Catcher in the Rye To Be Dropped from Curriculum? Puh-lease

New Common Core Standards drop classic novels in favor of “informational texts.”

The US school system will undergo some big changes within the next two years, chiefly due to a decision to remove a good deal of classic novels from the curriculum, or so the recent media reports would have you think.

The idea behind discouraging or reducing the teaching of old favorites like The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird is to make room for non-fiction “informational texts” in the curriculum. These should be approved by the Common Core Standards of each state. Suggested texts include, “Recommended Levels of Insulation by the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the Invasive Plant Inventory, by California’s Invasive Plant Council,” among others.

Mmmm, I just love me a good read on insulation levels while I soak in the tub.

So, the idea behind this is that children who pass through such a school system will be better prepared for the workplace, their brains packed with useful, practical knowledge rather than brimming with literary fluff (my personal summation). It has the backing of the National Governors’ Association, the Council of Chief of State School Officers, and even the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which partially funded the directive.

But is that estimate correct? Will reading more non-fiction in favor of fiction breed better writing, or more informed graduates? The discussion is extremely divided. One Arkansas teacher wrote in this Telegraph article,

In the end, education has to be about more than simply ensuring that kids can get a job. Isn’t it supposed to be about making well-rounded citizens?

Meanwhile, another reader weighed in for the pros of teaching more scientific texts:

I don’t understand how adding non-fiction books to reading lists REDUCES imagination.  Hard science is all about imagination–the “what ifs” of nature and the universe… I am sick of English professors acting like English Literature is the only bastion of imagination/critical thinking/culture.

When I first read that article stating that The Catcher in the Rye and other novels specifically would be gone from curriculums nation-wide, I was alarmed and frightened, though I now know it was needlessly so. The reactions of protesters are a tad hyperbolic, given that the two soporific texts I named above are found amongst a long list of alternate suggestions in various subjects, for instance Circumference: Eratosthenes and the Ancient Quest to Measure the Globe by Nicholas Nicastro, and The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story by Richard Preston, interesting and well-written books in their own right. English Literature classes will not be barred from teaching certain classic novels, as some of the reports would have you believe, though they may have more limited time to teach them than before. Yes, the school system will be changed and possibly not for the better, but Salinger and Lee aren’t going anywhere.

All in all, the arguments for both sides make overblown assumptions: on the one, that students will miraculously be better prepared for the job market, on the other, that all imagination and creativity will be drained from impressionable young adults. So, which side do you stand on, if either? Is the teaching of informational texts merited, or best left to vocational studies? Tell us in a comment below!


Why Children Make the Best Scientists

The intersection of science and play.

We are taught from a young age that authority in any academic realm must be allocated to adults only–or more specifically grey haired men in tweed jackets staring down their noses at us from in front of a chalkboard or behind a cluttered desk. But when we think about the fundamentals of Science, a field that in its research requires constant questioning and experimentation, who better to contribute to its innovation than the naturally curious? In his TED talk above, neuroscientist Beau Lotto tells why children make the best scientists.

Evolution’s solution to uncertainty is play… Play is the only human endeavor where uncertainty is celebrated. When you add rules to play, you have a game. And that’s what an experiment is–a game…

Armed with these two ideas that science is a way of being and experiments are play, we asked, “Can anyone become a scientist?” And who better to ask than twenty-five 8-10 year old children? Because they’re experts in play.

With this idea in mind, Lotto turned to a primary school in Devon, England, to create a program in which children would be given the opportunity to act as scientists. He was granted no funding for this idea, as “scientists said children couldn’t make a strong contribution to science, and teachers said kids couldn’t do it.” Teachers, if you can believe it, had no faith in the capabilities of young people. Lotto went through with it anyway.

His first step in the program was to have the students ask questions. The results?

Five of the questions the students came up with were questions that were the basis of science publication in the last 5-15 years. They were asking questions that were significant to expert scientists.

This gave Lotto and his colleagues the impetus to turn the group of children into full-fledged scientists, an idea that amazingly resulted in the peer-reviewed publication of 10-year old Amy O’Toole’s science paper. She joins Lotto onstage to describe the inspiring journey from early hypothesis to academic acceptance.

I strongly suggest you watch this video, if not to be inspired by the true capabilities of children (despite the misgivings of teachers, scientists, and most adults), then to rethink how good scientific thought requires our embrace of uncertainty.

 


Why College Students Today Can’t Write

Today’s post is brought to you by  Braintrack.com, an online resource for university, college, and career searches. You can check out their blog here!

College professors have been bemoaning the lack of solid writing skills in their students for decades (see this article from 1974 for proof), but statistics gathered over the past few years suggest that student writing skills are in an even more dismal state than they were in 1974. Today, 28% of college graduates produce writing that rates as deficient, even with tuition reaching record rates and many colleges being more selective than ever. These poor writing skills have had serious ramifications not only in higher education but in the business world, as our information-driven society makes it ever more critical for students to develop the ability to communicate through the written word.

While it’s easy to point out the problem, it’s much harder to figure out a solution. A promising first step can be to pinpoint just what is causing students to arrive and leave college without the skills they’ll need to get by in the real world. That’s easier said than done. The decline of writing abilities in students is a multifaceted issue, impacted by teachers, students, and administrators alike and encompassing all elements of writing education from support to motivation. While not comprehensive, this list addresses some of the biggest reasons so many students struggle with writing in colleges today, from freshman year to graduation.

One of the biggest reasons college students can’t write may simply be due to the fact that most college courses and degree programs don’t demand it of them. In the book Academically Adrift most freshmen reported “little academic demand in terms of writing” and half of college seniors reported never having written a paper longer than 20 pages during their last year of college. Students who aren’t being required to submit papers that are academically challenging have little opportunity to learn and grow as writers, which can hold them back academically. In fact, the same study showed that students who took classes with high expectations (those with 40 pages of reading a week and 20 pages of writing a semester) gained more from their courses than their peers in less demanding courses.
Many students enter college with sub-par writing skills because of inadequate writing instruction in their high school courses. A report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2007 found that just 24% of high school seniors could score proficient or better on a writing exam. Things haven’t changed much for the better since then, and many fear that high schools are failing students when it comes to teaching writing. Why is this happening? At some schools, teachers simply don’t have enough time to leave adequate feedback on lengthy student papers when they have 120 or more students in their courses. Another problem that many experts have pointed to is that high schools simply don’t focus on writing instruction. Schools are often so caught up in boosting scores in skills that are tested in state exams like math, science, and reading, that writing simply falls by the wayside. There are schools trying to make improvements, with some making writing a central part of their curricula, but there’s still a long way to go before America’s high school students will graduate with improved writing abilities across the board.
Whether it’s fair to students or not, many college professors don’t want to dedicate class time to teaching students remedial writing skills they should really already know by the time they reach college. Giving increased attention to writing means that not only do professors have less class time to focus on the true subject of the course, they also have to dedicate hours of time outside of class to rigorously correcting student papers in order to make progress in improving student writing. This kind of grading is time-consuming and frustrating, and with many writing-intensive courses no longer being simply English classes, it’s often a distraction from learning other material.

It isn’t just professors and employers who’ve taken note of the dwindling writing skills of college students. Students themselves are also well aware that they need a little more help in their writing. In a national study of 30,000 undergraduates, fewer than 50% felt that their writing had improved over the four years they were in school. A similar study reported that just 27.6% of students saw improvement in their writing by graduation. The reason students cited for the lack of progress? Inadequate feedback and support. Eighty percent of students in the study said they felt they would have become better writers if they had received more feedback and direct interaction from professors.
At the majority of American colleges, writing requirements are fulfilled by passing a couple of courses deemed as “writing intensive.” Yet that doesn’t always ensure that students will graduate knowing how to write or be any good at it. Some schools, like Old Dominion University, used to require that students pass a writing test before graduation, but tests like these are being phased out or dropped. Why? Too many students failed them. While they may have represented an outdated model for assessing student abilities, the fact that a significant portion of students couldn’t pass them is troubling to say the least. At most colleges, a C or better in a handful of writing courses is a ticket to graduation, but with grade inflation rampant it’s unclear what degree of writing ability that truly represents. With little motivation to push themselves to learn to improve writing, many students graduate without ever mastering grammar, syntax, or analytical writing.
Grade inflation is a very real phenomenon (today, 43% of all grades are A’s, an increase of 28% since 1960) and one that is slowly starting to take a serious toll on what students actually get out of their educational experiences. Students don’t just hope to earn a good grade, many actually expect it, whether their work warrants it or not. Sadly, a growing number of professors are happy to oblige, as student feedback on faculty ratings can be key to helping them keep jobs, get tenure, and get ahead. This has had a serious impact on the level of writing that many college students produce, as those who don’t feel compelled to do more than the minimum to pass courses are getting by with less than ever before. Harsh, strict grading and evaluation of papers used to be common practice. The lack of this same kind of rigor may just be a contributing factor to why students can’t write as well today.
From the Ivy League to community colleges, read a classroom’s worth of essays and you’re bound to come across a student using “text speak” or overly casual vernacular in their academic writing. While these kinds of abbreviations and words might work in everyday conversation, they’re generally unacceptable in college level writing. The problem is that many students don’t understand that what works in speech or in a casual discussion doesn’t quite cut it in a college essay. Even worse, many are allowed to get by with these language blunders in their courses, both in high school and beyond. It doesn’t bode well for academic standards or for students who want to earn respect in the workplace.
Many colleges have done away with the basic freshman comp courses in lieu of courses in the social sciences that are writing-intensive. While writing intensive courses in the social sciences aren’t a bad idea in and of themselves (and many social science professors are great writers), they aren’t really a substitute for writing-focused courses that are designed to give incoming students rigorous foundation in writing. R.V. Young, a professor at North Carolina State, recalls that in 1970, students at the school were required to take a composition course spanning two semesters. During the course, students had to write 25 papers all of which were graded harshly by professors. These kinds of courses have largely disappeared in colleges nationwide and have been replaced with other hybrid courses, with few containing the same rigorous, focused attention on writing.
Before students can become great writers, they have to learn (at least) two basic things: the rules of good writing and how to think critically and creatively. Yet many education experts have pointed out that schools fail to adequately teach students either of those things in secondary school and beyond. Students are more often taught what to think, not how to think, and as a result often don’t understand how to expand on ideas, apply rules in a broader sense, or even begin to understand what constitutes great writing. Of course, there’s a line to walk between the structure and creativity that sometimes just doesn’t get through to students. One example? Students learn to format writing in forms that are rarely seen in the real world (how often do you see the five-paragraph essay?), causing them to have to unlearn what they’ve learned just to progress to the level of their college peers.
Why does it matter if today’s college grads aren’t great writers? It should matter to college students themselves, as those who enter the working world without writing skills, even those who aren’t working in a writing-centric profession, may find it harder to get a job or to perform the duties their employers require. More seriously, however, poor writing can have a negative effect on the economy. The National Committee on Writing estimates that poor writing costs businesses as much as $3.1 billion annually. If students are pouring tens of thousands into a college education, shouldn’t more than half graduate believing they’ve improved their writing skills? Shouldn’t employers be able to trust that students have basic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics if they hold a college degree? While ideally, the answer to both of those questions should be yes, the reality is that neither is a guarantee in today’s world.

Powering Up: Social Media and the New Classroom

Just a few years ago, when kids began having their own phones in large numbers, schools freaked out. At my daughter’s junior high, phones had to be hidden away in backpacks or lockers. Any teacher who observed a student with a phone was required to seize it. The phone was then taken to the office, and there was a $15 fine to get it out of hock.

Two years later, my son is now in the same junior high. Phones and other electronic devices are no longer pariahs; in fact, students are encouraged to bring their personal phones or iPads. Teachers can request that their students use them during all kinds of lessons, from geography to science, even English, to look up quotes or biographical information. Students can also use their phones during “passing periods” and at lunch. (I suspect there will be a lot more fund raisers this year, seeing as how the cash cow of phone seizing is no longer being milked. )

Of course, it isn’t just the fact that teachers and administrators are tired of fighting the ubiquitous phones and their larger cousins. Slowly, educators are realizing the benefits of social media. And, as those in charge learn more about the remarkable versatility of the internet, the applications are becoming an integral part of the students’ learning experience, arguably making them more engaged and interactive than ever before. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and even one of the relatively new social media sites, Pinterest, are giving education a much-needed boost.

Here are a few of the ways educators are employing the power and persuasion of social media:

Twitter:  “Teachers have been setting up subject or class Twitter accounts that students can follow. The teacher then tweets information related to their class. Some even set homework via Twitter,” reports The Guardian, in their article “Social media for schools: A guide to Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest.” Twitter, as many have discovered, is also often the fastest way to find out about breaking news.

Facebook:  I have often asked my own students to post a specific status and have their friends respond. Then, the following class period, we discuss those responses. For example, I recently had them read Hal Niedzviecki’s New York Times article, “Facebook in a Crowd.” Niedzviecki wonders what would happen if he invited many of his “virtual” friends to a real life cocktail party. Of the several hundred invitations, twenty people accepted; one actually showed up. I asked my students to post as their status, “Is a virtual friend a “real” friend?” We had a lively discussion that could not have happened otherwise.

Pinterest:  Not just a place to “pin” your favorite recipes or cute cat photos. Many teachers have found great success, especially for their highly visual learners, using Pinterest’s “Tutorials.” Here, among other things, you can learn, step-by-step, how to create QR codes, or become more proficient in Photoshop, or learn how a touchscreen works.

Tumblr:  Again, a great site for students and educators. More and more companies have begun to “tumbl,” as it is a great way to find archival materials as well as current news and discussions. Some of my favorites, which I often use to prepare lectures, are the tumblrs of “The Paris Review,” Life Magazine, the New York Public Library,  NPR’s Fresh Airand, of course, eNotes

How do YOU use social media in the classroom? Whether you are a teacher or a student, we’d love to know.


Education Testing…1…2…3

Does more equal better?  When it concerns students’ essay scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SATs), that may well be the case. Milo Beckman, a fourteen-year-old student at Stuyvesant High School in New York conducted a study among his peers after becoming frustrated with the scores he received on the exam. Beckman took the exam twice, and to his surprise, discovered that his second test scored higher than the first, although he deemed the first attempt to be superior in quality. The second essay he wrote was considerably longer, but not, in the students’ opinion, as well written.

Beckman then polled 115 students who had taken the exam in his school, asking them to count the number of words they had written. The students who wrote lengthier essays almost always received a higher score, despite the quality of the content. Beckman’s results were confirmed by MIT professor Les Pereleman. (Read the full story as first reported by Elisabeth Leamy of ABC’s Good Morning America here.)

In other testing news, it is not just students who are being graded. Increasingly, teachers are being held accountable for the performance of their students. Houston, Texas is the latest city to announce that teachers’ jobs will no longer rely solely on evaluations by their principals. Until this year, 99% of teachers received satisfactory performance scores based on personal reviews. However, now student test scores will play a much greater role in deciding who is hired and fired.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 804 other followers