"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Facebook Bamboozles the New York Times Again About What Goes On In Schools

 NOTE: Following Stephen Krashen's injunction that Somewhere/Sometime Someone at the New York Times reads the letters we send, and that's why we must keep sending them, I sent a very much shortened version of this piece. Long or short, I know that few people can grasp what student choice means in the classroom.

 by Susan Ohanian

What passes for student choice in this  Facebook- Summit charter school set-up (Facebook HelpsDevelop Software That Puts Students in Charge of Their Lesson Plans) described in the New York Times illustrates how easily too many people are bamboozled by technological pizazz. Offering a 12-year-old the option of spending three days on a lesson module on the Roman Empire  instead of one day or six-- before he slogs on to the required study of medieval Europe, then Islam, the Aztecs, Reformation, Renaissance, and the Scientific Revolution--is serving up refried E. D. Hirsch imperatives, not choice. Because New York Times education coverage is devoted to tidiness, the reporters fail to notice that the  power of technology is being trivially used just to help children rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic.

To embrace student choice is to embrace messiness.

For those interested in actual student choice for the long haul and not just small options for tomorrow's output, once again  I offer Jack, the most obnoxious kid in an alternative public high school filled with obnoxious kids kicked out of the regular high school. When I showed Jack  an article in Harper's about Scrabble hustlers in New York City, he noted that serious players preferred the Funk and Wagnall's Dictionary. I insisted that  our American Heritage Dictionary would surely be adequate for launching his Scrabble career,  but Jack pestered until I ordered Funk and Wagnall's.  Admittedly, I felt pretty good about telling my supervisor that a student had requested a dictionary recommended in Harper's.

Jack took the Scrabble board and the new dictionary to a back corner of the room and he stayed there all day, every day, for six months. Drawing my teacher savvy from psycholinguist Frank Smith's observation that when a student persists at the same irregular activity, doing it over and over, he isn't wasting time, isn't trying to get out of real work;  he persists at that activity because he's getting something important out of it. 

My supervisor came often and two months into the Scrabble marathon, he noted, "Jack's still playing Scrabble," I answered, "Yes, he's still working at it."

Yes, work. Given choice, Jack was engaged in the most difficult work of all--that silent, solitary, internal task of figuring out who he was and where he might find a place for himself in the world. I admit to getting worried as two months stretched to three, four, and five. Finally, Jack decided he was ready, and he challenged me to a game, trouncing me badly. This electrified Jack's classmates. Suddenly they were asking the classmate they'd studiously avoided to teach them Scrabble.

In Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players, Stefan Fatsis shows us that Scrabble at a peak level is about weirdness, extreme weirdness. It's also about linguistics, psychology, mathematics, memory, competition, doggedness. Scrabble at the national competitive level and with one out-of-kilter kid in a classroom based on choice is about mastering the rules; it's about failure and it's about hope. Choice at the classroom level is about teachers and students digging in for the long haul of students making decisions.

And it's messy, scary. None of it fits on Danielson's grid for measuring every teacher action or the Student Achievement Partners scheme for a universal curriculum.

Standardistos will be relieved to know that after his Scrabble victory, Jack  dug into a  quirky curriculum that satisfied  state requirements.  For one project he combined  English, health, and social studies competencies by finding contact information for the CEO of General Mills and writing a letter expressing his informed alarm about the sugar content in the breakfast cereal his brother ate. I remember  the moment Jack realized he could make this across-curriculum connection toward graduation and asking me, “Who’s in charge of General Mills?” And I remember shrugging and saying, "I'm not the one writing the letter.” And so he had to find out how to find out.

 The district superintendent in charge of curriculum had never met a single one of our students but at her order photocopies of a 5th grade math textbook--a set for every student--were delivered.  Copied front-to-back, we couldn't even use the paper for scrap. I was very tempted to turn her in to the publisher. And the reality was many of our students opted to work in Harold R. Jacobs' wonderful Mathematics: A Human Endeavor: A textbook for Those Who Think They Don't Like the Subject, I book I'd picked up at the MIT bookstore. A number of students used this as a springboard to work with an architecture major at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Not all chose this. Some did.

Jack  liked to accompany me on visits to a used bookstore, where we filled bags with paperback novels to help students fulfill our school's most basic rule: Read for half an hour every day outside regular curriculum work. Even during his Scrabble work, Jack always did the reading. He told me he'd read more in the first month in our school than in all nine years of his previous schooling. A state examiner came once and complained that we didn’t have any class sets of Shakespeare, Dickens, or Harper Lee. I told him three students were reading a combined edition of Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story—and  I wrote a letter to the state commissioner of education with a copy to our district superintendent, declaring I'd never again open the door to someone who derided our curriculum in front of the students. "They can meet me after hours."

Jack earned his high school diploma two years after the Funk & Wagnall's purchase and enlisted in the Marines.

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