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.

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.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Break Means Break

On Winter Break - or Fall Break and Spring Break for that matter - I do not give my students homework.  That means nothing, zilcho, zip.  It is called "break" for a reason, and I do not feel the overwhelming need to burden the kids with busy work during the holidays.  This puts me in a minority among teachers, but I can't quite figure out why.

We break for winter two weeks before the end of first semester and final exams, and many students claim they spend the entire break studying for final exams.  Now, I don't believe that at all, but I do sympathize with kids who have an extra book to read or a final review packet to complete or pages of calculations or research papers to complete.  There should be enough time during the normal thirty six weeks of school for teachers to accomplish all they need to accomplish.  If not, they are probably erring on the side of forcing too much "content" into their lessons.

The issue of content is a contentious one, as teachers revere their content and can't imagine their students missing out on one fact or name or equation or definition or connection.  But this point of view too easily veers into rote memorization of trivial content or, worse, busy work.  As an English teacher and supporter of core knowledge approaches, I completely support the intention to build within students a vast store of background knowledge which they can and must use to access new information.  But nothing is so serious or monumental that it can't be accomplished during the standard schedule.  There is nothing wrong with students continuing to read and learn during time off school.  But that's a long way from believing that the extra "vacation packet" is going to solve the ills of gaps in student knowledge.

So, this break, take a break.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

NAEP Data Exposes Vocabulary Gap

Vocabulary matters.

Ed Week reports this week on the release of the NAEP scores , and it's bit surprising that gaps in vocabulary skills persist among racial and ethnic minorities as well as students from lower socioeconomic status.  This is not surprising, as anyone who stays current on education knows that students from the lower end of the income strata tend to enter school trailing their middle class counterparts by as many as a thousand words.

These limits on vocabulary are going to be a drag on student achievement throughout their years in schools. And, it's almost a fact that the students simply won't catch up.  Vocabulary enrichment is foundational to student achievement, and any program of school reform must have literacy development as one of its key areas of emphasis.

However, measurement of vocabulary levels is always an "iffy" proposition, as vocabulary assessment can't be anything but arbitrary.  That discrepancy has always bothered me, especially when our students are taking state tests.  While there is no statewide vocabulary list, the Colorado Department of Education is not shy about making vocabulary identification as much as 17% of the testing at the high school level.  Should a high school student be expected to know the word "paltry"?  I don't know.  And knowing the word is probably a pretty good indicator of future academic success.  Still, I wonder about vocabulary assessment and indicators.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Stop Bribing Students to Behave

Far too many teachers see classroom management as a burden that can only be controlled through a bribery-based incentive system.  In fact, the use of rewards for good behavior - which is really just how they should behave - has become accepted practice.  Not good, says Dr. Tracey Garrett who writes "Classroom Management: Not Just a Bag of Tricks."  There is too much research out there on effective strategies for managing a classroom for experienced professionals to continually cede control of their domain for a few skittles or worse.

The concept of reward-based discipline has always bugged me - though it's not surprising that people resort to it.  Certainly, a quick look around the community reveals that many adults parent this way as well.  But it doesn't have to be this way.  From early in my career, I knew the tools of classroom management, even as they were reinforced to my through a series of videos from Dr. Harry Wong.  The basics are always the same.  Effectively managed classrooms are, in fact, managed.  Systems and procedures must be in place with a level of expectation that is clear.  Basically, successful classroom management is grounded in:

  1. Organizing the physical environment
  2. Creating rules and routines
  3. Establishing caring relationships
  4. Planning and implementing engaging instruction
  5. Clearly addressing - not ignoring - discipline issues.

It is, uh, that simple.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Who's Teaching Writing?

Is it possible that nearly half of high school students in this country write less than a paragraph a month in classes?  If true, that would explain the abysmal writing skills - and scores - of American students on tests such as the NAEP, or in college classes whose professors are baffled by their incompetence.  As the Common Core focus on literacy focuses on redefining how we teach and measure reading scores, some schools have awoken to the equally significant task of teaching students how to write.  This "writing renaissance" documented in much education news is both refreshing news and a depressing commentary on the state of American classrooms.

Teachers may be focusing on the teaching of writing like few have done before - or in a while - but still a majority of teachers claim their education and training did little to teach them how to teach writing.  And, of course, this skill must be developed across all curricula.  For, if it has left up to the English teacher, as it far too often has been, writing skills will continue to stagnate.  The connection between reading and writing should be obvious, and students need to be regularly challenged to synthesize information they read and offer their analysis in written form.

Building arguments and analyses from their existing knowledge, as well as new texts, is foundational for critical thinking.  And, students need to be writing much more.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Taylor Mali & The The Impotence of Proofreading

Sometimes, that which must be explained by an English teacher can best be done by one who is also a slam poet.  Taylor Mali has clearly articulated - with the right amount of sarcasm and innuendo - the challenges faced by a generation of people overly dependent on a computer's spellcheck.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Cursive, Vocabulary, Rhetoric, and Read Alouds

Anne Murphy Paul for Time Magazine reports on the slow and reluctant return to "old school" learning to classrooms led by progressive teachers who have recently emphasized 21st-century skills.

Among the skills and techniques that show benefit in the contemporary classroom are:

  1. Cursive and Handwriting
  2. Root Words and Vocabulary
  3. Argumentation and Rhetoric
  4. Read Alouds

Friday, October 26, 2012

Students Buying Taylor-Made Essays On-line

In the ongoing battle for academic honesty against a rising tide of easy-to-access plagiarism opportunities, the arguments for a considerable amount of in-class writing just keep going up.  As a teacher of AP Language and Composition, I assign mostly in-class writing to prep my students for the exam.  In the course of roughly thirty in-class essays a year, I have a pretty thorough understanding of my students' styles and abilities.  Thus, if they turned in an out-of-class essay that didn't "sound like them," I would be pretty comfortable calling them out for academic dishonesty.  And, that is the issue in a fascinating feature in the Atlantic Monthly.  Richard Gunderman - in his article Write My Essay, Please - exposes a new addition to the essay-writing assistance that many teachers thought they had prevented with the arrival of

Now, students can purchase assignment-specific non-plagiarized essays which can be accessed in a very short time period.  Apparently, quite a few online sources are offering essays written-to-order for very reasonable prices.  And since they are crafted upon request, they are not plagiarized and will not be caught by the standard plagiarism sites.  While Gunderman approaches the situation philosophically, wondering what it says about students and our world that they would simply pay someone to do their work, I am looking at it more practically in terms of how I can continue to guarantee academic integrity.  In essence, the only way to do so is to assign a fair amount of in-class writing.  While some teachers are more hesitant to do so, it is really the only way to verify a student's skills.  Even longer research projects can be handled in class with a practice of a writing journal and incremental grades for drafts.  One of my colleagues assigns out of class research papers, but tracks students' progress via their journals.

Regardless, English teachers need to be aware of these new essay writing services.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Time to Edit & Revise Essays

Teaching Honors Freshman English as well as AP Language and Composition, I focus a great deal on in-class writing with my students.  The in-class essay is only one form of writing, but it is a significant one these days.  With the rising concerns about plagiarism - even in the era of - and the increased focus on AP classes, the ability to write in a timed setting is an important skill for students.  It certainly offers a truly authentic sample of a students ability to translate thoughts into writing.  However, the task of revision is every bit as important.  So, on some assignments I give my students a bit of a perk - and extended time.  Occasionally, I will start them on an in-class assignment, and then hand it back for a second day of revision.  Sometimes I tell them they will have two days, and on others I surprise them.  However, in between days I collect their work, so they aren't actually doing any work at home.  Today, however, I sprung a different format on the kids.  My freshman are writing final essays on Antigone today, and about halfway through class, I stopped them and offered fifteen minutes for peer editing.  They are also allowed to take the essay home and finish it.  However, it must be handwritten and I need to see both copies and any revisions.  The class was thrilled - for sometimes, they say, they just need a little guidance and feedback during the writing.  A quick tweak of the topic sentence or some advice on a helpful quote might be just the sort of editing a kid needs to get over that hump.