Many years ago when I was six weeks into my first year as a teacher, I went to my department head with an idea. I had become aware that the 8th grade social studies classes were studying the Holocaust and thought that we 8th grade English teachers could parallel that with a study of semantics. My department head encouraged me to research my idea. So I read S.I. Hayakawa for the first time and fell in love with the power of his thinking. I became excited about the possibilities for having students explore the relationship between language and thought in their English classes and see the connections they could make to their study of the Holocaust in their social studies classes. What resulted was a shared collaboration between the two departments that enriched the education of 8th graders.
Years later in another district when I was the English curriculum leader, a teacher came to me with the unconventional idea to have the first book in a sophomore honors level American literature class be the most difficult book in the entire course instead of beginning the course, as was the usual practice, with short stories, poems, or simpler novels. She had the idea that, by introducing students to that most challenging text, it would invite them into deep philosophical thinking and introduce them to many of the seminal ideas in the American experience in the first weeks of the course. She thought it would raise the bar for the students and enrich all of their subsequent reading experiences. I encouraged her to try it. What resulted is a curriculum that has, over the years, transformed thousands of adolescents into brand new intellectual thinkers and awakened them as deeply engaged scholars.
At another time when I was a curriculum leader, a teacher of AP Literature and Composition said she would like to try a different way of grading in order to challenge her students to grow as much possible. She said that, instead of averaging a student’s grades from the quarter, each student’s final grade would be what that student had become by the end of the quarter. So a student with grades on her writing assignments of D, D+,C+, C-, C+, B-, C, B+, A-, A- would not receive a final quarter grade of the average of those grades but would receive a writing grade of an A- because the student had become an A- writer. What resulted was a teacher setting very high standards for achievement and giving students opportunities to reach those standards without penalizing them for their early shortcomings.
And at yet another time, a teacher came to me and wanted to teach an alternate book to one that was in the curriculum. He wanted to replace The Scarlet Letter with The Grapes of Wrath. I asked him to explain to me: 1) how the students could be challenged to develop the same skills as questioners, collaborators, responders to literature, and writers as they did with the book already in the curriculum, and 2) how students would explore the same seminal ideas about the American experience with his suggested book as they did with the one already chosen for the curriculum. He reported back in detail how he would do both. What resulted was a new book for teachers to choose for their classes and an alternate reading experience for students.
Each of these stories is about a teacher with a passion for teaching and with the opportunity to use his or her mind to bring that passion into the classroom. The days of those opportunities are over in most public schools.
Peter Greene points out why this has happened. He says it’s due to the Common Core. He explains that, although the Common Core failed to accomplish its goal of a uniform education across the nation because “the Core was revealed as both political kryptonite and amateur-hour educational junk”, the Core has won one victory. The Common Core has “swept away the notion that actual teachers and administrators are experts in education. Instead, the standards-based school district now assumes that nobody in the school system actually knows what should be taught, and that the most they can be trusted with is to “unpack” the standards and create a checklist-certified list of education activities that will meet the standards’ demands”. He also writes that many university schools of education are preparing prospective teachers for that same kind of diminished role.
Peter Greene laments that the one victory that Common Core can claim is the “defeat of professional educators, the clampdown on teacher autonomy”.
Intelligent and motivated public school teachers will not last in the teaching profession if they are not encouraged to use their minds but rather are charged to simply implement the content of the Common Core, a content which serves only the makers of multiple choice tests, and to practice the totally outmoded and unsuccessful pedagogy prescribed by the non-educators who wrote the Common Core.
Who then wins if those with the best minds and the deepest passion for teaching leave the profession or are not even motivated to enter it?
As we are thinking up our New Year’s resolutions, how about justice for our kids?
National standards do not make for justice. Multiple choice testing does not make for justice. Ignoring the effects of race and poverty on children’s ability to learn does not make for justice.
Kids’ backgrounds are not equal. Their test scores will never be equal. But their education can be equitable if we help all students to grow from where the are and to develop fully as engaged learners and strong thinkers .
Intentions matter. Let’s resolve in 2018 to educate all kids, not just test them.
Please watch this two minute video:
We are hearing the same thing from so many people in the know. Tom Friedman, who writes in Thank You For Being Late about how work will change in the future due to advanced technology and increased use of artificial intelligence, says it. Tony Wagner, Harvard professor and author of The Global Achievement Gap in which he identifies the skills students need to survive in that future world of work, says it. The September 27, 2017 issue of Ed Week, which talks about how K-12 education needs to change, says it. They all loudly and clearly proclaim the same thing: The education we now provide will not serve our students in the future because the needs of the future are not the needs of the past, and schools are currently meeting the demands of the past.
So what is a teacher to do? What is a school district to do? What are parents to do?
It would be great for us as a society to engage in a deep conversation about the nature of learning and how to assess that learning. I am ready for that conversation and know other educators who also long for it. In the meantime, here are three practical suggestions that teachers and school districts can implement immediately:
- Teach students to question.
- Teach students to write essays that explore questions of importance to them.
- Teach students to write essays about how their thinking evolved and changed.
These suggestions make real the Tony Wagner Seven Survival Skills for the future: critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration, agility and adaptability, initiative, effective oral and written communication, accessing and analyzing information, and, most of all, curiosity and imagination. The also help students to succeed in the rapidly changing world Friedman describes. Most of all, students do what Ed Week points out is necessary for their future – develop as learners and thinkers.
Teaching Students to Question
To prepare young people for their future, learning can no longer be about a teacher talking and students listening, not about one person giving information and the other person receiving it. We have computers for that.
I remember taking my three-year old grandson to a space museum and realizing that he didn’t know the word astronaut. When we went home, I wanted to show him what an astronaut is by showing him a video of astronauts returning from a space flight. So I searched for a video on my laptop. I couldn’t immediately find what I wanted so I was frustrated. My little grandson said, “You have to be patient, Grandma. It will come.” At three, he knew that information is available with a click.
In my first years as a teacher, I had file folders full of information about the differing ways the character of Hamlet had been interpreted over the ages, the symbolism in The Scarlet Letter, biographical information about Arthur Miller, and so much more. I told my students to prepare for their final exams by reviewing the notes I had given them because my notes contained what was important for them to remember. All the essays I assigned asked the students to prove something they already knew. Never again.
I learned that telling students what to think and teaching only one kind of writing had to change if I were to develop students who who can think critically and creatively.
Preparing students for the future, I have found, begins with students asking questions to which they don’t have answers but would like to have those answers. Teachers and students then collaborate with one another as they discuss their questions. The questions differ. Some of the students have questions about facts, about what happened in the story. Some have questions about interpreting characters or events. Some have questions about ideas that the story brings up about love, social justice, or the relationship between an individual and society – life’s big questions. All questions are welcome. The teacher helps students to ask increasingly complex questions that are multi-layered and lead to even more questions. Discussing the questions offers more ideas than any student could ever have on his or own and broadens and deepens each student’s individual thinking.
Asking good questions about the facts or data about what happened, questions about interpreting what happened, and philosophical questions that come to mind because of what happened is not only for English classes. Asking questions is at the heart of learning science, math, history, art, and technology. Questions are intrinsic to all academic disciplines and apply to all kinds of work. Tony Wagner wrote that, instead of having the right answers, “the most important skill in the New World of work, learning, and citizenship – the rigor that matters most – is the ability to ask the right questions.”
Learning to question doesn’t just happen. Due to years in school, their years as being answerers, students need to be untaught to be answerers and taught to be questioners.
Students also need to be untaught that there is one kind of thinking and one kind of essay writing. No doubt about it: It’s important to be able to write an essay that supports a thesis and presents a coherent argument. Deductive, logical thinking is a valued kind of thinking, and the proving of a position is a valued kind of writing. But deductive reasoning is a kind of thinking, not the only way to think, and thesis-based essays are a kind of essay, but not the essay itself. The world of the future demands other kinds of thinking and other kinds of essays.
Teaching Students To Explore Questions Of Importance To Them
One of those other kinds of essays is an essay in which students explore a question rather than prove a point or make an argument. The writer engages in open-ended and speculative thinking and explores a question from several perspectives, considering various possibilities and using pertinent evidence. The writer doesn’t try to convince the readers of anything but rather shares her thinking about her question with them. The writer might determine an answer to her question by the end of essay or might not. She may, instead, pose deeper and more penetrating questions at the end of the essay. For sure, though, the writer lets the readers know where the inquiry has taken her. These essays provide seeds of creativity and are incubators of innovation. The writers are thinking of what could be rather than defending what is.
Teaching Students To Write About How They Came To Know What They Know
Another kind of essay is one in which the writer tells the story of the development of his thinking about a concept or idea. It gives the chronology of the writer’s thinking – where his thinking began, what he read and learned in class discussions, and how his thinking evolved. At the end of this essay, the readers know where the writer is in his thinking and how the writer got there. It is story about how the writer came to know what he knows. Friedman, Wagner, and Ed Week all say that learning to learn is essential for the workplace of the future. Writing about the development of their own thinking makes it likely that students will leave school knowing that they do know how to learn, do know how to develop their thinking, and can do it again….and again….and again.
Toolkits For All
All of this may seem way beyond many students. But it’s not. I have worked in schools that are called high performing and in ones that are termed “failing” and have seen the students in both thrive when asked to question and to think and write in these ways. The students are ready. The future can’t be pushed back. The time to teach students to question, to think creatively and innovatively, and to see themselves as learners is now.
The Common Core State Standards do not ask students to think in these ways; those standards do not give students the learning and thinking skills needed for the future. Also, no standardized test in our country assesses questioning, collaborating, creative thinking, or learning-to-learn skills. Every minute of class time given to preparing students for those tests takes students away from what they really need to learn.
The future is just about here. It’s time to give students what they need. Invite them to question, to explore possibilities, to imagine solutions, to grow and change as thinkers, and to fall in love with learning. Then sit back and watch where they take us.
The result of the 2016 Presidential election silenced me. Listening to Meryl Streep’s speech when she accepted a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes Award gave me back my voice.
Since November 9, 2016, I have questioned the point of writing about public education anymore. Why should I continue to criticize the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts when what I find harmful in them for students is now being normalized by the President-elect? How could I continue to criticize standards that limit the amount of literature students read when we have a President-elect who boasts of the fact that he doesn’t read? How could I criticize standards that recognize only predetermined right answers instead of critical or creative thinking when we have a President-elect who says he has all the answers and doesn’t need dialogue with others to explore possibilities or revise his thinking? How could I continue to advocate for excellent public schools for all children as the bedrock of a democracy when that President-elect nominates for U.S. Secretary of Education someone who wants to destroy public education? It all seemed futile.
Then I heard what Meryl Streep said about artists and journalists and knew that it applied to educators as well. You can listen to her speech here: https://video.search.yahoo.com/search/video?fr=tightropetb&p=video+of+meryl+streep+speech+at+golden+globes+on+january+9%2C+2016#id=59&vid=c81a5c9dd5861ac45c2c81b50d1964b9&. Or you can read it below.
I love you all, but you’ll have to forgive me. I’ve lost my voice in screaming and lamentation this weekend, and I have lost my mind sometime earlier this year. So I have to read. Thank you, Hollywood Foreign Press, just to pick up on what Hugh Laurie said. You and all of us in this room really belong to the most vilified segments in American society right now. Think about it: Hollywood, foreigners and the press.
But who are we? And what is Hollywood anyway? It’s just a bunch of people from other places. I was born and raised and educated in the public schools of New Jersey. Viola was born in a sharecropper’s cabin in South Carolina, came up in Central Falls, Rhode Island. Sarah Paulson was born in Florida, raised by a single mom in Brooklyn. Sarah Jessica Parker was one of seven or eight kids from Ohio. Amy Adams was born in Vicenza, Veneto, Italy. And Natalie Portman was born in Jerusalem. Where are their birth certificates? And the beautiful Ruth Negga was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, raised in — no — in Ireland, I do believe, and she’s here nominated for playing a small-town girl from Virginia. Ryan Gosling, like all the nicest people, is Canadian. And Dev Patel was born in Kenya, raised in London, is here for playing an Indian raised in Tasmania. So Hollywood is crawling with outsiders and foreigners, and if we kick them all out, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.
They gave me three seconds to say this. So an actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us and let you feel what that feels like, and there were many, many, many powerful performances this year that did exactly that, breathtaking, compassionate work. But there was one performance this year that stunned me. It sank its hook in my heart not because it was good. It was — there was nothing good about it, but it was effective, and it did its job. It made its intended audience laugh and show their teeth. It was that moment when the person asking to sit in the most respected seat in our country imitated a disabled reporter, someone he outranked in privilege, power, and the capacity to fight back. It kind of broke my heart, and I saw it, and I still can’t get it out of my head because it wasn’t in a movie. It was real life. And this instinct to humiliate when it’s modeled by someone in the public platform by someone powerful, it filters down into everybody’s life because it kind of gives permission for other people to do the same thing.
Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence insights violence. When the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose.
This brings me to the press. We need the principled press to hold power to account – to call them on the carpet for every outrage.
That’s why our founders enshrined the press and its freedom in our Constitution. So I only ask the famously well-heeled Hollywood Foreign Press and all of us in our community to join me in supporting the Committee to Protect Journalists because we are going to need them going forward and they’ll need us to safeguard the truth.
One more thing. Once when I was standing around on the set one day, whining about something, you know, we were going to work through supper or the long hours or whatever, Tommy Lee Jones said to me, “Isn’t it such a privilege, Meryl, just to be an actor?” Yeah, it is, and we have to remind each other of the privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy. We should all be very proud of the work Hollywood honors here tonight. As my friend, the dear departed Princess Leia said to me once, “Take your broken heart. Make it into art.”
And that is what I will do. I will stop being defeated. I will end my two-month silence. I will let my broken heart energize my art as a teacher and as a teacher of teachers.
I will go back to speaking my truth. I know what good education is and will advocate for it. I know what the art of teaching entails. I am passionate about children having the best possible education because I know first-hand how education that privileges diversity, independent thinking, and social responsibility can transform lives. I will not stop because of the disrespect, violence, and bullying that now surround us. I will not stop empathizing with the children in this country who so need us educators – especially now.
I will ask of myself what Meryl Streep asked of journalists: How can I hold power accountable and safeguard the truth. The truth I want to safeguard is that the purpose of public education is to build the minds and hearts of all students by developing their potential as engaged learners and increasingly independent thinkers in every way imaginable. To do that, I must go back to opposing the Common Core Standards, designed by entrepreneurs and testing company personnel instead of educators. I must also go back to opposing the evaluation of students by standardized tests because that kind of assessment reduces learning for all students, especially those who need engagement and stimulation the most. I must go back to opposing charter schools because they take money away from the vast majority of children without notable results, and they encourage segregation. As Meryl Streep urged journalists, I must hold precious my responsibility to play a part in taking this democracy to its highest ground.
Meryl Streep is right. The oligarch-in-chief and the oligarchs with whom he has surrounded himself have incredible power and have the privilege of wealth. But we educators, like the actors and journalists, have our art. We can teach. We can speak the truth about kids, about learning, about diversity, about excellence. With that art and with one another we can fight back.
Let’s get busy.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s and the Common Core’s kind of class could not be more different. Which class do you think best helps kids to excel as learners and thinkers?
Choice One: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Just two days before his final performance in Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, a former high school teacher, spoke to 200 high school teachers and described what he thought learning should look like.
He used his experience in the theater to talk about the classroom. He advocated that teachers engage students in questioning and connecting with what they are studying. He explained how students become stronger thinkers by listening to the ideas and questions of their classmates. In Miranda’s kind of classroom, the teacher does not give students the one right answer but rather expects them to have their own individual, well-referenced interpretations and their own evaluations of ideas. The teacher creates a classroom community in which diversity of thought is valued and in which the students explore ideas by engaging in intellectual endeavors together. The teacher knows that students benefit from being aware of their own learning and thinking processes so engages them in considering how they go about learning something and how their minds work. The teacher brings his or her own joy and purpose to the classroom and delights in the students finding joy and purpose of their own as they read, write, and think together through the school year.
Read Miranda’s own words here:
Choice Two: Common Core
The accompanying 15-minute video shows you what a Common Core English class is like. David Coleman, the chief author of the Common Core Standards for English Language Arts, is the speaker. The lesson is for a 7th grade class ; the topic is Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”. View here. In this lesson, the teacher has all the answers. The meaning of King’s letter is, as the Common Core insists, found “within the four corners of the page” and must be dug out. The students are not allowed to personally connect with the letter, ask their own questions, choose a line of significance to them, or explore the historical background of what King wrote. They do not analyze how the actions of society in King’s time or theirs connects to King’s advocacy for justice. Students, instead, are asked to figure out King’s intent in writing the letter by analyzing the word choice and rhetorical structure he uses.
In the beginning of the lesson, David Coleman says that his lesson will debunk the three “popular” ways of teaching literature, but, little does he know, those ways are not popular at all. He wrongly says those three “popular” ways are: the teacher summarizing for students what they are going to read before they read it, the teacher asking students to predict what will happen before they read it, and the teacher using what they read to teach a concept like main idea or cause and effect. He doesn’t mention at all what is really the reason we teach literature: to engage students with provocative ideas and provide them with opportunities to construct their own meaning about those ideas.
Decision Time: Pick One of the Above
It is one or the other. Lin-Manuel Miranda or Common Core . You can’t have both because the two approaches are philosophically and pedagogically opposed to each other. Both require close reading. Both require students to use text evidence. The difference is in whether you see education as pouring information into the empty heads of passive students or see education as inspiring students to be all they can be.
Big News! It was on the front page of the The Hartford Courant, reported on in all the other state newspapers, and featured on the Connecticut State Department of Education website:
Nearly 66% of 11th graders met the state standards for English and 40% met the state standards for math on the 2016 SAT.
And what does that tell us about what Connecticut has gained from fully funding the SAT for all high school juniors?
It was a waste of taxpayer money.
First of all, it doesn’t tell us anything about who is ready for college. The SAT is based on the Common Core Standards, which Connecticut has taken as its own. The Common Core Standards lack validity and reliability. Common Core Standards were written, without input from educators at the K-12 or college level, by employees of testing companies and companies that analyze standardized test data. They were never field-tested to see if being successful with those standards makes for achievement in college. So we don’t know if we should be happy if students score well because it could be that they succeeded at something that is innocuous at best and inferior education at worst.
We do know that getting a high score on the SAT gives us no information about the students’ ability to ask their own questions, make their own connections, and construct their own meaning as they read, or express their own ideas as they write in a personal voice because the Common Core rejects those skills. And we do know that those are skills needed for college. Therefore, SAT scores don’t tell us if students will be successful in college.
Secondly, this SAT does not allow for comparisons because it is a new test. Scores cannot be compared to the SAT of past years. It has different content and a different way of being scored than past tests. Also, the student population taking the SAT has changed. Previously, 82% of high school juniors took the SAT; in 2016, with the new requirement, 94 % took the test. So with different content, scoring, and test-taking populations, no conclusions about student improvement or decline can be made.
Thirdly, some may say we need the SAT to ascertain how Connecticut is doing as compared to other states, but we have the National Assessment of Educational Progress, considered the Nation’s Report Card, that gives state-by-state reports. NAEP tests students in reading and math and scores them, based on college readiness. There is no charge to the state or local districts. Individual scores are not reported so there is no punishments for students. Best of all, there is no class time sacrificed to prepare for the tests because, during the school year, districts do not know if they are to be tested that year.
Fourthly, the SAT is not the necessity it once was. Increasingly, high school students do not need SAT scores for their college applications. Colleges and universities are realizing the limits of standardized tests as indicators of a prospective student’s academic promise and intellectual strength. Currently, 850 colleges and universities, including 210 in the “top tier”, do not require SAT or ACT scores for admission to bachelor degree programs. The research is clear, and colleges and universities are responding to it: High school grade point average is the predictor of success in college, not standardized tests.
So why does the State of Connecticut mandate that all high school juniors take the SAT?
The only reason left is the one politicians love to herald: To close the achievement gap.
Only those who have never taught students could give that answer. Educators know that there is no way that any set of standards or any standardized test has ever or will ever overcome the damage of poverty and racism. In fact, mandating standardized tests reinforces that damage and tells many impoverished students and students of color that they do not belong in the mainstream. Standardized test scores, including the SAT, are always correlated with the income of students’ parents. With the current 2016 SAT, school districts with higher scores include the affluent towns of Darien, Simsbury, Westport, and Wilton; school districts with lower scores include the cities of Hartford, Waterbury, and Bridgeport with their high rates of poverty. And so it has ever been.
Students with parents who have the time, the energy, the money, and the benefits from their own higher education to enrich the lives of their children and support them in school will always score higher than most students whose parents do not have those advantages. How could it be otherwise?
So mandating the SAT is not even a neutral event; mandating the SAT for all high school juniors is not just a nothing. It actually does harm. It limits the curriculum for all students, affluent and poor, and turns the curriculum into test prep. It does added harm to those students most in need because the cost of the tests, test prep materials, and the technology to administer the tests takes financial resources away from addressing their needs propelled by poverty and racism.
There is a path forward. Connecticut must:
- End the Common Core test-and-punish approach. We must recognize that we are foolishly spending millions of dollars on SBAC and the SAT, and it gains nothing for us as a state. The tests reinforce Connecticut’s shame: unconscionable income inequality.
- End the Common Core test-and-punish approach because it denies our children a real education as learners and thinkers that they deserve.
- Use the money now spent on testing to invest in what has been proven to improve student achievement. It is what every teacher knows works: positive relationships with adults in schools. Educators know that having those positive relationships with adults engages students in school, inspires them to want to learn, and gives them the skills to succeed and live productive lives. According to Wendy Lecker, senior attorney at the Education Law Center in Newark, NJ, researchers have identified three ways to foster those adult/student relationships:
- Provide developmentally appropriate preschool in which the emphasis is on play.
- Mandate small class size in grades K-12.
- Reduce the student caseload of guidance counselors.
Let’s put our money where we are sure we can make a difference. It’s time to stop spending money and getting nothing for it. And, worse yet, spending money and getting less than nothing by hurting our most precious resource as a state: our children.