Friday, October 23, 2015

Content knowledge collides with Common Core. Again.

We have more "Common Core" math problems making the rounds. As is so often the case, the problems aren't Common Core math problems but badly written math problems, or badly assessed math problems, and probably by a math teacher who is trying to implement Common Core standards but really doesn't know how for any one of a zillion or so reasons.

This is one of the math problems making the rounds. The question asks a student if a number of pages of reading is reasonable. The question is marked wrong because the student did not estimate but there is nothing in the question asking the student to estimate. What's worse, it's asking a dumb question. On what grounds is a student to determine if 75 more pages is reasonable. She read them. It's past tense. How is this a reasonable question? I'm less annoyed, well, aggravated by the answer being marked wrong than the quality of the question. I think the student answered the question as asked to the best of the student's ability. It's not the kid's fault the question is a bad one.

Now I'm guessing a teacher was trying to align the question to a standard relating to estimation. I think estimation can be a tough skill for kids to learn and this question, perhaps written because of a teacher's anxiety to test standards-based skills, doesn't help the teacher measure that at all.

The problem with the problem to the right is one that really irks me. My interpretation, based on only the document, is that the teacher taught students how to group a particular way and was looking for that answer. Is 5+5+5 the same as 3+3+3+3+3? By my math, yes. Is the answer wrong? No. The teacher offered no rationale for the "correct" response though it's possible that was discussed in class when the results were returned.

I'm not holding my breath.

As noted in the article about "insane math problems,"
While both topics, estimation and repeated addition, are part of the Common Core standards, Common Core does not have a standardized way teachers are supposed to teach them.
A lot of teachers and administrators know that the Common Core standards provide guidelines for what students need to know and able to do. There are no activities, no teaching strategies.   

As reported in Tech Insider, Stephen Sigmund, the executive director of High Achievement New York and Common Core supporter stated:
The Common Core is not a curriculum, it's a set of standards student are expected to meet to help close achievement gaps and prepare them for college and the workforce. . .The way the teachers put in place curriculum and meet those standards is entirely their own.
When I worked for Pearson Education Teacher Education & Development Group and for ETA Hand2Mind, I had conversations with principals and with math teachers who were pleading for help to learn how to teach and assess math well.  Pearson was before Common Core and ETA Hand2Mind during the heady first few years of it. But I also recall teaching Basic Math at the collegiate level and having students who struggled with fundamental math skills, notably in fractions with corollary challenges with decimals and percents. Based on work I've done with teachers and administrators since then, those challenges remain. Too many teachers who are responsible for teaching basic math skills are not that adept at math themselves and rely on ready-made lesson plans and assessments. If a kid answers a question in an unexpected way, the teacher hasn't sufficient content knowledge to be confident if the answer is correct or not, and why or why not.

I don't think the problem is Common Core. I think part of the problem is Common Core implementation but I think a substantial part of the problem remains with math content knowledge of teachers and their limited repertoire of teaching strategies. I know there are lots of ways to remedy the situation but teachers need to be permitted to acknowledge their content knowledge limitations without fear of repercussion and they need to get the administrative supports they need to develop their own content knowledge and skills, and they need to have alternative options to help their students in the mean time.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Freshman college writing: No small thing

Good morning, class. My name is Dr. Roberts and this is ENG101: Expository Writing. We'll spend some time reviewing the syllabus to make sure you understand my expectations for this class.

Please note that the syllabus can be considered a contract between me and you. You have a responsibility to read it and refer to it as it contains most of the information you need.

You will write more than one draft for most of your papers. You will write several short papers, about 3 to 5 pages, and you will write at least two longer papers, about 7 to 10 pages.

Questions so far?

[A hand is raised with evident reluctance.] We'll write all of those papers this semester?

And so it begins.

I read Michael Laser's article and chuckled. Yes, I laughed. Poor guy. He never knew what hit him. When I first started teaching writing I had a romantic idea of how it might work until I realized, with no small alarm, that I had no idea what to expect because I'd gotten CLEP credit for ENG 101 and 102. Huh. So I gathered up as many ENG101 syllabi as I could
and I figured it out. Reasonably well that first time and increasingly better over time as I realized I had to meet my students where they were and pull them to improvement. That was often like convincing your cat to take a bath. Sure there are some cats that don't mind a bath or will go along with it to get it over with, but most, not so much.

Those first diagnostic essays were often excruciating. I learned to give my students prompts so they could write about something that interested them. I found and developed activities that could mimic experiences they would find in other classes as well as the kind of writing they would do in the so-called "real world."

I had my students do activities that would challenge them to think about word choice and sentence structure. I bantered and badgered to remind them to think about the audience and quite often they wrote not for me but for an imagined audience: their best friend, a boss or a future boss, a grandparent, someone from their church or community, etc.

I learned that some of my students were incredibly insightful and creative but many of them were stuck in 5-paragraph loops because of the way they had been "taught" to write. They had no idea how to identify the main idea of a paragraph let alone the theme of an entire text. They didn't know how to summarize nor were they able to analyze.

My colleagues in other departments claimed I and my other ENG colleagues weren't teaching kids how to write. . . for business, for science, for whatever. So my writing colleagues had a workshop in which we asked our business, science, education, and other faculty colleagues to work in their table teams of mixed disciplines to come up with their top seven peeves. That was enlightening. For all of us.

Then we had them assess a collection of freshman writing papers. We used a topic that was fairly broad and asked them to score it using a 6-point scale. Then we compared results and the rationale each faculty member used. The discussions were fascinated as they discovered each was looking for something different in a paper. It took them a long while to understand that they had some responsibility for teaching domain-specific elements of writing in their classes. They began to realize we have only 15 weeks--and really closer to only 10 weeks--in ENG101 to repair some damage, help students unlearn bad habits and bad practices and begin to learn better habits and practices. That's a lot.

As department chair I organized a symposium. It wasn't as well attended as I hoped, but the insights were sufficient in that local principals and teachers came to talk with the freshman writing faculty about their challenges in teaching middle and high school kids how to write. The diversity of the community represented was important and the writing faculty got quite an education in understanding why middle and high school teachers struggled to help kids learn how to write more than a 5-paragraph essay.

Now that college was not a selective school but I was also an adjunct at a very selective school. Most of those students were in the top 10% of their classes and had never had a grade below an A. Imagine their shock and alarm when they got a C on a freshman writing paper. Why? How? Well, not all high schools are equal and what might constitute an A at one school might not have been an A elsewhere. And, well, this is college. So some of those kids had similar bad habits though, in general, they had the fundamentals and better vocabularies.

There are several components, I think, to the problem of teaching writing in school. First, most teachers have no idea how to teach writing. Check out most education programs and look closely for that writing methods course. Yep, good luck with that.

The NCTE has a position on the teaching of writing, but that has made much difference in teacher education curricula. Reading methods? Check. Math methods? Check. For secondary education English majors, literature content? Check. Writing? Anyone?

Could it be integrated somewhere else? Actually, I think it could be integrated in a lot of methods courses except there is already so much for students to learn in their methods courses. Writing is something that tends to be overlooked. My theory is that teaching writing is associated with teaching grammar and teaching grammar makes people cringe.

But there is also the math. Let's say you're a high school teacher and have 6 classes of students a day. Let's say you have a manageable 20 students in each class. That's 120 papers to grade. Let's say it takes about 45 minutes to grade each paper: that's taking the time to skim, then read more carefully and make marginal notes so the student can improve his or her writing and, perhaps, write an improved draft. That's 5,400 minutes or 90 hours. And let's say I stagger my assignments so I don't get 120 papers in one day. That's still 45 minutes times 20 students (45 * 20 = 900) which is 15 hours (900 / 60 = 15).

And let's acknowledge that having only 20 students in a class would be a gift.

So universities have writing centers and writing tutors, which may or may not be helpful but is better than nothing. I always recommend that students who struggle with writing get to the writing center ASAP and/or find a writing tutor along with their math or science or whatever tutor. There is no shame in finding a tutor; it is, I think, a significant quality of character to admit when and where help is needed.

But I also think that teachers confuse quantity with quality. Writing more papers is not a reasonable approach. Writing fewer papers well is a better idea, but that's a different post.

Teaching writing is not for the faint-hearted but, as a former college writing teacher (who would do it again in a heartbeat), watching kids blossom, discovering their voices and their strengths and learning to manage their weaknesses. Yea, that's amazing.


Monday, October 19, 2015

Common Core and putting the skids on a slippery slope

When I taught college freshman writing, some of the topics I banned included steroids, teen pregnancy, abortion, euthanasia, and gun control. Why? First, after a couple of years of getting the same, tired topics from obviously recycled high school essays, I decided it was time for students to expand their intellectual and research horizons. Second, a lot of what these kids tried to write about are big, complex topics and, more importantly, fraught with emotional and religious influences.

So when I read that KQED had created a gun control lesson for Common Core, well, I wasn't so much alarmed as dismayed. Just seems like a bad judgment call.

The opening sentences of the lesson read: "Gun control is among the most divisive issues in American politics today. For many, it boils down to a basic debate over priorities: the constitutional right to bear arms and protect oneself vs. an effort to reduce violence."

Let's pretend these were the opening sentences of a freshman essay. After I sighed, maybe even groaned, I would do my best to refrain from making marginal notes until I finished the essay. Sometimes that wasn't possible and I'd have to start writing immediately. Please keep in mind I rarely used red ink, especially when I was going to be writing a lot.

This is how the opening paragraph might look. The first sentence of this text suggests that gun control is only a political issue though history tells us it is far more complex. That leads to my concerns about the second sentence which suggests that gun control is simply a binary of priorities: own a gun or reduce violence. What I would not write on a student's paper is the absurdity of that statement. Well, maybe I wouldn't write that on a student's paper; I've been known to editorialize fairly strongly. Then there are two other statements in the text which present information as fact but for which there are no citations. I have some other issues with the generalizations in this opening paragraph and, if this were written by an 18- or 19-year-old college freshman, I might cut the student some slack if this were a first draft and not just because of the lack of objectivity.

I think this is a difficult topic about which to write regardless and I think that using this as a potential lesson plan, Common Core or not, establishes a dangerous precedent. Maybe.

The second page of this lesson includes "key points on the gun control issues, summarized from posts on The Lowdown blog, which is part of the KQED site. I have to wonder how many teachers would go to the web site to check out the blog for themselves? And how many students do you think would go to the web site to check out those blog posts for themselves? To see how the posts had been summarized? What points had been highlighted and what had been excluded? None of the topics are cited either so it's impossible to know from which blog posts any of the topic points were summarized. In fact, all of the resources students are expected to use in this lesson plan come from The Lowdown site. Hmm. No, I misspoke, there are two other sources at the end of the 4th page. And, to be fair, one of the implementation strategies on page 5 points students to a PBS site.

So I'm a fan of Common Core, in general. Provided it's well-implemented and people have a clear sense of why they're implementing whatever changes they're implemented. That's a different topic. However, Common Core encourages critical thinking and problem solving. One of the major facets of Common Core is providing evidence. So let me just say that this lesson is a classically poor example of evidence-based work.

Based on the standards, this lesson looks as though it's designed for high school students. Okay, so what I would do with this lesson is present it without the names of the teachers and ask students to assess it as an evidence-based resource for examining the issue of gun control. What are the strengths of the lesson? What are its weaknesses? What would they recommend this teacher do to strengthen the lesson and to make it one that is relevant to them and their learning? In fact, I'd ask them to articulate what they think they might be learning as a result of completing the tasks for this lesson. What do they see could be the learning objectives for this lesson or for their recommended changes? There are, I might note, no learning objectives in this lesson as it is.

They could rewrite the guiding questions and the focus questions. They could bring in different resources and think of different implementation strategies. But mostly I'd want them to think about what they could learn by completing this kind of a lesson. Is it civics? Is it political science? Is it social and community justice? Is it learning more about how the federal and state governments should be working? Is it about constitutional law and constitutional rights of citizens? Is it about how we frame arguments and debates?

The Fox News article includes this quote:
"This guide shows that the common core philosophy of education is coming to all schools.” Alice Linahan, founder of Voices Empower, a grassroots organization that opposes Common Core, told “It’s a shift from teaching fact to teaching attitudes, belief and behavior.”
See it's not Common Core or the philosophy of Common Core that causes this. The only thing that makes this lesson Common Core is the inclusion of the standards in the guide. This is an example of a lesson that could be, and probably has been, delivered in schools.

I agree that this lesson borders on teaching students to think in a particular way, and I find that very troubling.

I believe we should be teaching students how to think and how to examine their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors and to know why they have those attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors and then think about if and how they need to make any changes. This gun control lesson doesn't do any of those things and so, in my opinion, Common Core or not, this is not a good lesson.