Monday, December 24, 2012

What Is Writing?: Part 2

So in my last post, I told you that writing is a what and not a how, and I wouldn't be surprised if most of you didn't believe that assertion at all, which is not surprising in the least because our minds are not simply rational machines.  They take time to get used to an idea, to weigh it, kick it around, see if it works for us, and then decide if we are willing to accommodate it.  You may think I'm exaggerating.  I'm not.  Most recently, Howard Gardner, Kathryn Schulz, Dan Ariely, and Jonathan Haidt have written on exactly this topic.  But they are neither alone in their recent research nor is it really recent.  At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Niccollo Machiavelli advised the Prince similarly that people let go of old ideas and adopt new ones very slowly in general (although actions can be taken to slow down or speed up that process).  But that process is a good one.  It has definitely served our species.

It is because of the way our minds work that recognizing the what-ness of writing in addition to its how-ness is so important.

Recognizing the what-ness of writing allows us to search for which "what" our audience is expecting, and it allows us not only to give them what they expect but also to utilize the underlying mechanisms of cultural logic, as carried by diction, syntax, and rhetoric, to communicate with our audience in a form which they will understand and respond to in order to change the what that the writing currently is.  In other words, if we know what people expect, even if we don't agree, we can't get them to change their minds until we have shown them that we understand their point of view and saliently, coherently, and in a personally meaningful way demonstrate to them why they might want to reconsider their stance.  To draw a parallel to Nonviolent Communication (NVC), consider the essay question as the observation.  Consider the response of the writer as one's personal feelings regarding that observation.  Consider the needs as the underlying logic behind the feelings.  Now imagine that the audience has a very different response (feeling) toward the question (observation)--a different response (feeling) due to a different logic (need).  Now the writer, being in the subordinate role, cannot do one thing to sway that audience until he has empathized with the audience.  He needs to parrot back the audience's expected response (feelings) and an understanding of the audience's logic (needs) before he can go on to explain his own.  Only when he has demonstrated knowledge (and I use "knowledge" here in the sense of Bloom's taxonomy because this is not critical thinking.  It is merely knowledge and comprehension of an existing structure--one that is often largely undefined explicitly because teachers take common cultural ground for granted) of the existing mainstream thought can the writer move on toward influencing the direction of that thought.

Now, there are plenty of reasons that a writer will refuse to parrot back the mainstream idea.  I totally get that.  I am one of those writers.  I am one of those people.  And sometimes I can't keep my views back to save my life...and I'm just lucky it hasn't ever literally come to that because I would have a really hard time.  BUT my point here is very important:

There is a time and a place for dissent. 

It is there.  In every culture, there is some place, some space, for other views.  Now, there may be very small tolerance for such views.  The space for expressing them may not be in words or in visual symbols.  It may happen some other way.  But there is always space.  There is always a way for change, which is obvious because life is always changing.

The trick is finding it.  And I can show you where it is and isn't and have a few good ideas in creating a path for it in Western writing.

Up next:  What reading comprehension tells us about writing.

Friday, December 21, 2012

What Is Writing?: Part 1

Special thanks to Josette LeBlanc and her fabulous blog post, "Feedback in the Hallway," that inspired this series of posts on writing.

Most of us think of writing as a how, a series of skills which we teach our students to employ as a tool to express themselves in other situations.  I want to disillusion you.  Writing is not a how.  Writing, as we practice it and evaluate it in the West, is a what.

"What?!" you ask, both incredulous at my statement as well as repeating my assertion with an air of shock.  "What what is it?"

Writing, I tell you, is a measure of one's comprehension of a subject as judged by the readers of that writing.

How do I know reading is a measure of comprehension and not a skill when clearly we have courses and books, and indeed entire lives, thrown into the process of writing?

Why, my dear friend, you have just hit on the crux of the matter, the cause of all of the frustration surrounding this issue of writing!

I know because of the rubrics, both those stated explicitly as well as those implied.

Let's begin with those explicitly stated.  Most of us teach toward a test.  Two of the most common tests to teach toward are the SAT and/or the TOEFL (but it doesn't really matter which test you teach toward, the rubrics form a fair continuum of skills headed toward academic writing, which I will get into another time), so let's examine their rubrics (SAT Writing Rubric and TOEFL Writing Rubric) and how we know that the writing is actually judged as a measure of comprehension and not a skill. 

  1. Both rubrics immediately list point development as the very first criteria for scoring.  The SAT chooses the words "a point of view on the issue," "outstanding critical thinking," and "examples, reasons, and other evidence to support its position."  While they do include some how factors ("develops," "demonstrates," "using"), the emphasis is on the point and the logic behind it.  Similarly, the TOEFL immediately seizes upon the selection and correlation of "important information" and "relevant information."  The primary focus of scoring is clearly on content, not on style.
  2. The second point of both rubrics is organization, primarily order. Once again, organization is not so much a writing skill as it is a strategy of sorting information.  A measure of information sorting is a measure of content first and style second.
  3. The TOEFL rubric largely skips questions of language variety and artful usage, but the SAT rubric's us of adjectives to describe diction ("varied, accurate, and apt vocabulary" or "appropriate vocabulary" on the high end of diction and "inappropriate word choice" and "very limited vocabulary or incorrect word choice" on the lower end) and syntax ("meaningful variety in sentence structure") are telling.  Artistry must serve content.  The service to the content is what is being scored, not the artistry.
  4. The final portion of both rubrics is directed at grammatical errors.  Although both rubrics specify that high scoring essays should be nearly free from errors, the degree of error on low scoring essays demonstrates that it is not the error in and of itself that is the issue but the error's role in obscuring meaning that makes the error so grievous.  The SAT rubric specifies these errors as, "pervasive errors in grammar, usage, or mechanics that persistently interfere with meaning." The TOEFL, which naturally serves a testing audience of lower general ability, responds in more depth, noting errors that "persistently interfere with meaning at key junctures, or that would likely obscure understanding of key ideas for a reader not already familiar with the reading and the lecture" or responses in which "[t]he language level of the response is so low that it is difficult to derive meaning."
Very simply, the writing sections of both tests serve to measure a student's ability to comprehend and to respond with ideas.  It is not simply to write.

"But that's just academic writing," you might protest.

Hmmm... Okay.  Let's consider other forms of writing.  When is the last time you read a news story that wasn't first and foremost about facts (and spin on them, true, but facts primarily)?  When is the last time you continued reading a book in which you stridently didn't either agree or identify with the protagonist?  When did you last read an editorial that was beautifully written but somehow skipped the comment on an event?  There are indeed various styles and convention which we employ in writing to express our beliefs, but all of these beliefs are the main focus of the writing.  In the end, the writing is about the content.

"So what?" you might ask.  "We all have to write about something."

Aha!  But this something is exactly the point.  We keep teaching our students that they are scored on how they write about something, not on what they write about.  Unfortunately, psychologists have very, very, very clearly proven (although we all like to ignore it) that we as human beings are not objective in evaluating evidence.  We are not.  Period.  End of story.  The list of resources is too long to even list the ways in which this subjectivity is true.  In fact, our history of subjectivity is why we have developed entire fields of study, like statistics, and types of law, like the rules of evidence.

Instead of going into enormous detail about this evidence (this is a blog, not an academic journal), I will just note that some of the principles that I find most at work in my personal experiences with scoring objectivity are relations between belief and confirmation bias, correlations of in-group mentality as a reason to abandon further inquiry or entertain further consideration, different strategies of conclusion-drawing, and non-statistical confounding factors.  Why do these matter?  Because in order for a writer to be successful, she must recognize the operations of these subjective beliefs in order to capitalize or counter them.

The fact that we are approaching writing as a how rather than a what puts our students (and ourselves) at a distinct disadvantage.  First, this belief puts the emphasis unduly on the craft of writing rather on the skills of rhetoric which emphasize recognizing the qualities of one's audience.  And focusing on the audience is what will determine what types of belief and bias the writer is likely to face.  Knowing these predilections beforehand drastically increases the writer's capacity to challenge assumptions, address what the audience believes to be relevant concerns, and introduce enough evidence to make a dent in previously held notions (the old adage about needing to work twice as hard to be considered half as good holds psychological water).

This is the first post in a series of posts regarding unacknowledged aspects of writing, the ways that they are manifested, and how they can inform our teaching.  While I have not yet determined the order in which I will address these issues, future posts in this series will address how reading comprehension questions can and should inform our writing methods, how the various disciplines' differing grammatical rules and valuing of evidence reveal strongly different underlying ideologies (and what those mean to students), how writing rubrics work as a continuum, three unacknowledged truths about writing and some strategies to harness those truths for successful communication, and a discipline by discipline application of those strategies to show how they would work in practice (for writers) and in a classroom (for teachers).

Monday, December 3, 2012

Homework at My House (and Occasionally in My Classroom)...

Okay, without any nods to Macs or PCs, I just want to say that this video accurately records what often happens at my house during homework time (and occasionally in my classroom as well).

And whenever it happened in my classroom, I noticed two common issues that were always present in every case that I chose to reflect on:
  1. I had not included my students (and my children) in on goal-setting (hence, their goals were substantially different than mine).
  2. I had lost my sense of humor and ability to listen.
So I wanted to take a moment to share the importance of those two elements in teaching.

Not many teachers that I know include their students in goal-setting.  I have found this step, though, to be one of the single most crucial buy-ins for effort, behavior, and compliance, as well as an integral step in teaching students how to set their own paths for education.

Let me show you what I mean.

When we ran a study room, we had lessons that were an hour and twenty minutes long.  When I planned a lesson, I obviously included flex-time activities, but I tried to leave one quarter of the time open.  Then, after our small talk, I tried to tell the students, "Okay, we're going to be working on (top goal).  To achieve that goal, you need to know (list of skills required).  In this lesson, we will be covering (skills I intend to cover that day).  I'll be assessing your ability to accomplish those skills by (activity, worksheet, etc.). Is there anything else that you want to do today or that you think we should cover?"

Not every class would have something to add.  Many classes would ask for a game.  Some classes would ask for more practice on something or for work on another skill.  In every case, the students were urged to climb the ladder Bloom's Taxonomy:  knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation.  Of course, they didn't ascend it linearly.

Let me explain:
  • Whatever I planned to teach on the most basic level is knowledge.  Students come in knowing that they are expected to attain knowledge, particularly my Asian students who are adept at memorization.
  • My assessment of them most often includes the combination of knowledge (identifying what I have taught them) and comprehension (explaining what it means).
  • By identifying the top goal I have for the day (almost always a larger, concrete goal, like "arguing with your mother in English and winning the argument," not "persuasive speech"), I have given them a first example of application.  I haven't told them the technical word for what we're doing (yet), but I have told them how it can be used.  As we move along, I will prompt them on more uses.
  • When I give them the list of skills, I am helping analyze the top goal.  I am inviting them to analyze with me when I ask them what else they want to cover. 
  • Often times, what we will be covering is a review or modification of something that we used to attain a different top goal.  In these cases, we are actually also synthesizing a new top goal from component parts used in an old one.  
  • Drawing attention to this fact not only shows the students an example of synthesis, it also shows the value of the previous skill (evaluation).
Taking the time to invite my students into my goals accomplishes two great changes in me.  First, it opens the door for my listening.

As I invite students to participate in the goal-setting process, I am tuning into a reverse process of this hierarchy myself, learning not about my subject matter but about how they interact with what I am teaching.  By listening to their evaluations, I am able to understand what types of synthesis might be more beneficial to them (insults and rap/slam poetry are incredibly relevant to your average upper elementary school student, even though these topics are seldom in the curriculum). After I have taken the time to analyze what they have to say and how they want to use what we are learning, I find far more applications of greater relevance to them (defending themselves, making jokes, playing games, manipulating the situation to achieve what they want).  As I watch them interact and listen to their recommendations, I gain a knowledge of the things that are important to them and a comprehension of why that is so.

The second great change it makes in me is an openness to the unplanned, and, by association, the ability to laugh.

Now, I'm a control freak, and I am certainly not advocating tossing the lesson plan in the dumpster.  But I leave an open section in my lesson plans on purpose, a section that I am willing to cede a little control over.
When I forget to do that, I turn off my ears.  Even if I ask the students what they think, I have no space to deal with their questions.  That situation is simply a planned pause, a conscious decision not to listen and respond.  By listening, I exhibit care.  By handing over a little control, I demonstrate trust, my confidence in my students.

And that trust and confidence mean a lot to them.  Students very seldom get the chance to really chart the course of the lesson.  It's like a first driving lesson.  There's a tiny moment of awe when they take the wheel.  And there's a tiny bit of pride and nostalgia as I watch them.  It frees me a moment.

And that freedom opens me to laughter.  To me, laughter is the delight of surprise, the tickle of the unplanned, and unless you make a space for that to happen, you cut the laughter off.  When you cut the laughter off, you take the joy out of learning, and you turn into Mac the egg.

A famous physician, Dr. Francis W. Peabody, once said of medicine, "For the secret of the care of the patient is in caring for the patient" (as quoted in Jerry Weissman's Presentations in Action). The same is true of the student.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


Several friends recently posted a story from NPR that, in conjunction with a recent blog post, provoked some thoughts about the ability to see beyond our culture, the ability to see beyond what we expect, and the ability to see altogether.

The story is here:

In the article, Jim Stigler, currently a psychologist but then a graduate student, watched with bated horror as a teacher called a child struggling with the topic of the day to the front of the room to allow him to struggle publicly.  Stigler's take on the situation changed by the end of the class, however, when the child ultimately mastered the material and received the approbation of his class.  Stigler concluded, "From very early ages, we see struggle as an indicator that you're just not very smart. It's a sign of low ability. People who are smart don't struggle. They just naturally get it. It's our folk theory. Whereas, in Asian cultures, they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity."

Stigler's view of Eastern education as expressed in this feature runs completely counter to Howard Gardner's take on it as expressed in a 1989 essay, "Learning, Chinese Style," which appeared in Psychology Today.  In this essay, Gardner related an incident in which his eighteen-month-old son would repeatedly attempt to put a hotel key into a receptacle with little success.  Time and again, the hotel staff would "help" him return the key.  Gardner, whom I generally view as an extremely insightful thinker, characterized this incident as one that helped "to illuminate Chinese attitudes toward creativity."

Gardner asked his Chinese colleagues for their thoughts on the behavior.  He summarized their responses, indicating that the general concern of the Chinese teachers was that the child would become frustrated in the task that was set and, therefore, should be helped to attain the "goal" (Gardner chooses this word to indicate a lack of flexibility in the point of a task).

Gardner then detailed his wife and his response to the issue:
We listened to such explanations sympathetically and explained that, first of all, we did not much care whether Benjamin succeeded in inserting the key into the slot. ... [T]he critical point was that, in the process, we were trying to teach Benjamin that one can solve a problem effectively by oneself.  Such self-reliance is a principal value of child-rearing in middle-class America.
 In this case, I take issue with both analyses of both situations.   The first case sees a point primarily with struggle instead of with group disclosure.  Now, Asian societies certainly have their share of secrecy.  I am not in any way saying that they don't.  However, in the educational system, there is far more disclosure.  Test scores are posted openly.  Children are ranked as early as middle school, and such ranks are publicly posted.  The students in each school know who is the "strong" student and who is the "weak link."  Furthermore, until recently, helping one another has not been seen to be an issue.  There is a "we'll get through this together" attitude.  That is not to say that there is no self-reliance.  Again, these students are ranked rather heartlessly.  But, by and large, this competitiveness and ranking in Asian society does not keep students from helping one another complete tasks.  Some view this "help" as copying, but it is not always that drastic.

In Gardner's response, he seems to conclude, by the help proffered to a toddler, that the Chinese do not value self-reliance.  Chinese children are generally afforded far more responsibilities and freedoms than Western children.  They may need to wear school uniforms and spout certain ideologies, but they are out in their societies alone at far younger ages and for far longer periods than their Western counterparts.  If we considered these facets of the Chinese education system and Chinese society, we might conclude that Americans handicap their children by not teaching them how to function in society on their own.  How might the Chinese view homeschooling in which many American parents teach their children at home for fear that they may hear ideas different from their parents'?  What might the other culture think about the strength of our society by comparison?

It seems to me that both situations have more to say about group dynamics than they do about implicit struggle.  In both the first and the last, the idea is that one should weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice.  In the second situation, a young child is proffered help on a task too difficult for him.  In the first instance, a child who can do it but is struggling is afforded the opportunity to work it out and have the class rejoice with him.  The message is clear in both cases:  we are in this together.

Although both Gardner and Stigler seem to skip this aspect of these interactions, it by no means signifies that such a theory is absent in Western education.  The more I study, the more I see, the more I realize that people are people and our perceptions are colored by what we expect to see.  Stigler may have heard of the heartless, rigorous, factory-like Eastern education system, and that is what he expected to see.  When he saw an emotional interaction, he didn't see it as an example of heart or emotion but of struggle, perhaps because he had already concluded that the system was without human kindness.  On the other hand, he may have been carrying American attitudes that it is what it is and our emotions can be separated from our intellect.  Believe it or not, compared to the Asian classrooms I have been in, Western classrooms are quite cold and empty of emotional comfort.

Similarly, Gardner headed to communist China.  Most Westerners believe communists are completely without drive or initiative.  What he saw was a country that tried to pigeonhole responses.  Was he really seeing a pigeonholing or was he seeing concern for a young child's emotional well being?

We see what we expect to see.  And when we are confronted with two sets of results, we lend more credence to those that reinforce the opinion that we already hold, a tendency known as confirmation bias.  In her book, Being Wrong, Kathryn Schulz explains the way confirmation bias, our previous expectations, and inductive vs. deductive reasoning work together to undermine our ability to reason accurately:
We don't gather the maximum possible evidence in order to reach a conclusion; we reach the maximum possible conclusion based on the barest minimum of evidence.  Now it turns out that inductive reasoning upends the second half as well.  We don't assess evidence neutrally; we assess it in light of whatever theories we've already formed on the basis of whatever other, earlier evidence we have encountered.
Sometimes, this logic works for us.  Other times, it blinds us to what is really happening.  Looking back to Gardner's point on frustration vs. self-reliance, we need to consider that while overcoming frustration can, in fact, lead to confidence and self-reliance, facing an insurmountable task often leads to despair, failure, and a refusal to try.  Every person faces situations slightly differently.  Each person has a different threshold for frustration tolerance, and, at any given moment, how much frustration a person is facing is in flux.  Ross W. Greene has built a very successful series of interventions built explicitly on the idea that we should not leave all people to face frustration without guidance--that doing so will leave a portion of the population at risk for explosive behavior.  In his book, The Explosive Child, he claims:
The children about whom this book is written do not choose to be explosive--any more than a child would choose to have a learning disability--but they are delayed in the process of developing the skills essential for flexibility and frustration tolerance.  ... There's a big difference between viewing explosive behavior as the result of the failure to progress developmentally and viewing it as learned, planned, intentional, goal-oriented, and purposeful.  That's because your interpretation of a child's explosive behavior will be closely linked to how you try to change this behavior.  In other words, your explanation guides your intervention. (emphasis in the original)
 My point in bringing up this passage is twofold.  First, I strongly believe both the interpretation of Stigler and of Gardner have more to do with their own internal beliefs about Chinese culture and the Chinese educational system than they do with the interactions they witnessed.  I am also certain that my own interpretation is strongly influenced by my experiences teaching in the US and in Korea.  I don't know that there's any way to completely dissociate it.  But because these analyses so emphatically affect what we think and do (Schulz says what we think affects how we evaluate what we see and Greene says that that evaluation guides how we choose to respond), I encourage all of us teachers to look twice before we decide what's happening, to consider alternatives before committing to a single course of action, to listen more and speak less, and to err on the side of mercy.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Multiculturalism. Really? Part 1: Grammar

Question:  We say we are interested in the expression of other, non-majority thoughts, but when it comes to thoughts that challenge our ideology, are we ready to listen, or, worse than not listening, do we invalidate them on the basis of a social construct of rightness, such as the preference of the active voice?

I landed my first tutoring gig (for money) my junior year of high school, and I immediately learned that there was a reason people needed tutors: the normal way of teaching is just not clicking for them.  Now, that first student was a white, middle-class student kid growing up in a house of a then stay-at-home or sometimes working very part-time, college-degreed mother and graduate-degreed, professionally-employed father.  While not overly spoiled, he certainly wanted for nothing.  His problem then was that he thought in movement--a way of looking at things that later guaranteed him an actual paying job as a stage manager (do you know how good you have to be to get paid to do that?).  And even though, at the young age of sixteen and hitherto not yet versed in educational theory, I was only able to feel vaguely that he thought in a different way, that the swing of the sentences seemed to make more sense to him than the words, and that the teaching in the way that I had been taught didn't "connect."  Still, there was power in the words and things he needed to say, and though I am looking back through more than half my lifetime, I still remember clearly his frustration as he tried to express his frustration and sense of betrayal at learning that Magic Johnson had AIDS.  It was then that I realized deep thoughts were buried in this person and that mining them would require more than that standard drill.  I needed specialized equipment.

And perhaps it was this first interaction with someone within the same culture for whom the standard cultural conventions didn't work that I actively considered whether standard conventions would work in all my English-related future endeavors.  Not surprisingly, as I seemed to become editor/proofreader of choice for the thesis and dissertation review of non-native students, I found that the standard approach to teaching/correcting language was problematic.  There were thoughts, shades of meaning that these students wanted to express that were "grammatically wrong" (perhaps "non-preferred" is the better word).  But what we consider a question of grammatical correctness is not an issue of correctness at all.  It is, in fact, an ideological construct thrusting itself on us through grammar.

For example:  The people were robbed of their nourishment during the ensuing famine.
Western Belief of Grammatical Error:  Passive voice
Best Correction (though not direct, as corrections so often cannot be completely direct):  The ensuing famine robbed the people of their nourishment.

Well, here's the ideological problem: the Western correction, by virtue of its love of the transitive, must thrust the blame somewhere, and, as Western convention is increasingly growing to love the simplified, this blame is often thrust somewhere simplified, without the shades of possibility or complexity that may actually have existed.

Don't believe it?

Let's make the example more specific and see what you think:

Initial sentence:  The poor farmers of the American Midwest were robbed of their nourishment during the ensuing food shortage following the Dust Bowl.
Problem?  Still in the passive voice.
Correction:  The food shortage following the Dust Bowl robbed the poor farmers in the American Midwest of their nourishment.

Perhaps those of you familiar with American history around this time (or readers of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath) might now say, "Oh, really?" with an adequate level of scorn.  What is clear to anyone familiar with that time is that the Dust Bowl was not a naturally occurring phenomenon but was brought about by a number of factors:  corporate greed, disregard for farming practices which were considered primitive but preserved the topsoil, and a drought (perhaps to be expected).

The first sentence places no blame but neither does it excuse anyone.  The second sentence may be preceded by sentences explaining the causes of the Dust Bowl, but perhaps not.  Either way, it puts the blame on the "food shortage" alone.  Furthermore, the sentences in the active voice shade the meaning of "nourishment" with a leaning toward "food."  "Nourishment," however, can mean far more than links it to sustenance and the ability to trade as well as explicit food.  The Dust Bowl absolutely took those other non-food aspects away from many Midwestern farmers as well as it did their food.  But this aspect is nearly lost in the "corrected" sentence.

Furthermore, many cultures believe that some things merely happen, merely are.  Our reliance on the active voice undermines the expression of this sentiment.  We do not allow that there may not be able to avoid what is coming or that aspects of our future are beyond our determination.  We are captains of our fates!

Without arguing about the sentiment, I am merely pointing out that our grammar is hindering the free expression of these kinds of thoughts within our society and that, in addition to hindering those ideas, is penalizing those who would try to express them.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


As a teacher, I feel my role is always one of facilitation.  I cannot force anyone to learn, but I can definitely facilitate the process.

In the past couple of months, however, I've really had to rethink what facilitation is and how it works.

The modern definition of facilitate, from, is

  1. to make easier or less difficult; help forward (an action, a process, etc.): Careful planning facilitates any kind of work.  
  2. to assist the progress of (a person).
Have you ever noticed that facilitating some groups is easier than facilitating others?  I have recently been working with students of all ages:  preschool, elementary, high school, and primarily retirees.  In the past as well, I often worked with very disparate groups: usually business people, graduate students, and elementary school students.  Each time I've noticed that even if we're covering the same ideas, the facilitation is wildly different.  I don't have to spend any time at all getting my little ones to laugh and have a good time, but getting some business people to perform a complete audit would be easier than getting them to smile.  Similarly, getting mature (read "over 18") to slow down is no problem, but getting a group under twelve to pause is barely possible.

But this last month or so, I have really been blessed to note how facilitating my retirees is actually more allowing them to facilitate me, which is when I realized that all of "my" best lessons have essentially followed this pattern. 

Put simply, I am an expert on the subject matter primarily--that is why I'm the teacher.  I am not, per se, an expert on the other aspects of life.  But my students are.  Often I facilitate best when I allow my students to shine, when I allow my students to exercise their own expertise while they are mastering their subject matter.  My facilitation is to find ways to make the subject matter applicable to them--to help them see how it fits into what they're doing and where they're going.  Sometimes that's not always possible entirely, but the fact that I have allowed them to demonstrate their prowess for me opens them to hearing what I have to say--and to trying out what I'm introducing.
Sometimes this hands-off facilitation feels a little like flying by the seat of my pants, but in reality it is planned in such a way that allows flexibility.  It anticipates expertise and then, with a small amount of thinking on one's feet, it matches one area of expertise with another.

Below is an example of facilitation when expertise matches content across three very disparate age groups:

For example, I may want to teach the rhythm of language.  If I have elementary students, I need to think for a minute about what their areas of expertise are and how the rhythm of language fits into it.  I remember the chants on the playground, common forms of teasing, and games/chants to pick who should start.  I prepare in my mind similar English games, and, if I know their songs well enough, match natural English words to some of their own rhythms.  When my young students come in, I ask them to demonstrate their games.  I let them go on for awhile.  I play with them.  Then I choose to teach them an easy English version.  I let them play with it.  I let them feel it out.  I invite them to change the words--all the while playing because they are experts at play--until they have felt a real connection and usefulness with this material.

What about rhythm of language for business people?  I have often had business people stage an argument on a topic of their choosing--first in their own language--and have other people pay attention to how each person interrupts, states their point, sympathizes, etc.  They note the natural rhythm.  Then we come up with some stock phrases for working into an argument ("But," "I don't think," I disagree," "I see, but...," "Don't you think...,"  "Oh," "No!"), and allow them to do it again, half in English and half in their home language.  Finally, we work on some actual content and do the whole argument in English.  They are sustained by the topic that they picked as well as by paying attention to the rules of interrupting and the rhythm of trading comments--an esteem issue that they are experts at navigating.

Finally, for my older group, well, we're not studying ESL, but rhythm of language has a lot to do with the writing that they're studying.  How do I make it relevant?  They're grandparents (not just generally, but most of the ones who would benefit from this lesson are literally writing for their grandchildren).  They are experts in lullabies and telling scary stories--both prime examples of rhythm of language.  We tune into this (ask for examples), remember this (allow them to share), let them spend time working with it (allow them to rewrite words or weave the and then transferring it to the paper).  When we get to the rewriting, I want to eventually turn them away from the typical topics of lullabies and focus them on an aspect of their lives.  Again, they are experts on babies, children, and grandchildren as well as accomplished lullaby-singers and campfire storytellers.  It's just a matter of harnessing this expertise and providing another outlet for it.

Friday, May 25, 2012

What if?

Sometimes I just wonder about our teaching practices, especially the ones I spend a great deal of time being on both sides of with very little peace about.

Reactions to "canonical" (used loosely here) knowledge are one of my biggest issues.  To me, canonical knowledge is defined as:
  1. The "traditional" take on the "traditional" works
  2. The ability to perform seemingly lower order levels of Bloom's taxonomy in such a way that we feel our own principles have been violated.
Cases in point--examples of part 1:
  • The Problem:  The necessity of teaching Shakespeare repeatedly in high school.  

    The Choice:  Sure, there's a ton of other great stuff out there. Yes, there is in fact literature from other ethnic groups that maybe should be represented in our classes and may have a little more bearing on our students lives than some of the more (ahem) antiquated English works.  I mean, yes, I still think we need Shakespeare.  In fact, I love Shakespeare.  But in a multicultural world, perhaps I would have benefited from another perspective. 

    The Rub:  I know I'm supposed to be preparing my students for further academic study and most further academic study requires understanding of Shakespeare, not Toni Morrison.
  • The Problem:  Teaching Newton and physics

    The Choice:  I could show quite a bit of evidence of other thinkers from China, India, and the Middle East.

    The Rub:  That material is not readily available to me, would require a lot of digging on my part and I might still not get it right, and, if the kids were ever tested, the Newton answer would be the one that was considered correct.
Cases in point--examples of part 2:
  • The Problem:  Teaching reading comprehension, particularly ESL, with a controversial text

    The Choice:  Usually reading comprehension books choose articles which take sides for a few reasons.  First, it's easier to gain interest from the student.  Second, it's easier to summarize.  Third, it clearly shows how to build an argument--even if the argument may not be unbiased.

    The Rub:  For students to show that they have understood, they have to repeat arguments with which they may vehemently disagree.  There is often no outlet to voice such disagreement.
  • The Problem:  Preparing students for reading comprehension on the SAT/PSAT

    The Choice: 
    I could encourage them to use what they already know as well as decompress the text for an in-depth reading, but both can backfire.

    The Rub:  Often these excerpts are chosen because they touch upon a common academic thread but may take an uncommon view on it.  Once again, students are asked what the author believes.  There is no outlet to say what they believe, no matter how problematic the information that they have just parroted is to them.

What if we asked for real reactions first?  What if we used Marshall Rosenberg's NVC outline of using specific observations, hooking them with feelings, looking for the needs that underlie the feelings, and then having a step to go (an academic step) before we tried to teach the "approved" view?

I still think that the approved view is important.  The canon is one of the elephants in the room.  I don't think that we can eliminate it, even if we only use it to help provide understanding of what must be overcome to move forward.  But perhaps showing a preference for the students' gut reactions and slowly funneling them into academic arguments would not only help in clearing the air so that they can understand the orthodox view.  It may also make them feel heard so that they do not feel hindered in repeating the orthodox view when asked.  And, most importantly, marshaling their feelings and views into an academic format may give them a chance to have those alternate views heard, effectively expressed, and hopefully incorporated into our future.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Take Charge of Education 1

So often we say of our students that we want them to be self-guided, to know what they need, and to take charge of their own education.  Lamentably, I find that very few teachers really teach thoughtfully--although I must say that current curricula increasingly are building thoughtful teaching into their plans.

Anyway, I want to point to another method of students' taking charge: unstructured time.  Unstructured time is important in life and in teaching.  When I first began using unstructured time with my students, they hated it.  They had no idea what to do with their time.  They constantly sought approval from me.  And they whined.  I hate whining.

But I kept at it.

"You should tell us what to do!" one of my older students told me.

"If you planned better, they wouldn't be so rambunctious," suggested my husband.

Twenty minutes a week isn't much, but for those who had never been allotted free time, it seemed interminable.

"What do you think you could do?" I would counter student after student.

"Huh?" was always the answer.

"Well, what do you do if you come in early before the other students?"

"Read a book."

"Okay.  So you could read a book. What else?"

A blank stare.

"What do you do at home if you don't have anything to do?"

"I always have something to do."  And this was the problem.  It took time for them to discover that they could play games, look up topic-related videos on the computer, discuss their favorite music in English, or read and re-read their favorite books.  They could write or watch plays.  They could sing.  They could create their own videos.

They learned what they liked and what they were good at.  They learned to choose something to do.  They learned to create, to laugh, and to explore.  And it's a step toward taking charge of their own lives.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

SAT Writing Question Strategies

Okay.  This post is about a work in progress.  As many of you know, I have tutored on and off for years.  In recent years, my students have included high school kids taking the SATs.  I am now blessed enough to have a high level high school sophomore who is struggling with the writing section (especially the grammar portion of the writing section) of the SATs.  His dad is very concerned, and I have no desire to minimize that.  I was teaching him the best way I knew how, but Dad was still concerned, so I started to really research other test-taking strategy books.

My problem, which I present to you for your advice, is that I am not finding any good strategies for this section of the SATs!  I am so disappointed!

Thus far, the strategies that I have found for the grammar section of the writing part fall into two categories:

1.  Students should just memorize grammar rules, which are then usually just listed in the book; and
2.  Students should eliminate as many answers as they can and then select an answer based on the statistical probability of getting it right from the number of answers that remain.

In my mind, these are rather flawed strategies for an entire section of a test.  First, most students already know the grammar rules.  The problem is prioritizing them because grammar is, on some level, subjective (and you can argue with me about that, but I would simply point to the plethora of style guides out there and regional and national variations of language use--many of which include differing spellings, use of prepositions, and forms of past participles--and again state that, on some level, grammar is subjective).  Secondly, guessing should never be a fundamental strategy for a test.  A back up strategy, yes, but to pose guesswork as the main component of test-taking strategy is to equate the subject matter being tested with mystery, and while I may say that grammar is subjective, it is neither mysterious nor arbitrary.

So, now I'm going to put forth what I have been doing and really asking for your advice on how you might go about teaching this material because, as I said, Dad is worried, and, honestly, I would be hypocritical if I didn't seek out alternative strategies (even if I may ultimately discard them), which I feel is simply good practice and the basic responsibility of any educator.

Okay.  So thus far, I have prioritized a list of grammar questions that I use in a flow chart-y way.  By flow chart-y, I mean that you begin by checking the sentence for the first offense and move on if the sentence does not have that problem; if the sentence does present that problem, then, regardless of any other problems the sentence may have, you need to find the answer that fixes that first problem.  For example, say you have a sentence that is a run-on (offending issue number 1) and is passive voice (offending issue number 5).  If you find an answer that fixes the passive voice (#5) but not the run-on (#1), then it is no good.  But if you find an answer that fixes the run-on (#1) and not the passive voice (#5) AND THERE ARE NO OTHER ANSWERS THAT ADDRESS BOTH PROBLEMS (or you can't fix both because it would require changing more than the underlined section), then you MUST pick the answer that addresses the run-on (#1) and not the passive voice (#5).

Make sense?

So my prioritized list of issues is:

1.  Is it a sentence?
    a.  Specifically, check that every clause (dependent and independent) has a subject and a predicate.
    b.  Make certain that compound sentences are joined appropriately with coordinating conjunctions (think "FAN BOYS"--for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so--thanks to Chuck Thomas for the mnemonic) or semicolons, not commas or other punctuation.

2.  Do things agree?
    a. Specifically, if you have a plural subject, do you have a plural verb?
    b. Do the number and case of all of your pronouns match their antecedents as they (both the antecedents in terms of number and the pronouns in terms of case) appear in the sentence?
    c. What is the tense of the sentence?  Do all of the tenses line up?
    d. If you have a single modifier modifying two things (usually nouns, but sometimes something else), does it carry through correctly for both?  Be especially careful of "than" and "as ____ as" constructions.

3.  How are your modifiers?
    a. Are your modifiers in the correct places?  If they are modifying nouns, are they next to them?
    b, Do they fit--number, tense, person/thing (i.e., have you given a personal verb to an inanimate object--okay in the reading section but not here? If you have "who" is it modifying a person or if "that" is it modifying a thing?, etc.)?

4.  Are the words used correctly?
    a.  Are all of the words used appropriately?  See 3 b.  This is similar, but on a more global scale. In this case, you are looking for things like "less" vs. "fewer," etc.
    b. On a finer note, is the tone correct for all of the words?  Does one jump out as inappropriate?

5.  Is the sentence, or any of its clauses, in the passive voice?
     a.  FYI - This change may often cause a change in the subject of the sentence.
     b.  Make certain that the sentence is still a sentence after this change is made (this often appears as a trick!).

6.  Is the sentence's meaning clear?
    a.  Do all of the pronouns have clear antecedents (e.g., if there is a "she" can it only be one person, or are there two females in the sentence?, etc.)
    b.  Would a comma clarify something?  Sometimes things are running together and could be clarified a couple of different ways.  A comma is often used to separate, and you may see this in the answers.
    c.  Would reordering help?  Under the couple of ways to clarify, reordering ranks high.  Keep an eye out for this in the answers.

7.  A note of caution:  Differing styles use commas very differently, and in looking over these sample tests, I see VERY few questions in which commas are the crux of the issue with these exceptions:
     a.  Without the help of a coordinating conjunction following it, a comma cannot join two independent clauses; only a semicolon can do that.
     b.  Introductory gerund phrases and dependent clauses require commas after them.
     c.  Most styles now state that dependent clauses beginning with "which" require a comma (restrictive/unrestrictive set aside for the purposes of the test).  ETS seems to be following this rule.

Any thoughts on this method/issue or the materials discussing strategies for this section would be greatly appreciated!  Thanks in advance!

Comments from the switched over blog:
 [info]amand_r wrote:
Jan. 5th, 2012 04:09 pm (UTC)
I used to teach SAT prep at Sylvan, and I have to say that your approach is probably the best one. I'll have to sit down and have a think about how they used to break it down, but I remember that parallelism, and subject-verb agreement were biggies. and fragments and run-ons.

What I will tell you, and take some small comfort in this as a teacher on your part, that a lot of the damage is done by the time they get to this stage, because the best way to learn grammar rules is to read (that's how you absorb syntax without having to memorise), and by the time they are taking the SATs, they can't possibly start reading enough to help, and so you HAVE to teach them the rules, which to a lot of kids is like trying to teach them speed French or something (which is essentially what they are doing.).

I suggest haptic exercises, where you do a few with him, and then have him do some by himself and then explain to you why he chose what he did. Buy talking it out loud, he might have a better response/retention.

Dammit, there's a whole strategy to guessing on the SATs that I forget. I wish I could remember, because it was sound advice.

[info]ummteacher wrote:
Jan. 5th, 2012 04:16 pm (UTC)
Merci! Yeah, we do the haptic thing. And he fights me on the reading aloud, but I insist (especially because reading too quickly is the key cause of his mistakes in the reading comprehension section). You're totally right about the reading. I am lucky because his parents had him start early and I have been feeding him lists of books that will help him. Mainly for reading comprehension but with some applications for grammar too, I've also been making him rewrite archaic sentences taken from Darwin, Jefferson, Machiavelli, Austen, Dickens, and the like according to our current preferred style of grammar. It has helped him understand gerunds, which he totally wasn't getting before, and THAT has absolutely helped on this section. I forgot to mention the parallelism thing, though. I guess that would be a #3 offense...

[info]amand_r wrote:
Jan. 5th, 2012 04:20 pm (UTC)
I remember when they redesigned the SATs back...5 years ago? I was so happy they took out the analogies, but the grammar section they added was a bit irritating. But it was broken into about five different types of grammar issues, most of which you identified.

Also important is comparisons.

[info]ummteacher wrote:
Jan. 5th, 2012 04:29 pm (UTC)
Yeah. Yay to the end of analogies (although I could get a handle on that, but how do you just up people's vocabulary. Impossible to do in any long lasting way)!

Yeah, comparisons are under 2.d, but maybe I should make that more explicit.

I'm just trying to give him some kind of strategy rather than point blank list. Here, it's just 7 things to remember with subpoints, which psychologists say we can do. But I think it really incorporates about 50 actual rules of usage...

[info]amand_r wrote:
Jan. 5th, 2012 04:30 pm (UTC)
I think your approach is reasonable. You know, given what you have to work with. Even I had trouble with some of those grammar questions. It was ridic.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

Revised Checklist:
Prioritized List of Major Issues in Correcting/Improving Sentences

  1. Is it a sentence?
    1. Specifically, check that every clause (dependent and independent) has a subject and a predicate.
    2. Make certain that compound sentences are joined appropriately with coordinating conjunctions (think "FAN BOYS"--for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so--thanks to Chuck Thomas for the mnemonic) or semicolons, not commas or other punctuation.
  2. Do things agree?
    1. Specifically, if you have a plural subject, do you have a plural verb?
    2. Do the number and case of all of your pronouns match their antecedents as they (both the antecedents in terms of number and the pronouns in terms of case) appear in the sentence?
    3. What is the tense of the sentence?  Do all of the tenses line up?
    4. Are things parallel?
    5. If you have a single modifier modifying two things (usually nouns, but sometimes something else), does it carry through correctly for both?  Be especially careful of comparisons ("than," “like,” "as ____ as" constructions, etc.).
  3. How are your modifiers?
    1. Are your modifiers in the correct places?  If they are modifying nouns, are they next to them?
    2. Do they fit--number, tense, person/thing (i.e., have you given a personal verb to an inanimate object--okay in the reading section but not here? If you have "who" is it modifying a person or if "that" is it modifying a thing?, etc.)?
  4. Are the words used correctly?
    1. Are all of the words used appropriately?  See 3 b.  This is similar, but on a more global scale. In this case, you are looking for things like "less" vs. "fewer," etc.
    2. On a finer note, is the tone correct for all of the words?  Does one jump out as inappropriate?
  5. Is the sentence, or any of its clauses, in the passive voice?
    1. FYI - This change may often cause a change in the subject of the sentence.
    2. Make certain that the sentence is still a sentence after this change is made (this often appears as a trick!).
  6. Is the sentence's meaning clear?
    1. Do all of the pronouns have clear antecedents (e.g., if there is a "she" can it only be one person, or are there two females in the sentence?, etc.)?
    2. Would a comma clarify something?  Sometimes things are running together and could be clarified a couple of different ways.  A comma is often used to separate, and you may see this in the answers.
    3. Would reordering help?  Under the couple of ways to clarify, reordering ranks high.  Keep an eye out for this in the answers.
    4. Is it excessively wordy or are the clauses split up?   
  7. A note of caution:  Differing styles use commas very differently, and in looking over these sample tests, I see VERY few questions in which commas are the crux of the issue with these exceptions:
    1. Without the help of a coordinating conjunction following it, a comma cannot join two independent clauses; only a semicolon can do that.
    2. Introductory gerund phrases and dependent clauses require commas after them.
    3. Most styles now state that dependent clauses beginning with "which" require a comma (restrictive/unrestrictive set aside for the purposes of the test).  ETS seems to be following this rule.

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