Thursday, January 28, 2010

J.D. Salinger, 1919-2010

J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye and a main character in the novel Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella, has died at the age of 91.

Will check back later with thoughts. A sad day today, indeed.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Jay - Ee - Tee - Ess ...

No, I'm not going to pontificate here about if/how/why my perennially heartbreaking, soul-crushing New York Jets are going to beat the mighty, awesome Indianapolis Colts in the AFC championship game this afternoon. To be honest, I don't think they have a chance; they simply can't score enough points to keep up with Peyton Manning and the Colts offense, who don't play a lot of 17-14 games. Some of my friends will surely get on my case for being "negative" or "pessimistic," but they make the same mistake that all blind partisans make in failing to see the difference between what one wishes or hopes will happen, and what one actually honestly believes will happen. I can want and hope for outcome A but nonetheless predict and expect outcome B, all at the same time. The two thoughts are not incompatible.

No, I post today because of something I read in today's NY Post, in an interview with Jets safety Jim Leonhard. When asked if he and his teammates would "run through a brick wall" for coach Rex Ryan, Leonhard replied, "Everyone’s been lied to, everyone’s been told something that really isn’t true. Your parents tell you you’re great your whole life, and sometimes it’s not true. I watch "American Idol" every once in a while, you see all the people that go on the show and they think they’re the best singers in the world because no one ever told them that they’re not. Rex is gonna tell you the truth."

I only noticed and posted this because it reflects the thinking that has been driving my teaching for years. I've always told people that I have some students who love me, and some who hate me; some who think I'm a great teacher, and some who think I'm a terrible teacher. And both for the same reason. The reason is precisely what Leonhard says about Ryan here. A lot of students come to my class having only ever been told how wonderful and fabulous they are at everything they've ever done, throughout their entire childhood. Their teachers may have even been taught, trained and instructed to do that; to never tell a student that his answer is wrong or her work is inadequate, because doing so would be "psychologically damaging." (This is what a student-teacher I supervised a few years back told me she had been taught.) They get to my class and can't handle my brutal honesty. I challenge them to do better, and they take it as an insult.

Now, I've had a number of students over the years who initially resented me for this, but who realized over time what I was doing for them and came to appreciate it. Sometimes that only happens after the student is not in my class anymore. But I believe, have always believed and will always believe, that we do kids no favors by praising everything they do without giving them any honest appraisals of their ability and performance. The kind of obsequious self-esteem boosting we see in schools does nothing but produce a lot of narcissistic, peevish kids who cannot and do not learn because they can neither take constructive criticism nor distinguish it from arbitrary meanness.

This is actually related, peripherally, to the sports topic I brought up at the beginning of this post. I have an acquaintance with whom I used to be very close, but we've drifted apart in recent years because, among other things, we don't see eye to eye on how to properly root for one's favorite teams, nor on how important such behavior is to one's life or how reflective it is of one's character. (He's a Yankee fan, of course, and thus knows little of the bitter anguish and wrenching disappointment suffered annually for decades by fans of the other New York teams. He's also quite a bit younger than I am.)  Specifically, he doesn't like it when I predict or expect that one of my teams will lose a game, or fail to make the playoffs, or blow a 7-game division lead with 17 games to play. He gets very upset when I do that, and thinks I should be more positive and supportive of these teams.

This is not necessarily an unusual or unreasonable position to take. The problem with this individual is (1) he can't distinguish blind support and unthinking advocacy from honest, measured analysis and reasoned, fact-based prognostication; (2) he seems to think that somehow my "attitude" actually has an impact on the outcome of those events (i.e., that my saying or believing they will lose actually causes them to lose), and (3), most disturbingly, he thinks I should do this for their sake, not mine. I could understand it if he thought that it would be beneficial to me if I were less cynical; that I would be happier and less stressed if I always believe, expect and say that my team will win every game, even if logic, reality and history suggest otherwise was more optimistic. There is something to that, even though the obvious counter-argument is that you're setting yourself up for disappointment when you do that, a lesson I learned a very long time ago. That's part of the reason why I try to be realistic, if not overtly cynical, about the future fortunes of my favorite teams.

But this individual makes a very strange argument; that somehow it would be better for them, for the teams themselves, if I was more "positive." Whether he thinks they're actually, in reality, more likely to win if I predict/think/say that they will win, or whether he thinks that I am actually hurting the players' and coaches' fragile feelings by not thinking they'll win every game, it's a completely absurd and irrational argument. The fact that he seems to care more about them than he does about me is doubly disturbing. (UPDATE: He's also a hypocrite;  after admonishing me before the game for my "pessimism" in predicting the Jets would lose, he updated his Facebook status after the game to mock and ridicule Jets fans for being stupid enough to believe they could win.)

In a way, it's not all that different from the idea that if we inundate kids with nothing but praise and compliments and "encouragement," that they will somehow actually learn, improve and succeed academically without ever hearing an honest, objective appraisal of their abilities and performance. Of course it's not the same as the sports-fan context, in that there is no actual contact between me and the team so the way I choose to root for them cannot and does not affect them (a fact which my acquaintance nonetheless seems unable to grasp). But the idea that positive thinking and positive "encouragement" or cheerleading always leads directly to positive results is foolish, no less so than assuming one's wishes will all come true if one simply wishes hard enough.

Of course Rex Ryan is not going to try to motivate his team to win by telling them he thinks they're going to lose. In fact, his public statements suggest the opposite, but what he's done is challenged his players to back up those statements. He has challenged his players to succeed by telling them the truth about themselves; that they are not as great as they think they are, and they have to prove it to him first. They're not going to win today, but these Jets are already more successful than any Jets team since the one that won Super Bowl III all those years decades ago. They have a coach who "gets it."

Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Gathering Storm

One more week and it will be over. As my last Christmas/holiday break comes to an end, and I prepare to go into my final week of teaching, I've been thinking more and more about the abyss into which public education in New York City, and perhaps all across the United States, is about to fall, and the precipice upon which teachers are about to hang.

The abyss is called "differentiated instruction," which I've written about at length over the past year and a half. This completely counter-intuitive, anti-educational, ideologically-driven, pragmatically impossible concept, completely unsupported by any research or clinical study, and quite possibly illegal and unconstitutional, is about to become the end-all of every public school. The pleasant-sounding abstraction that "every child learns differently," and the resulting rhetorical dogma that "we need to tailor our instruction to each individual child in order to maximize his individual potential," not only has no practical application in the real world (i.e., cannot actually be done by a single teacher in single classroom with 34 students, 5 times per day, 180 days per year); it has the potential to drive thousands of teachers out of the profession over the next several years.

Under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004, public schools are required to provide Special Education students with an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, in order to give each child what the law describes as a "free and appropriate public education" (FAPE). A student's IEP may include:

- Specially-designed instruction;
- Program modifications, including "lowered success criteria";
- Classroom accommodations, e.g., preferential seating, extended time for tests, read-aloud of instructions and questions, copies of teachers' lesson notes, etc.

Differentiation essentially takes these elements of Special Education and applies them to general education. In other words, "differentiation" means creating an IEP for every student in the system. It will require every teacher to create and implement an IEP for every student in his/her classes, every day of every school year.

Let's examine the logistics of this for a moment. Teachers in public high schools typically have five classes, with approximately 30 students in each class; sometimes more, sometimes less, but let's place the total at 150 for the typical teacher. 5 classes, 150 students. Now, those five classes will usually consist of two, maybe three, "preps," meaning there will be two or more sections of the same course or grade level, and one or more of a different course or grade level, and perhaps a third in addition to those, meaning the teacher will have to prepare two or three lessons per day for her five classes. Sometimes a teacher will have only one prep. Occasionally he will have four preps, but that is very unusual.

Having one prep is great, for both the teacher and the students. Two preps is fairly typical; much more common, and quite manageable. Three preps, however, can be very difficult, especially for inexperienced teachers. (Or those joining a new school with a radically different philosophy; when I taught on Long Island, lost in the unbearable philosophical and personality clashes I suffered was the fact that I was teaching 3 preps, and was actually the only teacher in the department with more than 2.) Lesson planning can be challenging, tedious and time-consuming; preparing 3 different lessons per day on top of actual instruction, marking, administrative tasks, &c. is about all most high school teachers can handle. Experienced teachers can recycle lessons and units, and find other ways to manage multiple preps, but the point is that preparing multiple lessons on a day-to-day basis can be grueling. The more different preps a teacher has, the more time he needs to spend planning, and the less effort and attention can be devoted to each one.

Now take the typical teacher with 5 classes of 30 students and add "differentiation" to the mix. No matter how many preps the teacher has, she must now multiply that number by a factor of ... well, it's not clear, exactly. How "differentiated" do they want it? Do they want "differentiation" for each individual student, or do they want small groups of multiple students? If it's groups, how many groups? How many students in each group? What are the groupings to be based on? "Learning style," "ability level," or something else? How many "learning styles" are we supposed to identify, and what exactly are they? How do we define and identify each one? How many "ability levels" are we supposed to identify, and what exactly are they? Are we supposed to differentiate instruction by "learning style," by "ability level," or some combination of both? And if it's some combination of both, then what combination, specifically? Only one combination, or several? If several, what exactly are they? Or do they want us to differentiate by "learning style" some of the time, by "ability level" some of the time, and combine them some of the time? How much of each?

[Side note: It has even been suggested to me by administrators that we should differentiate by race, gender and ethnicity, which is even more dangerously close to being illegal discrimination. Doesn't anyone realize this?]

Before I get lost in the sea of unanswerable questions that arise under this vague and ill-defined concept, my point here is that the teacher who had been preparing at most three lessons per day now must prepare a minimum of 5 or 6 lessons per day (that's if she has one prep, dividing each class into groups of five or six students), 10 to 20 lessons per day (2-3 preps, similarly divided), 30 to 90 lessons per day (1-3 preps, differentiated by individual student) and perhaps even as many as 150 lessons per day (fully differentiated, IEP-for-all). Instead of having one curriculum/syllabus and one set of classroom rules, procedures and assessment criteria for each prep, the teacher must now develop up to 150 separate curricula/syllabi, and up to 150 sets of rules, procedures and assessment criteria, each year.

This is not only unreasonable, it's untenable. There are not enough hours in the day for any teacher to be preparing dozens of lessons every single day for an entire school year.

But back to that sea of unanswerable questions, adding to those posed above... If I'm supposed to "differentiate" from day one, how am I to know what the "learning style" of each of my 150 new students is on that first day? How, when, by whom, and how often will these determinations be made? How will they be recorded? How will they be communicated to me at the beginning of a new school year? In the context of high school English, by what objective criteria does one distinguish literature titles by "learning style?" What objective criteria would make any particular title appropriate for one "learning style" and not for another? Are English teachers expected to teach multiple literature titles simultaneously, and if so, how many? By what objective criteria does one distinguish a literary essay assignment given to a student with one "learning style," from a literary essay assignment given to a student with a different "learning style?" How does one mark and correct an essay written by a student who has one "learning style," compared to another?

I could go on and on and on. The pleasant-sounding rhetorical ideology of "differentiation" quickly falls apart when it arrives in the realm of concrete, practical, real-world time and resource considerations. "Tailoring our instruction to meet student's' individual needs" sounds fine when it's floating in the air, but when I actually sit across from you, holding an actual book in each hand (say, The Natural in one and Lord of the Flies in the other) and ask you to explain to me why this book is appropriate for student X, and that one is appropriate for student Y, based on their different "learning styles," you can't. If I ask you to describe exactly what I should do and say, and what should be going on in my classroom, minute-to-minute, over a whole 47-minute period, today, tomorrow, the next day, and the next day, you can't. If I ask you to actually produce an actual curriculum-based writing assignment for student X and a "differentiated" one for student Y, you can't, and neither can you explain the objective differences between the two assignments, nor exactly how, day-by-day or minute-by-minute, I am supposed to work each student through the assignment.

While skiing last week in Massachusetts, I met a school principal from that state on the chairlift and we talked about differentiation. He essentially agreed with me that NO ONE understands or can explain exactly what it's supposed to look like. He told me that his teachers don't understand it, and when his supervisors complain that the teachers don't understand it, the supervisors reveal that they don't understand it either. My post from last March, "Race to the Bottom," shows that even those in the educational establishment who are advocating and imposing this concept on the schools, don't understand it. It's nothing but a lot of vague, abstract, pleasant-sounding rhetoric. No one understands it, no one can explain it, and no one can put it to any real, concrete, practical use, because it makes no sense.

I've had enough experience, thank you very much, with rhetorical, ideologically-driven educational dogma which is completely unsupported by any objective criteria (let alone actual educational research), and I know very well what the dangers are. At the phony, corrupt "Arts" school in Queens, the dogma were "Humanities" (i.e., the exclusive and exclusionary teaching of Social Studies content in English classes) and "student-centered instruction" (i.e., no whole-class instruction or teacher-directed activity of any kind, ever). When dogma like this are unsupported by any practical, real-world, hands-on, day-to-day, minute-to-minute considerations, or any real objective criteria, they become an ideology to which supervisors will cling with an almost religious fervor.

This brings us to the real danger. When supervisors become religiously fixated on dogmatic ideologies like these, they tend to ignore all of the positive things that teachers accomplish and focus instead on the absence of these ideologies, or any "evidence" thereof, in the teacher's classroom. In other words, the dogma become so important to the supervisor that every time he walks into a teacher's classroom, he will try very, very hard NOT to see whatever it is he thinks he's looking for. The fact that there are essentially no objective criteria supporting the ideology makes it very, very easy for a supervisor to characterize a lesson or a classroom environment as "not [insert ideology here]", even where the teacher is actively trying to teach in a way that is consistent with the ideology. In other words, a teacher may design and teach a lesson that she thinks is "differentiated", but her supervisor may observe the same lesson and decide that it is "not differentiated." For everything the teacher can point to that is "differentiated," the supervisor can point to something that isn't. Neither of them can be proven right or wrong, because they may have different ideas about what "differentiation" is, and again, there are essentially no objective defining criteria. And what's more, any positive things the teacher is doing, let alone whether the students are actually learning anything, are ignored and become entirely irrelevant. All that matters is whether the teacher is or is not practicing the named ideology, a determination which is, in the final analysis, completely subjective and arbitrary.

This is how unscrupulous supervisors, like the sick, demented gargoyle of a principal I had at the phony, corrupt "Arts" school, will target teachers in the years to come. All they have to do to drive away a teacher they don't like is to keep raising the bar for "differentiation" by telling that teacher, time and time again, that her lessons are "not differentiated" and that she is not adequately "on board" with the ideology. Eventually there will be nothing the teacher can do to prove to the supervisor that she is differentiating her instruction, and the supervisor will always have a plausible argument that she isn't, no matter how tenuous that argument may be. It's very easy to accuse a teacher of not doing something that, in a practical sense, cannot actually be done. There is nothing more dangerous to a teacher than a supervisor who comes into a class "wanting to see" something that the supervisor himself does not truly understand.

Eventually the powers that be will realize that this can't work, for teachers or for students, but only after thousands of teachers are driven away from the profession and millions more students advance from grade to grade while learning nothing. Whatever "differentiated instruction" is, it is not education. It is designed to drastically increase the burden on teachers while simultaneously drastically decreasing the burden on students. It is designed to promote the patently false notion that every student is an "A" student by default. It is designed to prevent students who are less intelligent and less capable from actually increasing their intelligence and capabilities, which I always thought was supposed to be the goal of education.

One more week and I'm done.