About this blog Subscribe to this blog

Common Core and Reading Choices

The adoption of Common Core by most states has generated another of those silly wars that we’re so fond of in education.  Like the meaningless debates over whole language and phonics, this one centers around reading/language arts and once again sets up a false dichotomy:  Fiction or nonfiction? 

Common Core guidelines indicate that fourth graders, for example, should spend half their reading time on nonfiction – everything from historical texts to recipes to train schedules.  By twelfth grade, roughly seventy percent of students’ reading should be nonfiction according to the Common Core guidelines.  English teachers and the ubiquitous Diane Ravitch are aghast.  “Why does David Coleman dislike fiction?” she asks in her usual low-keyed way.  (For the uninitiated, David Coleman is president of the College Board and helped design and sell the Common Core curriculum.)

Kids-readingIn a carefully reasoned opinion piece in the New York Times, Sara Mosle makes the point that the problem isn’t the amount of nonfiction that students are required to read, but the type.  She also argues that the lines between fiction and nonfiction are not as sharp as they once were; instead, good nonfiction can tell the story of an event, a life, a movement, an idea.

Our definitions of fiction and nonfiction need to be changed and expanded.  Years ago when I was in elementary school, I remember that the fifth grade reading book was called, “Animals, Plants, and Machines.”  It was the worst year of my young reading life.  I did the required reading quickly and then pulled out my library book and read what I wanted to.  If I could just make it to sixth grade, the reading book was called, “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.”  Nonfiction in those days represented a dry dreadfulness to most kids.   

Today, however, we are blessed with writers who know how to write nonfiction in a way that students can learn about the facts while thinking about what they signify.  David McCullough, Rebecca Skloot, Malcolm Gladwell, Atul Gawande are just a few writers of “narrative nonfiction” and there are many others. Nonfiction doesn’t have to be all primary source documents in high school although even those can be fascinating and useful in the hands of a good teacher.  And good writers can incorporate primary source material to enhance the story (see Ken Burns’ Dust Bowl).

We need a more balanced approach to English/language arts so that kids can take apart the text and then write about a range of ideas.  A real problem with reading instruction today is that teachers have gotten into the habit of introducing  discussion questions and writing assignments that focus on the reader rather than the text.  “What would you do if you were in Huck’s place?” “Have you ever had to make a tough decision like Oliver?”  “What would you do if you saw a white rabbit disappear down a hole?”  “What would you do if your parents didn’t like your boyfriend’s or girlfriend’s parents?”  No wonder some kids grow up thinking it’s all about them.

Adding more nonfiction to the reading requirements doesn’t mean the death of fiction, but teachers, as always, need to be aware of the myriad choices for both fiction and nonfiction.  I suspect the ratio of fiction to nonfiction will even out over time as the Common Core moves away from politics and the sometimes humorless folks who write those kinds of guidelines for unseen children and their teachers.  Nonfiction gives kids information they need to navigate through life; fiction gives them the ability to navigate thoughtfully.

Fear of Bouncing

Tingley-021 color webBounce houses, those indoor activity centers filled with various inflatable bouncers, are wildly popular with parents of elementary school children, especially as sites for birthday parties.  First of all, because the activities are indoors, you don’t have to worry about a Plan B in case the weather turns cold and rainy – always a risk with pool parties.  Second, the party has time limits; the bounce houses are typically rented by the hour.  Finally, many bounce houses are full service party places.  Not only are there additional rooms off to the side where kids can enjoy pizza and cake before opening presents, but also some of the houses themselves even provide the pizza and cake.  When the party’s over, just pack up the presents and leave the mess behind.

What’s not to like about that?  

Well, according to a report published today in the journal Pediatrics, there were 15 times more injuries tokids on inflatable bouncers from 1995 to 2010. The data includes injuries from bounce houses and from freestanding inflatables found at carnivals or even church picnics or even school field days.  Here are some attention-grabbing statistics gathered from the U.S.Consumer Product Safety Commission:

•In 2010 about 30 children a day were treated for injuries in hospital emergency rooms

•In 1995 there were 702 injuries to kids; in 2010 there were 11,3ll

•Injuries resulting from falls were most common followed by stunts and collisions

•28% of kids were treated for fractures

•27% had sprains or strains

•19% had injuries to heads or neck

I’ve actually attended a few parties at bouncing facilities, and rarely did they end without a child being injured.  My biggest fear is always for the smaller children who are sometimes vulnerable to injury simply from the weight of bigger kids (I’ve even seen parents jump on some of the inflatables despite signs Inflatable-Bouncers prohibiting individuals over a certain number of pounds).  Supervision from employees can be weak; supervision from parents non-existent.  Quoted in the Pittsburg Post Gazette, Dr. Gary Smith of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio says, “When children of different sizes bounce close to each other …, the mat may be not be ready to take their weight when they come down. Instead, it may launch them in a different direction, causing them to fall on their arm or atop each other.”

By comparison, injuries from trampolines have declined over the last few years; however, national safety guidelines are already in place for trampolines.  The Pediatrics report calls for similar guidelines for inflatable bouncers.

In the meantime, if your school is considering renting in inflatable bouncer for a fun fair or other event, you should be aware of the risk of injury to children and take the necessary supervisory precautions.  Kids have an enormous amount of fun on inflatables and they certainly provide a great deal of exercise.  But like so many school activities, it’s all about competent supervision.







Teaching Kids to Cheat

Tingley-021 color webIf there’s a point to assigning a term paper in secondary school, I don’t know what it is.

During my tenure as the academic dean in a private school, the policy was that all eighth graders had to write a term paper.  The reason for this folly was that the school board believed the assignment demonstrated to parents and to the public that we had high academic standards and that our students were intelligent and motivated.  What was actually demonstrated, of course, was that kids discovered that the only way to complete this pointless and endless task was to plagiarize.

Despite these dubious results in eighth grade, the silliness of writing term papers continued throughout high school.  As a result, most of our students were able to take with them to college sophisticated and formidable plagiarism skills.

It turns out that in college, however, these skills may be unnecessary, as some students can skip the whole charade by hiring someone to write the paper for them.  In his new book The Shadow Scholar:  How I Made a Living Helping College Kids Cheat, author Dave Tomar reveals that he made over $50,000 in 2010, his best year, by charging $100 to $120 per paper.  He estimates he wrote over 4,000 papers during his “ghostwriting” career.

The subject of the paper really didn’t matter, he says.  Like many high school and college students, he usually started by “researching” the subject on Wikipedia.  He’d use the traditional 5-section format – intro, background, review of lit, discussion, conclusions – and tack on a list of references which, I know from experience, are rarely checked.  His process was to write the conclusion first and then find a few quick references to support it. 

Basically, I suspect that this process isn’t very different from what savvy high schoolers do.  Tomar says he didn’t proofread the final product to make it look more “authentic.”  Good choice.

Copy-paste-550x327The book should give all high school and college teachers pause.  Don’t get me wrong – I believe that
students as young as eighth grade are capable of thinking about a topic, coming up with a thesis, and researching it online or in a bricks and mortar library.  The problem is that we don’t do a good job of helping kids understand what research is, how it’s conducted, and why we even bother with it.  And by the way, this aspect of education hasn’t changed since term papers were written with real books and notecards.  We love the idea of a term paper; we don’t love teaching how to produce one, and we don’t love reading them nor grading them.

I propose that instead of a research paper we limit the project to 3 – 5 pages.  We do one together.  We help kids come up with a question they really want to answer.  We show them how to find out what other people know about the subject.  We teach how the paper has a beginning, middle and end – and intro, thesis and support, and conclusion.  We do it in two weeks, not a semester.  In other words, we demystify it; we defang the monster.  We help kids learn to think and produce a succinct piece of independent work they can be proud of. 

That way no one can make a living out of helping kids cheat and profit on a book about how they did it.



Nielsen Ratings: What a Teacher’s Resignation Means

The superintendent of a neighboring school district was my good friend and colleague, and she and I had a pact:  Whenever either of us wrote a letter or an email when we were angry, frustrated, or just annoyed, we would send it to the other to look at before we released it to the world.

This agreement was for our own protection so that when emotions were high, we wouldn’t do anything that might make the situation worse or make us look like idiots. It was a smart idea, and more than once one of us advised the other to forget it -- put the letter in a drawer or file the email.  Sometimes putting the letter or email away for a couple of days allowed the writer to cool off and address the issue in a more rational, professional way.  Sometimes just the act of writing the letter or email was carthartic; it didn’t even need to be sent.  Having someone you trust  sympathize with your point of view but tell you candidly to keep it to yourself  is, as they say, priceless. 

Too bad Kris Nielsen didn’t have someone like that.

Nielsen, as you may recall, is the North Carolina teacher whose long and very public resignation  a few weeks ago was posted on several sites including that of education’s Eeyore, Diane Ravitch.  In his resignation, Nielsen lists lots of sweeping reasons why he will not participate in Union County Public Schools any longer.  Among those reasons are dreadful, detached, and draconian administrators; wasted time on housekeeping tasks; no classroom assistance; coworkers uncommitted to excellence; a prison-like atmosphere; and hoodwinked parents.  What a hell hole!

It’s no wonder that Ravitch seized on this letter immediately, posting it on her website and using it as a jumping off point to solicit comments from others about the basic dreadfulness of all North Carolina schools.  The letter was a gift.

QuittingA couple  things bother me, however.  No mass resignations have followed Nielsen’s letter.  The letter isn’t of the traditional, “Please accept my resignation” variety”; it’s clear that Nielsen spent considerable time on it.  So to hand it in and walk that day was designed to cause the district problems in finding a competent sub for his students already in dire straits.  Nielsen left a job he says he loved in New Mexico for a better paying position in Oregon.  Unfortunately, he lost his job with budget cuts (he says he doesn’t know “who to blame” for the budget crisis).  So based on what he learned from the internet and a phone interview, he accepted a job in North Carolina and moved his family there, only to find out that the district was, as I noted, a hell hole.

I think that Nielsen is sincerely concerned with what he experienced in his school district, and I think he raises some good, if exaggerated points.  However, it’s hard to reform a school from the outside, especially when your brief claim to fame is the notoriety of quitting after a couple of months and aligning yourself with the doomsayers of education.  Maybe he sincerely couldn’t take another day in the classroom, but it will be tough to get another teaching job after this “very public resignation.”

Nielsen’s disappointment in not being able to do what he evidently does well and what he cares about is clear.  It’s a loss for the district, but a far greater loss for him.  I wish he had thought it all through a little better or that he had had a solid mentor in North Carolina.  Allowing Ravitch to use him as a tool will further her negative arguments, but will do little for Nielsen’s professional future.

Before ADHD and After

Tingley-021 color“How do you like your teacher this year?” I asked the fourth grader.

“I love her,” she said.  “And I think I’m her favorite student.”

“Does she have an unfavorite student?” I asked.

“Yes,” said the fourth grader immediately.  “Andrew.”

“How do you know he’s your teacher’s least favorite student?” I asked.

“She’s always yelling at him.”

“Why is that?” I asked, curious.

“He makes noises when he’s supposed to be quiet.”

“What kind of noises?”

“I don’t know, “ she said, bored with this line of questioning and preferring to talk about how she was the teacher’s favorite.  “He sings, he makes animal noises, he talks to himself.  My teacher doesn’t like that.”

“Plus, “ she added, “he sits next to me.”

Some things never change, I thought.  Some teachers still think that inattentive or even disruptive kids (usually boys) will be somehow more controlled by assigning them seats next to well-behaved girls.  It’s like the joke:  “If my child misbehaves,” says a modern mom to the teacher, “just yell at the student next to him.  That will be enough to scare my child into better behavior.”

Talking about Andrew made my mind skitter across the years to a boy in one of my sister’s elementary school classes.  Kids called him “Richard Oink Johannsen Tick.”

BOY_IN_CLASSROOMRichard did all the things that Andrew did and more.  Richard couldn’t sit still and he couldn’t stay quiet.  Silent reading or tests pushed his self-control beyond the limit.  In class he stood on one leg, kneeling on his seat with the other as he labored over his work.  Softly, under his breath, he sang his own song: “Do you tick tick tick like a clock “ or “Do you oink oink oink like a pig?”   The verses were endless.  “Do you bark bark bark like a dog?”  You get the idea.  Of course, he sat next to my sister.

One day during the IOWA tests, Richard hit the wall.  After fussing and squirming and muttering to himself as he worked, the steam broke through the escape valve.  “Do you tick tick tick like a clock?” he suddenly yelled, and when his shocked classmates looked up, he shouted, “DO YA?”

That was enough for his teacher, who stomped down the aisle and stuck two fat strips of masking tape over Richard’s mouth.

Of course, those were the days before we knew there was such a thing as ADD or ADHD.  And those were the days when a teacher could put masking tape over a kid’s mouth (or worse) and not worry that his parent would show up the next day and demand the teacher be fired. I said they were the old days, not the good old days.

Richard moved along through middle and high school, and his outbursts grew less frequent and eventually disappeared.  He managed to graduate, but the nickname “Richard Oink” or just “Oink” stuck.   Maybe things will work out for Andrew too – that his impulsive behaviors will dissipate, maybe even disappear as he moves through middle school and high school.

I’ve written before about the millions of Richards and Andrews (and some Ambers and Keishas) who take prescription drugs for ADHD or ADD.  Last month I wrote about some doctors who prescribe these drugs for kids without any diagnosis but whose parents would like them to do even better in school.  College kids talk about taking the same drugs to make them more competitive so they can focus better, stay up later, and perform better on tests. 

It’s a tough call in elementary school, and the wrong decision can have long-term effects.  Still, I hope Andrew’s teacher can contain her exasperation and find ways for him learn and progress with his classmates.  My guess is that now that test results are part of every teacher’s evaluation, the Richards and the Andrews are going to find less, not more teacher tolerance for some of their behaviors and greater insistence that parents consider prescription drugs for their child.  It’s more acceptable than sticking tape over a child’s mouth.


At the Airport with a Child with Autism

Standing in a slow moving security line at LAX a couple of months ago, I watched a young soldier ahead of me shepherd his two young sons through the line.  The older boy was about 10 and listened carefully to his father’s directions.  The younger boy, about 7, appeared antsy, loud, and talkative.  As I watched his dad answer his repeated questions, I realized that the boy exhibited some of the behaviors usually associated
with the autism spectrum.  We approached the conveyor belts and the metal detector, and the boy became more and more animated and anxious.  I lost sight of them as we approached the conveyor belts, but I couldn’t help thinking that this could be a tough trip for two small boys and their dad.

In a new initiative to ease the flight anxieties of children with autism and their parents, some airlines have teamed with airports to offer a “mock boarding” experience prior to the actual flight.  According to the New York Times, participating airlines are Jet Blue, AirTran, Continental, Frontier, Southwest, and United.  The experience is available at Dulles International; Atlanta; Bridgeport, Connecticut,; Manchester, New Hampshire; Philadelphia; and Newark airports.

The mock boarding experience allows families with a child with autism to take a trial run before the actual flight.  They can purchase tickets, go through security, and board, and fasten their seatbelts on a plane ChildAirport460that doesn’t leave the gate.  Neither parents nor airport officials claim that the experience eradicates all problems that might be encountered, but it can help allay a child’s discomfort with the unfamiliar. 

Parents of children with autism report various degrees of difficulty on flights, according to the Times.  In August, for example, a mother and her 3-year-old son with autism were removed from a plane set to take off because of the child’s loud crying and the subsequent complaint of another passenger.  And while many
parents prepare for flights with headphones for their child or other soothing aids, the experience can be challenging, especially since many passengers simply see the behaviors as annoying or as something a good parent could control.   According to the Times, Jennifer Repella, vice president for programs at the Autism Society notes, “What’s challenging is that autism is a hidden disability.  People see someone they think is just a spoiled brat or a kid misbehaving and they don’t realize the origins of that.”

The Transportation Security Administration has set up a hotline, TSA Cares, to help individuals who might have difficulty navigating the airport systems.  Since it was set up about a year ago, the hotline has responded to thousands of calls, over 300 of them regarding flying with children with autism.  In addition, Autism Speaks, an advocacy group, offers additional resources and travel tips.


Eye on the Prize

Tingley-021 colorStudents in my daughter’s graduate classes routinely ignored the reading assignments, much to her chagrin since it made class discussions halting and boring.  But when the problem was brought to the attention of the department chair, his response was that students learn differently today, getting their information quickly from different sources.  Most students today, he thought, are unprepared to sit and read text for an extended period of time.  His advice to professors?  Limit printed text assignments and direct students to several sources of information instead of just one.  One wonders how students will learn to understand, let alone develop a cogent argument with logical steps supported by research, but at least classroom discussions would be more fluid if less informed.

Two recent surveys confirm that many teachers share the department chair’s opinion regarding students’ ability to focus for extended periods of time.  The surveys show that teachers in general feel that students’ persistent use of digital technology has diminished their attention spans and lessened their abilities to persevere when faced with daunting tasks.

The researchers, from the Pew Research Center and from Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that advises parents regarding the use of technology by children, take pains to point out that their work is a survey of teacher opinions rather than definitive proof that technology affects the brain.  In fact, the research reveals that 75% of teachers surveyed say that technology has a “mostly positive” impact on student research skills.  Still, nearly 90% of respondents say that technology also results in “an easily distracted generation with short attention spans.”

ElmoOf course, one always has to consider that anecdotal evidence is just that – anecdotal evidence.  Still, one has to wonder about the long-term effect not only of digital technology on children, but of what I might call “primitive” technology found in toys and games for children under 2.  If you’ve ever tried to buy a simple toy for very young children, you know what I mean.  Try to find something that doesn’t blink, flash, play music, or talk.  Toys that don’t do any of those things are called “classic,” like PF Flyers and hula hoops.

Some children’s development organizations worry that digital toys themselves take away the child’s ability to determine the nature of play.   Instead of creating her own play situation, the child responds to what the toy does.  What I’ve observed myself (more anecdotal evidence) is that small children become more interactive with toys when all the buttons are turned off or the batteries removed.  It also prolongs the life of the toy by keeping it from being thrown out the window of a moving car by a crazed parent.

At any rate, technology is a large part of all children’s education today, and we need to figure out how best to integrate it into learning.  I doubt if students’ attention spans have been shortened.  Good teachers have always had to work a little to engage students’ intellect; prolonged focus is a function of maturity, self-discipline, and interest. In the meantime, check out the video below about what books do at night. High tech in praise of no tech.






Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.