Friday, October 26, 2012

Where are our graduate schools of "Educational Public Health"?

"Schooling" and "Education"
Mark Twain famously said that he never let schooling interfere with his education (1).  That's an exaggeration, no doubt, but it gets at an important phenomenon. A lot of one's education--arguably, most of it--happens outside of school.  A researcher I admire, David Berliner, writes that the data show that 60% of educational achievement results from out-of-school factors, while only 20% of achievement, at most, is based on in-school factors. This jibes with what I see every day--but it's a truth that is usually ignored in discussion of educational achievement.  When people talk about "education", they almost always mean "school."  This is unfortunate, not only for children, but for teachers, too.  I wonder if part of the reason that our discussion about education is so limited and inadequate is that we simply don't have good terms with which to talk about it.

If teachers and doctors are somewhat comparable, is there a comparable issue in looking at health?  Is most of a person's health due to factors that have nothing directly to do with doctors or treatment?  Yes, definitely!  So, to understand the schooling/education distinction, it might be helpful to look more closely at the parallel issue in health care.

The study of health, unlike education, has a very clearly defined field, separate from "medicine", that looks at the larger social factors.  That field has its own prestigious schools that parallel medical schools, its own professors, its own vast academic literature.  It also has a handy name: not "medicine" but "public health."  Education has none of these things--no insitutions, no professors, not enough literature, no handy name--and it sorely needs them.  I'd love to see Harvard's GSE renamed the Harvard Graduate School of Schooling, and a new school established--but with what name?  The Harvard Graduate School of Public Education? Probably not.  The Harvard School of Educational Public Health?  Maybe...

How Medicine and Public Health are different
The distinction between medicine and public health is an important one.  To think in terms of medicine is to think about directly "treating" the individual "patient."  To think in terms of public health is to think what factors directly or indirectly affect larger populations.  A public health perspective sees cancer not so much as an illness of the individual patient, to be treated by means of knives and poisons, but rather as a result of large-scale societal factors including various kinds of pollution, diet, or the use of alcohol or tobacco.  Broadly speaking, the public health perspective thinks about preventing problems, while the medical perspective thinks about treating those problems.

Both of these perspectives are useful and necessary, but the public health perspective is arguably far more important.  Just as out-of-school factors contribute far more to educational achievement than in-school factors, public health factors contribute far more to health than medical factors.  The dramatic increase in life expectancy over the past couple of hundred years  is due far more to improvements in public health (clean water, safer foods, vaccination, etc.)  than improvements in medical care.  Citing a CDC report as an authority, my favorite website reports: "During the 20th century, the average lifespan in the United States increased by more than 30 years, of which 25 years can be attributed to advances in public health."

The distinction between medicine and public health is well-defined and well-known, but we don't, unfortunately, make the same distinction in education.  This is regrettable, because just as direct medical care is less important for health than larger social factors, so formal schooling is less important for education than larger social factors, but these larger factors are routinely ignored in the public discourse about "education".  When the Gates foundation attempts to "advance student achievement", or when the Presidential candidates talk about how educational achievement is a key to building the American economy, or when the New York Times makes the same point, the focus is entirely on schools, and there is not even a word, not even a nod, to the "Public Health" side of things.  At best, we get the oft-repeated truism that the teacher is "the most important in-school factor in student achievement"--a sneaky formulation which glosses over the fact that out-of-school factors are far, far more important.

Why Medicine and School get too much attention!
That formal schooling isn't as important as the extracurricular environment is not a new idea.  Americans have always been somewhat suspicious of school.  Our two most famous American autobiographies, by Ben Franklin and Henry Adams, are both explicitly about extracurricular education. Nevertheless, we don't have institutions devoted to studying the out-of-school factors and how to affect them--and we don't have a name for it.

Perhaps a new term wouldn't make a difference.  Even public health, which has a pretty good, pretty well-known name, is consistently--especially in America--underestimated, underfunded, and often ignored.  In both medicine and education, there are structural reasons for ignoring the "public health" side of things and focusing on the medicine side.

First, what would be best for the public as a whole is often in conflict with some individual's local interest, and can often be painted as conflicting with the value of "freedom."  Banning tobacco in bars is one example.  There was resistance to smoking bans from tobacco companies, from smokers themselves, and from the restaurants and bars (which didn't realize that the promise of disgusting air and ashtray hair was keeping more customers away than the freedom to smoke was drawing in). Often, too, the special interests will lose much more, per person than the public interest will gain.  Clean air regulations are an example: adding a year or so to everyone's life is a good thing, but that year is, at the individual level, uncertain and far away, while affected industries may lose millions of dollars in profits right away.  So public health initiatives face an uphill battle.

Attention to and funding for the medical approach, on the other hand, have far fewer structural barriers, especially in American culture.  The most highly energized advocacy groups are those made up of people directly affected by disease, and those groups tend, naturally, to focus on treatment and cure rather than on prevention.  If you or someone you love has breast cancer, you are most concerned with getting rid of it, not with decreasing the chances that others will get it in the future.  Doctors, too, perhaps especially in our system, are far more focused on treatment than on prevention.  There's more glory in it, there's more money in it, and there's probably more immediate human satisfaction in treating a person who's suffering than there is in helping a healthy person stay healthy.

The same structural factors are at work in education.  Even though, as I said, in-school factors generally account for only about 20% of educational achievement (and a key in-school factor, the other students in the building, might be considered an out-of-school factor!) while out-of-school factors account for about 60% of achievement, there is far more focus on schools--what we might call treatment--than on the extracurricular environment.  We are all worried about our own individual schools.  Students, parents, and teachers want to make our schools as good as they can be.  Nearly everyone living in Leafstrewn, even those without kids, wants the schools to be as good as they can be, because then Leafstrewn will be a more attractive place to live, property values will rise, richer people will move in, and so on.

Educational public health, on the other hand, has no particular constituency.  Sure, there are a few scattered folks at Ed. Schools who work on these matters, and a few here and there in psychology, public policy, economics or sociology departments, or at think tanks (2), and there are teachers and parents who are keenly aware that education is about much, much more than just school, but the idea lacks a coherent interest group.

A local habitation and a name
There is all the more reason, then, to come up with a term, to build institutions that will study it and advocate for it, and to make sure never to ignore it when we are discussing schools.

But what to call it?  Anyone have any ideas?

(1) Mark Twain was not alone.  Bruce Springsteen learned more from a two-minute record than he ever learned in school. Paul Simon had some choice words about what he learned in high school and how it affected his ability to think.  John Ashbery writes that in school "all the thought got combed out."  For these writers, school was not where education happened.  But even when education does happen in school, its effects are often dwarfed by out-of-school effects.
(2)  I have learned a lot from reading the work of, among many others, Christopher Jencks, Richard Rothstein, David Berliner, B.J. BiddleHelen Ladd, Stanley Aronowitz, Stephen Krashen, and Gerald Coles.  Of those, I think only Berliner and Krashen held positions in Ed. Schools, and Krashen started out in a Linguistics department.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Teaching and Doctoring--Two Kinds of Ministry

My mom is now undergoing treatment for breast cancer, so I've been thinking a lot about medical care, about how medical care is becoming more and more standardized, impersonal, mechanical, algorithmic.  For cancer care, this is probably largely a good idea--and a lot of people are pushing education in the same directions that medicine has been taking--greater standardization, increased central planning, attempts to be "data-driven" or "research-based."  I wonder whether that's as good an idea in education as it is in medicine.  I also wonder whether it might be useful to compare teaching and doctoring in other ways as well.

Except for the obvious difference--how much we're paid--doctors and teachers actually have a lot in common.  A friend tells me that when she was deciding what to do with her life she only really considered two options: being a High School English teacher or going to medical school.  She opted for med school, and now she's an OB/GYN.  We teachers and doctors are some of the few people outside of the pages of the New York Times who still get called by our last names and an honorific.  Teachers and doctors both serve essential societal functions, and both are  central to debates about the role of governments and of private enterprise.  Both are huge parts of the economy.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics actually lumps "education and health services" together into one category, by far the largest (23% of total US workers are in education or health, as contrasted with 10% in manufacturing, 14% in wholesale and retail trade, and 2% in agriculture).  Teachers and doctors are also both significant authority figures in nearly all Americans' individual lives; the only comparable figure is the pastor.  Another friend tells me that she knows a number of former teachers who are now nurses, and that one of them told her it was a natural shift, since both were forms of ministry.

Ministry is a good word for it, and pastors, like doctors and teachers, often face burn-out, are often overwhelmed by the human flood they are constantly inundated by--but pastors are (pace Philip Larkin and his long coats) in a different sphere.  Nietszche says something like, "Away with physicians--we need a savior!"  He's right.  Teachers and doctors can't be saviors; we're just people, and it's only teachers and doctors who are caught between the technical and human, the tension between treating the patient and treating the person.

Over the next few months, I want to think a little more closely about some of the parallels between medicine and teaching, between health and education.  I'd like to think about standardized care/pedagogy vs. personalized care/pedagogy.  I'd like to think about the way the federal government is involved, or not involved, in health care and in education.  What else?  I know there are other parallels...  But I'll start, later this week, by considering the difference between medicine and public health--and whether there might be an analogous distinction in education.

Friday, October 19, 2012

One third of my ninth grade class reports never finishing a book in middle school

I do not want to be one of those teachers who says, "My students never read a book until I inspired them, and now they love reading!"  I don't think I'm particularly inspiring, and I know that many of my students are never going to LOVE reading.  Nevertheless, I am going to report a conversation my students and I had in one of my ninth grade classes yesterday.

After my ninth graders read their free-choice books for 30 minutes (yesterday was a 70-minute block), I asked them to discuss with a neighbor how the reading in class was going, how it compared with reading at home, and when they had first started to enjoy reading.  After a couple of minutes I let them share out if they wanted to. The sharing led to a pretty interesting ten-minute discussion of reading in general, and for the first time in this class a number of kids talked openly about how little they had read for much of their lives.

First it came out that about half of the students much preferred reading in school to reading at home, because in school there weren't nearly as many distractions.  Of course, the other half of the students preferred reading at home for exactly the same reason!

Then about six kids talked about how and why they had first started to read.  Every story had the same structure: "Until I was in __th grade, I hated reading.  It was hard for me, I was bad at it, and I hated it.  Then in ___the grade I read _________, and that book made me like reading.  Now I still don't like reading just anything, but if I get a book I like, I'll read right through it."  The grade at which these epiphanies occurred varied, but for every one of the six kids who talked, the epiphany had happened in fifth grade or later.  Three of the kids said they had never enjoyed reading at all until this year--one of them after taking a summer literacy class that did a lot of in-class independent reading and two of them after finding books they liked in the first month of school in my class..

One of those kids, who said he had never really enjoyed a book until he read John Green's Paper Towns (he's now in the middle of The Fault in Our Stars  and liking it less), said that in fact he had, during the two years he spent in middle school (he went to BB&N), never finished a whole book.  I was surprised, and someone else said, "Me too."  I pressed them, but they asserted that this was true.  I heard other rumblings, so I said, Okay, raise your hand if you didn't finish a single whole book in middle school.  A third of the class raised their hands.

Could they possibly be telling the truth?  I told this story to a few of my colleagues, and one of them couldn't believe it.  I myself think it's plausible.  They didn't say they hadn't ever read a book, only that over those two years they had never finished a book.  If the class is structured in a traditional way, with a lot of emphasis on whole-class texts, and if teachers don't pay close attention to what kids are reading independently, with a significant amount done in class, then it is pretty easy for students to get away without reading much.

Again, I am not telling this story because I think that trying to create a culture of reading is going to make these kids love reading.  Many of them will probably still not like it very much.  But I do think there is a lot of room for improvement if a third of the students in that class can have gotten through the last two years without finishing a single book.  To change that all you have to do is give them quiet time and books to read.

Beyond the issue of whether students are reading or not, there lies another, deeper issue: sometimes I'm not even sure that having kids read more is going to help them that much.  That's why the question that a colleague of mine recently asked--How do we measure the effects of what we're doing?--is so haunting.  Even if our students read five times as much this year as last year, and even if it makes a real difference to them, how will we know?

I'll try to hold off on worrying that until another time.  For now, I'm just going to be happy that most of my students seem to be enjoying the reading they're doing in class.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Creating a culture of reading: posters, stickers, and gold stars

(Too much non-literacy stuff on this blog recently, so here's a quick one about reading:)

I. The Chart
Last week I followed the example of a colleague and put up a chart on which my ninth class could chart its independent reading.  The chart is a "Reading Tree"--I drew the outline of a big tree trunk, or its lower section, on a piece of big paper.  The trunk will be filled in with stickers.  Each kid in the class will, every couple of weeks, get one small round sticker for every 50 pages he or she has read.  They will write their initials on their stickers, and then apply the stickers to the tree trunk.  AS the trunk fills over the course of the year, we can add more paper above, and the tree will "grow." We will maybe also draw some branches on the tree and put up leaves, each bearing the title of a completed book, but we haven't gotten to that yet.

I felt a little funny drawing up the chart and buying the stickers--it seemed more appropriate to a first grade classroom than to high school.  I'm somewhat self-conscious about my own position of authority in the classroom, and I feared that my students would look on it with the disdain that low-wage employees might have for a morale-raising program that involved stickers rather than more material rewards.  Even now, having put the chart up and doled out the first round of stickers, I feel ambivalent. The homely chart now sits on the wall of my classroom, looking kind of forgotten.

I had pretty low expectations, and I almost didn't get around to doing it, and even now I can't quite believe I'm using stickers as a way to try to boost morale--but I had told my students I would, and they kept bringing it up, so I finally did it--and, to use a John Green-style typography, when I did finally do it, IT WENT INCREDIBLY WELL!

II. Some student reactions during the process

"How many stickers do I get?"

                                                 "Does the summer reading count?"

"Oh, I like the blue ones--they're prettier!"

                                                                   "How did you get so many stickers?"

"This is so fun--I love stickers."

                                         "Look, she got so many!"

"I'm going to get more next time!" 

                "Hey, check out our tree!" 


III. Takeaways?
Overall, it was amazing and a little disconcerting.  I have never before aimed for this kind of simple, sweet, cheerleading tone in my classes.  I have always had an edge of irony, and I've always expected kids to be somewhat ironical as well--because I always was.  When I was a kid, I never took the earnestness of teachers seriously.  That does not mean that some of my earnest teachers weren't excellent teachers, even for me, but I was not at all prepared for the (apparent) success of the sticker chart.

What does this experience mean?  It means, for me, I must learn to do wholeheartedly the kind of teaching that I really believe in--I've known for years that irony was cheap, but I could never embrace teaching in complete earnest.  I think it's time.  For all of us, I think it means that we have an amazing amount of control over the reading culture that we create, and that teachers can create high expectations and reward student effort and achievement without formal lessons, without explicit instruction, and without using grades as a club.

Arne Duncan's life of privilege seems to have limited his imagination

From an article in today's NYT, here's Arne Duncan: “When everyone is treated the same, I can’t think of a more demeaning way of treating people."

Hm.  I can think of some more demeaning ways.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

More on the non-golden age of the 50s...

This is not directly literacy-related, but it supports and confirms what I was talking about in my last post, so I'll just mention it quickly.  Richard Rothstein, who has for years and years been doing a great job of patiently and repeatedly dismantling the idea that schools and teachers are the best way to overcome poverty, has a wonderful, entertaining and painful article in The American Prospect. I'll give the basic story here, but it's worth reading the whole thing.

I. Joel Klein's non-evidence-based BS
Joel Klein--who represents better perhaps than anyone else (see footnote) the idea that if only we put billionaires in charge of our schools and gave them a free hand to hire, fire and generally wreak havoc, then public education will be able to cure all of our country's social ills (which are now largely the result of incompetent, undisciplined teachers who have read too much Paulo Freire)--Joel Klein is always citing his own life story to show that all you need are good teachers to lift you out of inner-city poverty and public housing.  According to Klein, he himself grew up poor and in public housing, in a family that offered him no support for reading or other cultural activities, but his public school teachers held him to high standards, and he went to Columbia and on to a successful career, so therefore poverty is not an insurmountable impediment, and his story shows that "you'll never fix poverty in America until you fix education."

The most obvious problem with this story is that one anecdote does not prove much of anything.  A larger problem is that the nation's schools were not, by any objective measure, any better overall in the 50s or 60s than they are now. But the biggest problem with the story is one you wouldn't know unless you did what Richard Rothstein did and actually looked into it: Klein's account of his own childhood is essentially untrue in every particular.

Klein was not in fact poor: his postal-worker father and bookkeeper mother probably made significantly more than the national median household income.

Klein's family did offer him culture and literacy.  In fact, Klein was inspired to become a lawyer because his father would take him to the federal courthouse in Manhattan to watch cases, and if his family was like many other middle-class Jewish New York families of his era, education was probably valued as much as life itself.

Klein did grow up in public housing, but it was in no way like public housing as we have become accustomed to think of it.  The words "public housing" for most evoke notions of crime-ridden wastelands, subsidized permanently by the government, inhabited by single parents and terrified children who are mostly people of color.  The public housing Klein grew up in, by contrast, was not rent-subsidized, and in fact could be seen as a bastion of white middle-class privilege: the application process excluded single-parents, anyone with a criminal record, anyone with an out-of-wedlock birth, anyone with a history of drug addiction or mental illness, and most people of color (there was essentially a quota system intended to keep the neighborhood balance the same as it was before). In other words, the social problems, as Rothstein puts it, were "weeded out by the Housing Authority."  This is not what most people think of when they hear "public housing."

So Joel Klein's biography does not actually provide any evidence that a poor kid growing up in a dangerous and unhealthy neighborhood with little family support can be saved by a good teacher.  Instead, it reinforces the obvious truth that a middle-class kid growing up in a safe and healthy neighborhood with significant family support will do well in school and will appreciate a good teacher when he gets one--as Klein appreciated his high school physics teacher.

II. Parallel Childhoods
One of the strengths of Richard Rothstein's article exposing Klein's BS is that Rothstein and Klein turn out to have had parallel childhoods.  Like Klein, Rothstein grew up in a middle class neighborhood in New York with a postal worker father and a bookkeeper mother, went to public school and went on to an Ivy League college. The two men even had the same physics teacher. But while Klein complains about not having a Mitt-Romney-like childhood and pretends that schools in the fifties were so great as to make up for his deprivation, Rothstein is aware that it was his family support that made the difference.  Rothstein even tells us that when he wanted to apply to Harvard, his high school refused to process the application (because "boys from here don't go to Harvard") until Rothstein's father took the day off from work to come in and talk to the Principal.  So much, as Rothstein says, for the golden age of the 50s.

For most people, as for Rothstein and probably Klein, education in the 1950s was no better than it is now.  Then, as now, there are lots of kids from middle-class homes and parents without college degrees who are pushed and supported by their families and go on to great academic success.  My father and stepfather are both examples of this: both grew up in stable middle-class homes, with parents who hadn't been to college; both were pushed and supported by their parents.  My father, who went to a small rural high school in the midwest, was one of two kids in his high school class to go to college, but he ended up at MIT.  My stepfather grew up in a Mitchell-Lama building in Washington Heights, with parents who hadn't gone to college, and he went on to be valedictorian at Bronx Science; he also went on to MIT.

Neither my father nor my stepfather would ever say that their 50s and 60s public schools were responsible for their success.  Their schools were OK, but most students in those schools did not achieve such dramatic success. Instead, what allowed my father and stepfather to excel so remarkably was the support and encouragement of their middle-class parents, the fact that they were not surrounded by miserable poverty, and probably the fact that they themselves were pretty gifted.

III. Rothstein's concluding peroration
Again, it's worth reading the whole article, but here are a couple of paragraphs from the end of it:

"It would be obscene for me to claim I overcame severe hardship and was rescued from deprivation by schoolteachers. It is more obscene for Klein to do so, because his claim supports attacks on contemporary teachers and a refusal to acknowledge impediments teachers face because of their students’ social and economic deprivation. It’s a deprivation that he never suffered but that many children from public housing do today.
"A few superhuman teachers may lift a handful of children who come to school from barely literate homes, hungry, in poor health, and otherwise unprepared for academic instruction. But even the best teachers face impossible tasks when confronted with classrooms filled with truly disadvantaged students who are not in tracked special-progress classes and don’t arrive each morning from families as academically supportive as mine. Instead, they may come from segregated communities where concentrated and entrenched poverty, unemployment, and social alienation over many generations have been ravaging."

IV. My own conclusion: the subtext of Klein's and others'  master narrative
(I don't have time to write this in an articulate way, since I have to enter interim progress reports, but I'll take ten minutes and make an attempt.)

Klein's story is obscene, but its obscenity is not unique to Joel Klein; in fact, it is part of a larger cultural phenomenon, the anxious attempts by our ruling classes to assert that they deserve their own extraordinary privileges,  and I think we need to understand the current emphasis, by these ruling classes, on education and education reform as a part of this larger cultural phenomenon.

This need to deny one's own cultural advantages can be seen not only in Klein's absurd story, but in the absurd assertions by successful aristocrats like Mitt Romney that they are self-made men ("I inherited nothing").  Our society is in many ways less a meritocracy than it was 50 years ago, but the ruling classes want to pretend that it is.  (This is, I believe, the thesis of a book I haven't read, The Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, by the estimable Christopher Hayes.)  The ruling elites know they are smart and have worked hard, and they want, perhaps understandably, to pretend that their success is due to their own efforts.  The elites' emphasis on education has to be seen in the light of this pretense.

Every time a politician pays lip service, as Obama did in his disastrous debate, to the idea that education is the best way to rebuild our economy and create jobs, we should remember that this is a self-serving argument, and one that implicitly blames the poor for their own condition. When we see articles that say that even high-priced colleges are a great investment, we should consider that college, for many students in a country whose top college major is "Business", may be as much a matter of what I think Jane Jacobs calls "credentialing" and what I always think of as analogous to a guild system; that is, a college degree functions as a class marker, and the four years of hard work or debauchery at an expensive campus is less about education than about your parents trying to ensure that you remain in the upper middle class.

What we are living in is less meritocracy than plutocracy, and saying that our educational system is failing is a way of displacing blame for the increasing inequality whose effects are all around us, if we only have eyes to see. (This is not to say that education doesn't matter, nor to say that individual teachers can make a difference--and in fact I am trying my best, but we teachers can't do it all by ourselves.)

Footnote: Joel Klein's career

Hired in 1998 by billionaire Mayor Bloomberg, Joel Klein was for years the Chancellor of the largest public school system in the country despite having no prior experience in education (he was counsel for a huge corporation); after resigning in 2010, Klein now works for two other billionaires Rupert Murdoch (Klein is trying to sell media to public schools) and for Eli Broad (Klein is in charge of Broad's massive effort to put "reform"-minded (anti-union, pro-privatization) superintendents in place across the country).

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Writing Counterrevolution

I. "The Writing Revolution"
There's an interesting but insidious article about writing instruction, "The Writing Revolution," in this month's Atlantic.  The article tells the story of a high school on Staten Island that changed the way it taught writing and saw its test scores and graduation rates improve significantly.

The changes in the writing instruction don't seem unreasonable--an increased focus on argument and grammar, along with a heavy use of sentence stubs and frameworks (e.g. "I agree/disgagree that_____, because _____")--and it seems possible that instituting a coherent writing and thinking curriculum as a big part of a schoolwide overhaul could be a big improvement in a bad school. Why, then, does the article so raise my hackles?

I think it's mainly because the article takes this one curricular shift and weaves it, with a lot of dangerously simplistic received ideas, into a standard narrative of recovering a lost golden age--in this case, the golden age of the 1950s. According to the article, the school's shift to "formal lessons in grammar, sentence structure and essay-writing" was a return to the ways that "would not be un­familiar to nuns who taught in Catholic schools circa 1950." This counterrevolution (the article's headline is misleading) was necessary, according to the article's narrative, because misguided educational movements of the 60s, 70s and 80s had led schools away from teaching "the fundamentals" and toward a weak, pointless curriculum of "creative-writing" in a "fun, social context."

This long-term narrative is annoyingly untethered to any hard data.  Were students better writers in the 1950s?  I doubt it very much.  The best data we have on long-term trends comes from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which shows little change from 1971 to 2008, but if anything shows a gradual upward trend.  If the story this Atlantic article is telling has much truth to it--if there was a shift in the 70s and 80s to a more fun and creative writing curriculum that ruined academic achievement across the country--then we should see NAEP scores going down.  But they don't go down, they go (slightly) up! Here are the National NAEP reading scores for 13 year olds:

1971       255
1975       256
1980       258
1984       257
1988       257
1990       257
1992       260
1996       258
1999       259
2004       259
2008       260

The reading scores for 9 year olds, who wouldn't have had as much schooling, and 17-year olds, who had more, tell basically the same story.  Students in 1971 had not had much time to be ruined, as the article implies they were, by teachers teaching Paulo Freire in Ed school, and yet they seem to have been no more literate than students in the nineties, or in 2008.

The particular story the Atlantic article tells, about one high school that changed (among other things) its writing instruction, is an interesting anecdote, one whose facts could be probed further (what else was changed at the school?) and whose meaning can be debated (even if the shift in writing curriculum was responsible for a dramatic improvement in academic achievement, is it possible that any coherent writing curriculum, even one that focused on personal or creative writing, could have had the same effect?).  The interesting anecdote, however, is put in the context of a larger narrative that seems to be clearly and demonstrably wrong.  It is simply not true that because misguided 60s and 70s pinkos, in the name of freedom, stopped teaching anything, student achievement plummeted.  Whatever teachers were doing in the 70s, 80s and 90s, student achievement did not plummet.

II. "How Self-Expression Damaged My Students"
The main Atlantic article is accompanied by a shorter piece by a former "teacher" (the guy seems to have used a brief stint in the New York public schools as a stepping stone from a career in magazine publishing to a career in the Ed Reform industry), entitled "How Self-Expression Damaged My Students." This bizarre article likens the "Reader's and Writer's Workshop" approach (one that this guy used in his classroom) to a "cargo cult."  In other words, the reading and writing his students did was, as he sees it, as totally pointless as the building of runways by primitive peoples who hoped that by imitating the form of an airfield they could bring back the airdrops of supplies and food that had come during the war.  This comparison is so insane on so many levels that I am not going to take the time to analyze it.

Later in his article, apparently realizing that he has gone off the deep end, the author tries to reel himself back, writing, "Let me hasten to add that there should be no war between expressive writing and explicit teaching of grammar and mechanics," but he goes on to argue that "at present, we expend too much effort trying to get children to 'live the writerly life' and 'develop a lifelong love of reading.'" And he concludes by implying that it is ten times more important to teach grammar and mechanics than to try to get kids to love reading and writing by having them actually do it.

These people are all about data, but where is the data that shows that grammar and mechanics "instruction" works better than just reading a lot? It sounds like the author of the Atlantic article had his students spend way too much time on the writing process and not nearly enough time reading, but just because he was bad at it does not mean that getting kids to develop a lifelong love of reading won't help them read and write better.  It almost certainly will.  Grammar and mechanics instruction, on the other hand, should be a small part of the curriculum.

III. What, then, to think? (Besides that the Atlantic is owned by right-wing crazies...)
I'm not sure what my own overarching narrative is (maybe that we're in the middle of a decades-long counterrevolution in which we are making the poor poorer, blaming them for the results of their poverty, and then telling them they ought to act more like they did in the 50s, when people respected their betters?), but I am pretty sure that these people in the Atlantic don't have the right one.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Pleasure Reading, Close Reading, Deep Immersion Reading, and Magnetic Resonance Imaging

I. Pleasure reading makes good readers

Almost all good readers spent a lot of time reading for pleasure as kids.  That time is chipped away at every year; two of my students told me today that after elementary school their pleasure reading time has diminished every year.  They both mentioned AP US History as something that took up a lot of their time this year.  One of them said that he still tried to read for pleasure, but it was like "One page of Henry James, and then one page of AP Achiever."

I have a few reactions to what my students said.  One is to think, again, that if our students' time is like Africa, and we teachers are the European imperial powers, fighting to grab as much as possible for ourselves, then at my school APUSH plays the role of England, and we English teachers end up, ironically, something like Italy.  Of course, that analogy would imply that it might have been better to let the kids alone to go off and read Henry James, just as it would have been better for the world if Europe hadn't gone on its colonizing binge...

Another reaction is to think that the English department should have an AP course, so that we can colonize more of our students' time--and give Henry James a province of his own.  But I don't love segregation by ability...

Another reaction is to think that this kid's advanced reading ability (James is difficult for most high school students) is due hardly at all to his in-school literacy activities, and almost entirely to his literate family and his endless hours of pleasure reading in elementary school.  This thought makes me feel good about spending a lot of energy and class time encouraging pleasure reading, especially in my non-Honors level classes.

As I've said before, you can become an excellent reader and thinker without ever getting explicit instruction in English class, solely by "sitting around reading books and drinking tea."  So why not include more of that, of sitting around reading books and drinking tea, in our high school English classes?

II. But New Research seems to show that pleasure reading doesn't get your brain going...

Reason to eschew pleasure reading in favor of close analysis of short texts is offered by new research that has been getting a fair amount of media attention.  The research, conducted by a Michigan State English professor, apparently shows that when readers switch from skimming a text, "as they might do in a bookstore," to reading it closely and analytically, they start using much more of their brain, including areas of the brain that aren't usually associated with reading or analysis, but instead are associated with movement or thought.  This study, while still only "preliminary," is being hailed as a justification for literary analysis, and, interestingly, a reason to privilege thinking "about" a book rather than just reading it for pleasure.  Unfortunately, the study hasn't been published yet, so all we have are confusing stories about it in the popular press, and it's not clear what the larger implications are.

The MRI study apparently showed a "global increase in blood flow" to the brain during close reading.  During "pleasure" reading, the blood flow increased  as well, but in different areas.  If the study's results hold, Natalie Philips, the literature professor who is the lead investigator, has said, then "it's not only what we read – but thinking rigorously about it that's of value."

If Philips is right, then those parts of my classes that involves basically sitting around reading and drinking tea may be less helpful than the parts of my classes that have my students doing close reading, analysis and metacognition.  But based on (a close reading of) the articles about her research, I'm not so sure.

III. Is "pleasure reading" or "skimming" the same as deep immersion reading?

There are a few problems with Philips's conclusion that "thinking rigorously about" what you read is more important than just reading it for pleasure.  The most important problem is that it's not clear what is meant by "pleasure" reading.  Philips uses the phrases "pleasure reading" and close reading" to distinguish the two kinds of reading that her subjects were switching between while in the MRI machine, but the subjects are also described as being instructed to "leisurely skim a passage as they would in a bookstore."  Now, this does not sound like "pleasure reading" to me.  When I "skim" something, I don't do it in a "leisurely" way, and I don't find reading in bookstores particularly pleasurable.  When I read for pleasure, I am much, much more deeply involved.  I enter what Nancie Atwell calls the "reading zone".  This deep immersion reading is very far from skimming in a bookstore.

Oddly, Natalie Philips, the professor running the study, also describes this deep immersion reading.  She says, "I am someone who can actually become so absorbed in a novel that I really think the house could possibly burn down around me and I wouldn't notice."  Unfortunately, it's not at all clear whether this kind of deep immersion reading was occurring in her study.  Skimming or browsing in a bookstore is clearly not deep immersion reading--and neither, it would seem, is reading a text closely "as a scholar might read a text while conducting a literary analysis."

So... I think we need more data.  I would love to see the same study done with a more rigorous attempt to define different types of reading.  I suspect that you would see dramatically different patterns of brain activity--and I wouldn't be surprised if "pleasure reading" of the deep immersion kind provoked just as much activity, across just as wide a range of brain areas, as close reading of the scholarly kind.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Parents' Night as a Parent

My son is a seventh grader at a newly merged middle school, and last night I went to parents' night.   It's always interesting to see back to school night from the parent's point of view--the way the teachers manage, annoyingly, to leave no time for questions, reading tediously through handouts that I had already skimmed before the teacher even started talking, the extraordinary goodwill that nevertheless obtains throughout the evening, the amazing relief that I felt to find that my son's teachers were humane, caring, and competent.  But I was also interested in the way the ELA teacher was handling reading.
I. The building
Before I got to the classrooms and the teachers, however, I had to enter the building, which is such a depressing monstrosity that I have to write about it briefly before I go on.

The building is of the architectural school called, in a 1966 book, "The New Brutalism."

I daresay my son's school might be one of the most unpleasant and unwelcoming Brutalist buildings ever built.  I'm usually not someone who cares much about the quality of the school building (Leafstrewn High is beautiful, but my classroom is largely unadorned, some of my earlier teaching jobs were in pretty run-down environments, and I spent many hours in semi-Brutalist classrooms at MIT and other places), but this building is so oppressively, ostentatiously awful that it's impossible to visit and not venture some interpretation of its awfulness.

This architectural style is famous for seeming, at best, totally indifferent to the human form and scale--and at worst, aggressively, even violently hostile to the unfortunate people who have to live, work, or go to school in them.  They're not just inhospitable; it's often not even clear how or where you're supposed to enter them.

Here are some other Brutalist buildings (where's the entrance?  where are the people?) from France, Buffalo, and Boston:

Now here's my son's school.  The entrance has been painted red, perhaps in an attempt to make it cheery or noticeable, but mainly as if the windowless massif above were crushing the entranceway, and anyone foolish enough to attempt ingress, into a bloody pulp. The signage is appropriate.


If the outside is horrendous, the inside of the school is perhaps even worse.  The exterior looks kind of three-dimensional, but once you're inside, beyond the tomb-like lobby, the school is nothing more than one very, very long hallway, and it feels, as my son says, like a jail.  In any case, it doesn't seem accidental that this school has over most of its history served a mostly low-income population; its demeaning demeanor may have served to prepare its poor students for their future, and its bunker-like design looks all set to be defended against rioting masses.

Today it has a more mixed student body, and no doubt after the rich parents start complaining the building will change. Fortunately, the school itself seems to be on the right track.

II. Reading Workshop
No matter what happens to the building, the school already seems to have moved in the direction of a fairly enlightened pedagogy--and that's my main subject here.  While the school has some of the stylistic fillips of an urban charter school (for instance, the students are called "scholars"), it also retains significant vestiges of the alternative school that was one of its forebears (the teachers are called by their first names).  But its most enlightened and, to me, surprising element is its full-on reading workshop model curriculum in the ELA classes.

My son's ELA teacher came from his alternative school (that was merged with three other K-8 upper schools to create this new middle school), but she didn't bring the reading workshop model with her.  On the contrary, the reading workshop model was actually imposed on her.  At the K-8 school, she worked very closely with the Social Studies teacher to create an integrated "Humanities" curriculum--more or less one class taught by two teachers, apparently in large part on a "Facing History and Ourselves" model.  Now, at the new middle school, the ELA teacher has had to radically change her pedagogy, because of a district-wide mandate to use an extreme form of the reader's workshop model.

I don't mean "extreme form" in a pejorative sense--I think this is a great idea! What I mean is, I've never seen or heard of anyone giving their students (or scholars!) as much in-class time to read as this excellent teacher says she is doing.  By her account, she spends an average of 25 minutes a day on independent reading.  In the words of my son, who is prone to exaggeration: "All we ever do in class is read."

This is unusual, I think.  Even the high priestess of reading workshop, Nancie Atwell, only spends, according to her (wonderful) book, The Reading Zone, about 20 minutes of class time a day on independent reading (1)--and Atwell has 80 minute periods, as compared with the 50-minute periods at my son's school.  So while Atwell spends only 25% of her allotted time on independent reading, my son's teacher is spending 50%.  Half of their ELA time is spent reading.  Wow!

Such an emphasis on independent reading does not mean that my son's teacher is giving up on whole class books, but the way she handles whole-class books is also fairly different.  Just now, they are reading Animal Farm together.  Instead of assigning chapters to be read independently, at home, the teacher is reading it aloud to the class, and while she reads the students are following along in their copies of the book.

That one teacher is pursuing such a radical shift in methods is remarkable; what's really amazing to me is that that shift, as she tells it, is district-wide, and mandated from the top down.  This is pretty surprising, not only because such a big shift in curriculum is a huge burden to ask teachers to take on, and I would expect a lot of teachers to be pretty grumbly about it, but also because a shift to a reading workshop model is a shift toward less teacher control and more student autonomy, toward less direct instruction and more independent learning, and a shift away from the kind of short-sighted narrowly test-driven curriculum that a lot of districts are adopting.  So, it's surprising, but it's also smart.

Because in fact this kind of ELA class is perfect for this school, and it seems to be working well so far.  The students in my son's class vary widely in academic ability and reading level, and independent reading allows them to go at their own pace and at their own level.  Reading the Orwell book to them is smart for the same reason, and the teacher says that whereas in other years at least half the class had a lot of trouble staying engaged with the novel and keeping up with the reading, this year almost every single student is following it and enjoying it.


Nancie Atwell's book about reading closes with a passionate appeal to high school teachers to buck what she calls the "secondary English status quo," a "pedagogical paradigm that, in combination with a national standards movement, conspires" to waste teens' time, make them put leisure reading on pause for four years while they "do English" (2).  She tells scary stories of students who loved reading in middle school only to graduate to a deadening routine of assigned, lockstep reading, quizzes, vocabulary lists and five-paragraph essays.  I think Atwell is largely right, and I'm glad my son's school is letting him read.  Now if I can only make it work in my own classroom...

Next week maybe I'll write about what parents' night is like at my own school.

1. Atwell, The Reading Zone, Scholastic, 2007, p. 119
2. Ibid., p. 107