Sunday, June 8, 2014

Quit ACT & SAT Prep & Focus on Essay Writing

The college admissions game is becoming more and more difficult to predict and to play. And the percentages continue to expose the dirty little secret of standardized test scores - one: test prep classes can help kids game the system, and two: these classes skew admissions toward wealthier students. And, there are plenty of innovative and thoughtful and skilled students who could greatly contribute to and benefit from higher education but are unprepared and unable to play the games to game the system.

Enter Bard College.

Bard College, the innovative liberal arts school, is making waves in the world of higher education by offering an alternative admissions route to the standard ACT and GPA route. Slate's education columnist Rebecca Schuman reports on the new system which asks students to "simply write four essays" to qualify for admission to Bard. Of course, these are no simple high school essays, and they're not just a variation on The Common App. The essays are complex, challenging subjects that demand about 10,000 words of innovative critical thinking and commentary.

Thus, as more colleges begin to re-think the excessive emphasis on the ACT and SAT, English teachers - and really all high school educators - need to amp up the writing instruction and prepare kids for the rigor of some high-level college writing.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Does Handwriting Tell Us About a Person?

With the decreased emphasis on handwriting that is happening in schools as a result of the Common Core State Standards (resulting from the need/plan to assess kids online via the PARCC or SB tests), some teachers decry the lost art of handwriting. Many believe handwriting can tell us so much more than the information which is actually written down. According to graphologists, many personality traits can be identified through handwriting analysis.

Here's a great presentation from BuzzFeed of some of those theories:

Certainly, there is a cognitive development and skill associated with manual writing. And it will certainly be a loss if handwriting instruction and cursive writing goes by the way-side in the name of standardized assessments.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Real Meaning of Enders Game

As Orson Scott Card's seminal coming-of-age sci-fi novel Enders Game prepares to take over another generation of young people with the release of the long-awaited and much anticipated movie, a fascinating new look at the novel by Laura Miller of exposes a slightly different and more enlightening - or more disturbing - view of what the novel is really about.  Perhaps, more than a great sci-fi novel with complicated moral questions, it is an imaginative portrait of the inner life of an abused child, a fledgling psyche trying to reconcile the unbearable contradiction in receiving both love and gratuitous pain from the same source. That is certainly worth considering.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Tufts University Ask Students about YOLO

The complicated nature of the college application essay is an intriguing challenge for students each year. Some are fortunate to simply write answers for one selection from the Common App, while others at usually more selective colleges face some occasionally unique and obscure questions. That's the case for applicants to Tufts University this year who were asked to ponder YOLO.  Apparently, Tufts is looking for insight from 18-year-olds about what You Only Live Once means to them. The phrase - which only surfaced in recent years is apparently "the millenials' carpe diem."


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

English & the Humanities Need a Public Relations Campaign

The study of English and the humanities could use a spirited defense these days, as education budgets are slashed and the country is increasingly infatuated with the study of STEM.  The New York Times resident Burkean conservative and defender of culture David Brooks worries about the decreasing number of humanities degrees being awarded.  In fact, that number has been cut in half in the past fifty years, and the "humanist vocation" is fading as a legitimate course of study primarily for career and economic objectives.  Certainly, parents and students have reason to shy away because there is some truth to the adage, "Accounting majors get jobs; lit majors don't."

And that point of view poses the potential of cultural decay.

English and humanities teachers are, in the words of my former department chair, "purveyors of culture."  English literature and the humanities are vestiges of our spiritual identity, as they address existential questions about character and destiny.  There is a meaning-of-life angle to education that all people seek, and those answers are uniquely found in the stories we tell and our collective history as human beings.  These areas - the part of us that is "talked about in eulogies" represent the most "inward and elemental" essence of our lives.

Brooks' concerns were mirrored in the Times Sunday Observer column, as Verlyn Klinkenborg laments The Decline and Fall of the English Major.  Notably, Klinkenborg laments that she still has a job teaching fiction and nonfiction writing, as she "hopes and fears" each year she will have nothing left to teach them because they can already write well. Obviously, her hopes and fears never come to pass, which considering her position at Harvard may be a bit depressing. The type of writing that she is talking about - clear, direct, and humane - is at the heart of the study of humanities that Brooks discusses.  She notes the humanities is "a set of disciplines that is ultimately an attempt to examine and comprehend the cultural, social and historical activity of our species through the medium of language."  

Clearly, a theme is emerging about the role played by the study of language and literature.  And English teachers must step up. However, Klinkenborg offers a very clear explanation and warning of the situation: The recent shift away from the humanities suggests a number of things. One, the rush to make education pay off presupposes that only the most immediately applicable skills are worth acquiring (though that doesn’t explain the current popularity of political science). Two, the humanities often do a bad job of explaining why the humanities matter. And three, the humanities often do a bad job of teaching the humanities. You don’t have to choose only one of these explanations.

Granted, there are defenders of the arts and humanities that are still fighting the good fight and raising the profile of culture in schools.  Brooks points us to the recent report from The Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences.  And, certainly, Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind promotes the sort of right brain thinking the defines Brooks' humanism.  Other voices from the wilderness that has become the realm of the literature and social science studies are seeking to change the discussion from "STEM to STEAM."  Millenial writer Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post acknowledges the recent revelations about the humanities, adding perspective and counterargument to the claim of the humanities' demise.  Like Brooks, Petri observes that the criticisms about the usefulness or marketability of an English degree actually miss the entire point of the humanities in the first place.

Read the case for the Humanities, and it is like someone saying that painting is great exercise for your arm and studies show that painters on average live three months longer than their non-painting contemporaries. If that’s all you get out of it, forget it. There are other ways of exercising your arm and living longer. Those are externalities. They aren’t why you paint.  

That is, perhaps, the most astute of her observations.  The true crisis of the humanities is that people have so obviously missed the point taught in great works of art that to argue for justifying the arts is beyond the critics' ability to understand.  Interestingly, Dickens addressed this issue more than a century ago with his satirical portrait of Gradgrind's utilitarian school in his tenth novel Hard Times.  Notably, Petri links to an article from The Atlantic which claims "Actually, the Humanities Aren't in Crisis."  Of course, Jordan Weissmann is simply arguing that 1985 was a worse year, and not that the humanities are actually in great shape lately.  However, the argument that the humanities are not in decline is bolstered in a recent piece from Andrew Grafton and James Grossman, "The Humanities in Dubious Battle."  Grafton and Grossman expand upon the basics of Weissmann's piece and criticize faulty reading of data regarding the study of the humanities.  Certainly it is that true that the elite colleges like Harvard are going to procure and produce more humanities students than state and community colleges.  But that has always been the case, precisely because studying the humanities can be seen as almost a luxury among those paying heavy tuition bills.  That said, I still have little doubt that in a STEM-focused world where some in government and media want to eliminate student loan and scholarship for all but STEM majors, a PR campaign for the arts is still necessary.

That is perhaps the most astute observation from Grafton and Grossman who believe:

What we need to hear—and what the Harvard report doesn't offer us—are their voices. We also need to hear the voices of those whose lives are touched by these humanities majors after college, whether at the workplace or in the community.  What makes some students believe that being humanists will make them better doctors, better lawyers, better advertising experts? What do they find, in their courses, to keep them in departments of English and history and Romance languages? How are we helping them to articulate what they bring to the world beyond the university, so they can tell those stories more effectively? How can we make those stories available to new undergraduates as they decide what to study?
Ultimately, the real battle lies with those on the front lines in the English and social studies classroom.  It is up to us to reiterate "this a very real matter ... of being."

Monday, May 27, 2013

Weebly - Websites for Your Classroom

Maintaining a web presence is getting to be a non-negotiable for teachers - and really anyone in the education profession.  Many high schools and districts are requiring that their teachers create at least one web page.  Some pretty reasonable options which can generally be managed by the school are COLE and Blackboard.  If the school is not willing or able to maintain a central service like those, Weebly is another great option for teachers that is user-friendly and free.  Teachers may also consider building a webpage on Google's platform.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

New Common App Essay Prompts

The Common App has new guidelines and essay questions/options for the 2013-14 school year.

The new questions are:

  • Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  • Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

More Vocabulary Instruction

Prior knowledge and a broad vocabulary are the keys to effective reading and English skills.  As a result, the role of vocabulary acquisition cannot be underestimated in the English classroom, from kindergarten to graduate school.  Some studies estimate that lower income children enter school with a word recognition vocabulary that can be as much as 10,000 fewer words than middle and upper income kids.  Realistically, on a usage level middle and upper income kids use know and use 3000-5000 more words than others.  And that is a huge part of the story of the achievement gap.

Now, as the Common Core approaches, and literacy moves to the top of the agenda with its added - and necessary - emphasis in the content areas like social studies, science, and the arts, the role of vocabulary instruction is of paramount importance.  A new round of studies indicate "Students Must Learn More Words" in order to be successful in school.  This is certainly not news to people like E.D. Hirsch or Dan Willingham of the Core Knowledge movement.  They know - and can support with decades of research - that "the more you know, the more you can learn."  From word walls to word games to sophisticated literary offerings, lessons designed around vocabulary acquisition are integral to a successful education and any intent to close the achievement gap.

A plethora of vocabulary instruction manuals are out there these days, but Word Nerds, a new offering from Stenhouse Publishing might be worth looking at.  Any new ideas on improving vocabulary for an increasingly dys-fluent population are to be appreciated and developed.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Creepiness Factor in Brave New World

Aldous Huxley's dystopian novel Brave New World is one of the most significant and alluded to literary works of the contemporary era.  Huxley's satire of a technology and consumerism is a powerful reminder of the fragile nature of individuality in a world of increasing control by both business and government.  As such it is commonly taught in many high schools, and it remains a popular work with teachers and with students.  However, it is a creepy novel to say the least, and teachers should make certain to handle it delicately and professionally with an eye for potentially uncomfortable situations in the classroom.

The most obvious and potentially creepiest component of the novel is the hyper-sexualized nature of the World State. With a society containing such standards as "erotic play" for young children and an "Orgy-Porgy" of sexual hysteria at the culmination of the society's "religious" service, teachers must prepare students for these potentially awkward and confusing references.  Arguably, this book is more well suited for the high school level, and most aptly at the upper levels.  However, my school has taught this work at the honors freshman level for years with little conflict.  The key is preparation.

Contemporary teens are not aloof to the hypersexualized nature of their own world, and thus can most likely handle Huxley's satirizing of it.  But it doesn't hurt to prepare them for it.  In doing so, I spend the  introductory day telling the kids "this is a creepy novel."  In referencing it as satire, I introduce the terms horation and juvenalian to prepare them for the dark sinister side of satire.  It's helpful to give them some examples of a dark satire - I like explaining some elements of the movie Fight Club.  The scene where Tyler Durden explains making soap from the fat in a liposuction clinic is a pretty vidid one, and they get it.  Students should also know the terms "erotic play" and "Orgy-Porgy" before they encounter them in the text.

Brave New World is undoubtedly a great piece of literature and a significant one for any study of literature.  But it is creepy, and students need to be prepared for that.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Classic Literature and Literacy Skills

What should high school students read?  And what should high school teachers teach?

The struggle in high school classrooms is vast.  Teachers face the challenges of offering students a rigorous curriculum that will prepare them for college and life and developing basic literacy skills by engaging them with material they can handle.  However, it doesn't have to be an either or decision.

Two great instructional texts for teachers to craft their English classroom model are Carol Jago's Classics in the Classroom and Denver-area teacher Cris Tovani's I Read It But I Don't Get It.  Both women are renowned English teachers who have decades of experience promoting literacy and refining the best practices for the English classroom.