Day #59 Student Use of Evidence re: SBAC Pilot Test

The Smarter Balanced pilot tests ended today, and the computer labs are open to students again. The 11th graders spent 8.5 hours over the past two weeks sitting and “testing” in English/Language Arts and math. While they were cooperative, they were not happy spending so many hours in front of screens. Furthermore, they are disgruntled they will not receive the individual results of their tests; they have no idea how well or how poorly they did.

So that the experience would help prepare teachers for next year, however, the 11th graders did cooperate in a prepared survey that asked them what they thought of the new online tests. One of the responses from an unnamed student was particularly interesting:

“It gives you a head ache and Isn’t it bad for you to stare a computer for long periods of time? “Make sure you stand up and walk away from your computer on a regular basis. Just walk around for a few minutes, stretch, and relax. This should be done at least every hour. For my patients I recommend that they use a timer and get away from their computer every 20 to 30 minutes” 2014-05-22 21.57.16

In reading the response, I immediately realized that this student had sought out and included evidence to make his or her point, that spending hours in front of a computer was not healthy. In this student’s opinion, the tests demand too much onscreen reading. The evidence researched for the response came from a reputable website address-The University of California.

If the SBAC is testing the Common Core State Standards that emphasize evidence in written responses, than this student is demonstrating proficiency…even in the pilot test.


Day #40: Ask vs. Train

An ad supporting the Common Core State Standards posted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation featured a Missouri Teacher of the Year, Jamie Manker, saying, “I support the Common Core because it’s asking kids to think.”

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Manker  is asking kids to think, but what does asking mean?

According to the Free Dictionary online, the first example given after defining the verb ask is a little ironic:

1. To put a question to: When we realized that we didn’t know the answer, we asked the teacher.
Those who wrote the Common Core State Standards should cringe at this interpretation, an example of students who turn to the teacher for an answer rather than continue the inquiry on their own. Perhaps this Q and A relationship is not so surprising given the focus on multiple choice questions in testing to measure student progress on the standards.
The next few examples did not improve the meaning of the work “ask” because the connection between “ask” and “answer” conveyed permission:
2. To seek an answer to: ask a question.
3. To seek information about: asked directions.
4.a. To make a request of: asked me for a loan.
b. To make a request for. Often used with an infinitive or clause: ask a favor of a friend; asked to go along on the trip; asked that he be allowed to stay out late.
Examples #5 and #6 were the only statements of “ask” with that other Common Core idea of rigor. Replacing “ask” with the synonyms require, expect, or demand is much more aligned to the support  of the Common Core as rigorous.
5. To require or call for as a price or condition: asked ten dollars for the book.
6. To expect or demand: ask too much of a child.
I would argue that a change from the verb “ask” to the verb “train” in the promotional statement on the poster better reflects the goal of every teacher at every grade level. Training students to think is critical, whether a teacher supports Common Core or not. Changing the verb from “ask” students to “train”  students how to think implies skill building as seen in these examples:
1. To coach in or accustom to a mode of behavior or performance.
2. To make proficient with specialized instruction and practice.
3. To prepare physically, as with a regimen: train athletes for track-and-field competition.
4. To cause (a plant or one’s hair) to take a desired course or shape, as by manipulating.
5. To focus on or aim at
This simple change of verbs shifts the emphasis from students seeking permission to think to students being coached to think. I am confident that is what Ms. Manker meant. The change would also disassociate student “asking”  permission to think as the real message from the Gates Foundation…or maybe not.


Day 26: The Common Core Circus in Connecticut

Connecticut knows about circuses, after all, P.T. Barnum is our native son. In an ironic choice of metaphors, David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times posted an opinion piece (4/17/14) on the Common Core State Standards titled, “When the Circus Descends” . His objective was to present how much of a media circus has been created by those on the right (Glenn Beck) and those on the left, “progressives, and increasingly from teachers’ unions,” in opposing the Common Core. Brooks intended the metaphor to reflect negatively on those opposed to the standards, but the metaphor of a circus captures the standards themselves. The standards are an illusion, as all good circus tricks are. There is no evidence that they are the solution to improving education in Connecticut.

There is an enormous cost to the set of uniform standards Brooks touts. In Connecticut, bringing the technology to schools to implement the computer testing has a cost. Implementing the tests has a cost. Professional development for teachers to implement Common Core has a cost. There are districts that will purchase aligned curriculum at a cost. These standards are an exorbitantly high-priced show that requires audience participation.

Another problem is that student success with standardized tests is tied to teacher evaluations, a point not considered in Brooks’s observation that “teachers are being forced into some top-down straitjacket that they detest.” Connecticut is wrestling, district by district, how to use the results of SBAC testing to measure teacher performance.

feejeeFinally, there is no mechanism for modifying standards that may be developmentally inappropriate unless the State Department of Education rewrites the standards for Connecticut schoolchildren. That will also have a cost.

Connecticut’s P.T Barnum got his start when he promoted an elderly black woman, Joice Heth, as George Washington’s 161-year old nurse. Barnum’s side show of the “Feejee mermaid” featured the mummified torso and head of a juvenile monkey sewn to the bottom of a fish. Both were false advertisements, and the people who paid to see these frauds lost the small price of admission to his tents. They may have left chagrined but a little wiser.

The circus has descended on Connecticut, but Connecticut can be more skeptical than David Brooks. After all, we claim rights to the politician, showman, and founder of the Barnum and Bailey Circus.  Brooks should familiarize himself with P.T.Barnum, and consider his maxim, “The bigger the humbug, the better people will like it.”

Day 21: Die, Hamlet, Die Again

Hamlet legoThe 4th period senior Advanced Placement Literature class watched Hamlet die four times on Friday. Four times was all the time we had.

These students have been reading and annotating the great soliloquies in Hamlet, but since this is a drama, they have benefitted much more from watching scenes from several film versions of the play. The closed caption feature is on so the students “read” the play while the actors in each cast attempt to, “Fit the action to the word and the word to the action,” per Shakespeare’s directions.

Watching the different film productions complements the study of literary critical theory. These students have been analyzing works of literature through a psychoanalytic, historic, or Marxist lenses, and they are familiar with New Criticism which is so similar to the Common Core State Standards. They know there is more than one way to read a text. Watching the different versions of Hamlet illustrates there are different ways directors and actors interpret and act the text as well.

This year, I used the 1996 Franco Zefferelli version, which stars Mel Gibson as Hamlet, as the “spine” of analysis for the class. His version is also the shortest, but that is what happens when Zefferelli’s interpretation means he rearranges the order of scenes and drops Fortinbras from the plot entirely.

For “speaking the speech trippingly on the tongue,” I showed  selections from the Kenneth Branagh version (1996) in which he plays the title role. I also used scenes from the much praised 1948 classic by starring and directed by Laurence Olivier, as well as the most recent BBC production directed by Greg Doran with David Tennant as Hamlet. To provide contrasts to these versions, the students also watched short scenes from the Hallmark production directed and acted by Campbell Scott and Michael Almereyda’s 2000 modernization with Ethan Hawke as Hamlet.

In order to have students appreciate the complexity of the Ghost’s request, I showed different versions of the Ghost scene with Hamlet, adding two more versions to the line-up: short clips from the1964 Grigori Kozintsev‘s version and a nightmarish version (2007) by Alexander Fodor.

Watching all these Hamlets took more time we had. A few more classes, and I could have offered a few more? Which one? I never did get to Kevin Kline’s Hamlet (1990), or Richard Burton’s (1964) filmed rehearsal.  There are so many excellent choices from directors, and each has a different way “to draw thy breath in pain. To tell my story.”

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Day 20 Critical Theory for AP Lit with a Slice of New Criticism

lensesOver the course of the year, my Advanced Placement English Literature seniors have been studying different lenses of literary critical theory. They have been analyzing works of literature through a psychoanalytic, historic, deconstructivist or Marxist point of view. They know there is more than one way to read a text.

I have been using the work of Deborah Appleman who, in a keynote address What We Teach and Why: Contemporary Literary Theory and Adolescents* stated:

Offering students several ways to look at texts does more than help them learn to interpret literature from multiple perspectives; it  also helps them develop a more complex way of thinking as they move from the dualism of early adolescence to the relativism of adult thinkers.

The students usually develop their own particular “favorite” lens, but I have been very clear that the lens favored by the Advanced Placement tests creators is New Criticism (Formalism), which is not so coincidentally favored as an approach to literature by the Common Core State Standards. A St. Bedford Martins Press definition notes,

Because it stresses close textual analysis and viewing the text as a carefully crafted, orderly object containing formal, observable patterns, the New Criticism has sometimes been called an “objective” approach to literature. 

Deconstruction (“there is nothing outside the text”), a form of New Criticism, is very helpful when a student has no idea how to approach a text. I tell students that finding patterns or associated motifs is a bit like working a puzzle. Sometimes tearing a work apart to see what makes it tick can be a successful approach for an AP Lit response.

New Criticism had been, for the most part, dropped in practice, so seeing its ideology embedded in the Common Core is a little like watching the return of the 1970s textbook. Then again, the Advanced Placement Literature Test dates from those days. Maybe this is the Déjà vu of critical theory.

Day 15: Mathematic Standard #8-Repetition and the Mere Exposure Effect

RepetitionMathematic Practice Standard #8 states students should, “Look for and express regularity in repeated reasoning.” The criteria in this standard suggests that “mathematically proficient students notice if calculations are repeated, and look both for general methods and for shortcuts.”

Driving home tonight, I heard a story on NPR on our human appreciation for repetition in math and in other areas as well, specifically music. Reporter Alix Spiegel researched why repetition is “seductive to humans” in her audio-story Play It Again And Again, Sam that explores the research of music psychologist Elizabeth Margulis who notes that humans are drawn to repetition.

“Musical repetitiveness isn’t really an idiosyncratic feature of music that’s arisen over the past few hundred years in the West,” she says. “It seems to be a cultural universal. Not only does every known human culture make music, but also, every known human culture makes music [in which] repetition is a defining element.”

Margulis has studies the mere exposure effect where repeated exposure to anything increases our acceptance, and helps us develop a positive attitude.

“Let’s say you’ve heard a little tune before, but you don’t even knowthat you’ve heard it, and then you hear it again. The second time you hear it you know what to expect to a certain extent, even if you don’t know you know,” Maugulis says. “You are just better able to handle that sequence of sounds. And what it seems like [your mind is saying] is just, ‘Oh I like this! This is a good tune!’ But that’s a misattribution.”

Familiarity helps to develop acceptance, and the eight mathematic practice standards should become familiar to every teacher. They offer strategies that can be used by teachers in every discipline. Especially if these standards become part of a repeated practice…just as Mathematical Practice Standard #8 suggests.