentally inappropriate"?

Overachiever's footnote:  the teacher says, incorrectly, that "chrysalis" is a synonym for "cocoon".  A cocoon is the structure a caterpillar builds around itself; a chrysalis is the pupa of a butterfly or moth.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Pre-Reading Pre-Tirade

Following my previous post on Teaching Parents to Help Stop the Summer Slide, I did some web-sleuthing on the subject of "picture walking".  It turns out to be one of a set of practices described as "pre-reading".  At first, I thought "pre-reading" would refer to activities kids could do before they learned to read, but no -- it turns out "pre-reading" refers to activities you're supposed to do with kids before they read a book, even after they've (allegedly) learned to read.  (WHY?  Just read the book!)

The only way to make sense of "pre-reading" activities is to place them in the world of Whole Language, where the goal is not to sound out the words on the page but to guess what the words might be from context.  If you're into word-guessing, it makes sense to have a discussion about the book first --- with any luck, you could increase the rate of correct guesses.

In retrospect, there's a smoking gun in the article:  this is a mother describing the progress made by her 8-year-old daughter in learning to read:
“English is such a funny language — it’s frustrating to learn to read. But she can use the pictures to figure out words. When she can figure out a big word like ‘restaurant,’ she says ‘I can do this.’”
Why should anyone have to look at a picture to decode "restaurant"?  It's not even that difficult phonetically (like, for instance, "through".)  And what will this kid do when she gets to books with no pictures?

I found an interesting article about pre-reading techniques called  Pre-reading or Not? Although the author thinks there's a place for pre-reading, he gives a solid list of objections to the practice, with these headers:
1.  Pre-reading takes too much time away from reading.
2.  Boring!
3.  Pre-reading commonly focuses on the wrong information.
4. Previews can ruin the reading experience.
5.  Previews are rarely purposeful.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Teaching Parents to be Lousy Reading Teachers

(For former regular readers, it's been a difficult year in FedUpLand.  We'll see whether I do more blogging this year -- stay tuned!)

In today's NYTimes, Teaching Parents to Help Stop the Summer Slide, about a summer program that claims to teach parents how to teach their kids to read.  This has annoyed me to the point that I'm compelled to blog about it.

In the program, parents are taught to do the "picture-walk" with their kids -- that is, before you even attempt to read a book, first look at all the pictures and guess what the book is about.  Ugh.  I feel sorry for all the authors who have carefully designed their books so that the story -- yes, including the pictures -- will have dramatic tension and surprise.  Their hard work is completely negated by this clueless way of teaching reading. 

These methods are apparently designed by people who never read for pleasure, so I find myself making arguments from a skill that is not taught -- watching a movie.  Would anyone first look at all the available still shots from the movie, and guess what the movie is about?  Of course not -- it would be a tedious waste of time and remove all pleasure from the act of watching the movie.  So why would you do this to a new reader?

On a purely practical level, young children usually have a  short span of focus and attention.  Why waste 10 to 15 minutes having a discussion about what might be in the book?  The child might only have a few focused minutes left to spend on actually reading.

The special skill parents are being taught this week is how to determine whether a book is appropriate for their child:
To gauge level, the child reads the first two pages of a book on her own; if she stops frequently, that book is too hard, and if she races through without stopping, it’s too easy.
How about asking the child, "is this a book you'd like to read?" If the child has no interest in the book, the book is inappropriate. 
Then the parents learn various ways to ask the child open-ended questions before, during and after reading. 
Again, a terrific way to remove pleasure from the act of reading.  How could you possibly get immersed in a story if someone is constantly interrupting you with questions?

This article is another example of how the "progressive vs. traditional" debate doesn't even apply.  A progressive would be looking for ways to make reading interesting and enjoyable for the kids; a traditionalist would emphasize phonics and sounding words out.  The current fashionable approach does none of these things. 

It's like they're trying to teach kids how to read without actually teaching kids how to read.  Instead, they're trying to inculcate what they mistakenly believe to be habits that surround reading.

P.S.  There's only one comment to the article so far, and it's a head-scratcher.  It's from a "Dr. LZC" (let me guess -- doctorate in education?):
For immigrant parents also stressing that it's not their job to teach phonics, decoding, or pronunciation (with native language support to answer questions) is also helpful since this can be an area of both confusion for the child and anxiety for families.
What she's really saying is that she doesn't want immigrant parents teaching their kids how to read.  Why the hell not?   

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Happy Easter!

I decided on chocolate icing for this year's lamb cake.  There's a long tradition of cigarette-smoking lamb cakes, and some controversy over their meaning.  My favorite explanation is that smoking is one of those luxuries you might have given up for Lent; once Easter comes, Lent is over, and everybody can light up again, even the lamb!

Monday, April 14, 2014

A Swing of the Pendulum

In the NYTimes today, Parental Involvement is Overrated.  I liked this article, not because I think it's intelligent or well-written (I don't), but because, with any luck, it's an early sign that the parental-involvement pendulum is starting to swing back.  That's good news for me.  As regular readers will know, I resent the schools' ham-handed attempts to get me involved, from homework assignments my child can't possibly do on her own to pointless parent-teacher conferences.

As to the article itself, what a mess.  The writers performed a longitudinal study, going back to the 1980s, of surveys of parent involvement.  Schools have changed enormously over the past 30 years, not least in the requirements made of parents.  You can't make a meaningful comparison of parental behavior in 1980 and parental behavior today without taking these changes into account.  Besides, surveys are notorious in their ability to bring out whatever the subjects think the survey-taker wants to hear.  They're rarely an accurate measure.  (Alfie Kohn points out, for instance, that children and their parents report different amounts of time spent on homework;  it's not clear that either report is accurate.)

The writers don't even mention an important form of parent involvement that's become very common; parent re-teaching and tutoring.  These efforts have become a normal part of childhood, from the middle class on up the economic scale.  Parents don't trust the schools to ensure their child has learned the material, so they find their own resources.   It's terribly inefficient, but we're stuck with it.  As I remarked to my employer at the after-school math club where I've been teaching, wouldn't it be great if we could get this done during the school day?