Tag Archives: cognitive development

Read what you want? NY Times article about the Reading Workshop

Today’s post will be short and sweet, as I just came to the realization that school starts next week and I haven’t a clue what to do.

Today’s NY Times Education section had an interesting article about the “Reading Workshop”, something many teachers are already familiar with.  In a nutshell, this concept allows students to shape their own reading lists, while teachers facilitate dicussion, instruct on elements of grammar, syntax, writing skills and the like. 

It’s a slacker’s dream.  No more Silas Marner, or Great Expectations, or Great Gatsby.  Let’s open up comic books, trashy romance novels and children’s ditties in order to learn the wonders of the English language.

There are many variations on this, from a small selection of books to a whole-hog gutting of the classic liberal curriculum.  Basically, I’m against the whole-hog approach, which is covered in the article, for two reasons.  First, to understand English is to understand the exemplars by which the English language is based.  Many of these authors–not all, but many–offer students valuable lessons in language structure, usage, plot development and overall good writing.  Just don’t use James Joyce for sentence structure or e.e. cummings for punctuation.

Second, and the one that really counts, is that if your students are upwardly mobile, this curriculum will place them at a severe disadvantage.  The kids in wealthier school districts who are heading to Ivy League schools and their equivalent are reading the boring stuff–they don’t bother with new-fangled theories on reading development.  The kid who worked his/her way out of a working class or poor district may get to Harvard on their pluck and determination, but they will need the base knowledge of those boring books for at least the first year. 

To get the keys to the kingdom, you need to read the books by dead white males.  It sucks, but that’s life.  Deal with it. 

As always, comments are welcome.

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The Complex Legacy of Stanley H. Kaplan

Stanley H. Kaplan (Photo from Kaplan, Inc.)

Stanley H. Kaplan (Photo from Kaplan, Inc.)

Teachers today, for good or ill, work in a world that was shaped, in part, by Stanley H. Kaplan.

As much as teachers carp about the emphasis on standardized tests, they are an unavoidable reality.  Yet there was—and still is—a good, thorough and efficient way to prepare for those bubble monsters.

Stanley H. Kaplan, test prep pioneer and founder of what is today Kaplan, Inc., was proof that the right preparation was the driving factor in great test scores.  His passing on Sunday at age 90 is a milestone in the standardized testing world.

It’s a shame, then, that his most important lessons remained unlearned.

A little disclosure is in order.  I was a Kaplan instructor and tutor for a few years, teaching SAT preparation classes to high school students.  Through my teaching, I became involved in curriculum development, writing and editing instruction material for Kaplan’s new programs for SAT and the Specialized High School Admission Tests.  In fact, I was a contributing editor for the first major overhaul of the SAT program in 2004, leaving to start my teaching career.   It was a lot of fun and the people there were the best.  So no, I’m not exactly unbiased.

Yet five years removed from the Kaplan universe has shown me where Stanley Kaplan’s vision has gone and, more importantly, where it went wrong.

Kaplan’s basic tenet changed the way we look at tests.  Tests, according to Kaplan, follow certain patterns and methods.  Therefore, preparing for a test was more than simply reviewing the content, but also learning the strategies embedded in the natural patterns of a test.  Test writers are human, thus tests are not inhuman monstrous machines.  Every test is beatable.  It simply takes a review (emphasis on review) of the content followed by useful tricks and methods that help counter the traps often found in testing material.

The legacy of Kaplan’s work extends beyond his company, which grew from a few students in his Brooklyn basement to a company with at least $250 million in revenues and over 100,000 students over 120 teaching centers worldwide.   The test prep course has become a rite of passage for students ranging from middle school to graduate school.  The current educational landscape is littered with test prep companies, methodologies, books, instructors, and software that seek to emulate Kaplan’s results, if not his techniques outright.

Even the makers of tests, including schools, education departments, and government agencies, have provided test prep for their own material.  It’s amazing considering the fierce opposition Kaplan received from the College Board and the Federal Trade Commission, which questioned his claims of student success and the need for test preparation in the first place.

However, in the wake of Kaplan’s success comes the seed of its own perversion.

One thing that Kaplan insisted was that test prep is no substitute for learning the material.  Test prep courses are not meant to TEACH any content.  Rather, they are designed to reinforce content already learned in school using effective testing strategies.   He even de-emphasized the test’s importance, stressing that in most cases, a test is but one factor in a basket of variables that determine acceptance, promotion or graduation.

The education establishment, particularly the architects of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) did not get the message.

Accountability means measured, scientific data, in the NCLB world.  Standardized tests are that instrument to measure student progress.  In most instances, it became the ONLY instrument to measure a child’s achievement.  Since the entire emphasis for federal funding, teacher rating, and school rank centered on these tests, every waking moment is spent preparing for these tests.  Instead of test prep supporting or augmenting the curriculum, it replaced the curriculum.

The results will really show in a few years, when the NCLB youngsters begin high school and college.  Students will be dumbfounded at research, debate, analysis and exploration—things not easily quantified on a scan-tron sheet with a # 2 pencil.  I personally know of many students who “rise to the occasion” on test day, yet could barely function in a classroom setting under more rigorous circumstances.

Furthermore, through the NCLB lens, Kaplan-esque techniques and methods are driving, rather than abating, stress levels on tests where the stakes are ever higher.  Kaplan himself was once questioned that his methods caused more anxiety at test time.  He replied that it was the test administrators, not he, that established the stress level.  The Kaplan methods were designed to ease stress, to make the test more straightforward and manageable.  Yet the quantity and stakes of these tests now trump any relief found in test prep methodology.

NCLB has corrupted Kaplan’s vision.  It made test prep, inadvertently, the driving method of content instruction, flying in the face of everything Kaplan stood for.   The higher stakes of these tests has added to an anxiety level that was never meant to exist in the Kaplan universe.

Stanley Kaplan stood for giving students the tools to succeed in a world with roadblocks made by others.  Yet Kaplan also understood that education is more than a series of roadblocks–it is training the mind to reconceive the world, and the roadblocks themselves.  Anyone can learn how to take a test.  No course in the world, however, can teach someone how to think.

Let’s hope the world shaped by Stanley Kaplan does not choke on the perversion of its ideals.  By the looks of things, though, it may be a foregone conclusion.

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The Importance of Being Earnest: Why Hypocrisy is the greatest danger in Education.

We’ve all heard the line before: “Do as I say, not as I do.” In education, this comes up more often than we realize.

How often do we see this scenario: A teacher is covering a lesson with the class when a student curses at another. The teacher admonishes the student about the use of bad language. Once in the teacher’s lounge, however, that same teacher will swear like a sailor–often with children in earshot of his/her salty tongue.

This is among the more mundane examples, but it can quickly spiral into other matters more substantive. I cannot stand how education programs stress to new teachers the need for complete impartiality in all instruction. This is impossible. Let a robot teach the class, and maybe it will be impartial–yet someone had to write the material for the robot.

So we’re reduced to saying one thing in class and believing something else. With my students, it was always more beneficial to express my opinions out in the open, as long as I make clear they are just my opinions. Kids respect honesty, even if they are often dishonest with themselves or other adults.  If you start lying to them now, they will either (a) mindlessly listen to every word you say, or (b) not trust anyone for anything.  This doesn’t make for an informed citizenry. 

Hypocrisy is the main focus today, as I reflect on one of my favorite artists.  One of the most influential singer/songwriters of the 1960s was Phil Ochs.  Unlike so many of the 1960s political-esque artists who wouldn’t attend an antiwar rally unless from inside their Ferrari, Ochs was a true believer.  Even though I disagree with many of his political views, I respect and admire someone who makes their opinions clear without the “base alloy of hypocrisy”, as Abraham Lincoln stated.

Below is an updated version of his classic “Love Me, I’m a Liberal”, along with a video. It was re-written by Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra and psychobilly pioneer Mojo Nixon to reflect the late 1990’s-early 2000’s.  Even if you don’t agree with these guys–and I don’t, not always–appreciate that they, like so many educators, strive to cut through the hypocrisy to be as honest as possible. 

We should all be mindful of how our words and actions are conveyed to children.  REGARDLESS of our own political viewpoint.

“Love Me, I’m a Liberal” – Original lyrics by Phil Ochs, adapted by Jello Biafra and Mojo Nixon

I cried when they shot John Lennon
Tears ran down my spine
And I cried when I saw “JFK”
As though I’d lost a father of mine

But Malcolm X and Ice-T had it coming
They got what they asked for this time
So love me, love me, love me
I’m a liberal

I go to pro-choice rallies
Recycle my cans and jars
I’ll honk if you love the Dead
Hope those funny grunge bands become stars

But don’t talk about revolution
That’s going a little bit too far
So love me, love me, love me
I’m a liberal

I cheered when Clinton was chosen
My faith in the system reborn
I’ll do anything to save our schools
If my taxes ain’t too much more

And I love blacks and gays and Latinos
As long as they don’t move next door
So love me, love me, love me
I’m a liberal

Rush Limbaugh and the L.A.P.D.
Should all hang their heads in shame
I can’t understand where they’re at
Arsenio should set them straight

But if Neigborhood Watch doesn’t know you
I hope the cops take your name
So love me, love me, love me
I’m a liberal

Yeh, I read the New Republic(an)
Rolling Stone and Mother Jones too
If I vote it’s a Democrat
With a sensible economy view

But when it comes to terrorist Arabs
There’s no one more red, white and blue
So love me, love me, love me
I’m a liberal

Once I was young and had an attitude
Stickers covered the car I drove in
Even went on some direct actions
When there weren’t rent-a-cops to be seen

Ah, but now I’ve grown older and wiser
And that’s why I’m turning you in
So love me, love me, love me
I’m a liberal

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