A Teacher's Writes

by Geoffrey Sheehy

Category: On Education

Joan Didion – Thinking for one’s self involves mastery of the language

They feed back exactly what is given them. Because they do not believe in words–words are for “typeheads,” Chester Anderson tells them, and a thought which needs words is just one more of those ego trips–their only proficient vocabulary is in the society’s platitudes. As it happens I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of the language, and I am not optimistic about children who will settle for saying, to indicate that their mother and father do not live together, that they come from “a broken home.” They are sixteen, fifteen, fourteen years old, younger all the time, an army of children waiting to be given the words.

That from Joan Didion’s “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” My quoting them by themselves deprives them of the power they earn from 39 pages of descriptive set up, but the words are still profound. They continue a conversation that includes Orwell and they help justify my teaching.

Eliminating Zeroes Affects More Than At-Risk Students

A few large school districts in California, I have seen, are eliminating the use of D’s and F’s and no longer marking zeroes for missing assignments. Instead, educators at these schools are marking students’ work as incomplete and encouraging students to make up missing work or try again on assignments that resulted in low grades.

This is no surprise to anyone teaching in the year 2022. I live in a place where we drive six hours for our children to see pediatric specialists, so I figure our school district isn’t sharpening the cutting edge of trends in education; yet even I have seen plenty of this movement toward eliminating F’s and zeroes. The thought behind the push makes sense: if we’re concerned with learning over behavior, why would we fail a student who has poor behavior but high learning? Why should we not grant a diploma to a student with a 12th grader’s intellect and academic skill just because he has not done his math worksheets and reading journals?

Arguments in favor of invisible skills like work ethic arise to defend the old system, but it is clear to me that, no matter how sympathetic one might be to them, these arguments are fighting a losing battle. As long as schools are judged critically for low graduation rates, they will do anything they can to graduate more students. This is basic problem solving. When I taught remedial reading, my reading students needed to pass a standardized test to get out of the class. I quickly discovered that the easiest way to get them to pass was not to teach them reading, but to teach them how the test worked. So my priorities were: (1) teach my students how the test works and how to take it, and (2) teach my students how to read better. This was a good strategy for both my students and me, because they had to pass the test. If the test weren’t there, I would have shifted priorities; but it was there, blocking their path. So how do I help them climb over it? With schools pressured to raise graduation rates, then, it is clear that one of the quickest ways of raising graduation rates is granting credits and diplomas to students who know the material and possess the skills we’re teaching, but who don’t want to play school. Is this a cynical maneuver? I would say no; in fact, I would argue it’s the charitable and sensible move. Some people simply hate school–why would we penalize them for this?

So I’m in favor of this trick where we pass more of these students who have the skills but won’t do what we teachers ask of them. (And make no mistake, it is a trick–it is not an instructional strategy.) But I’m also highly concerned about the costs of making this trick an integral part of the system rather than a feature of an alternative path.

Telling students they can retake tests they’ve failed and not turn in work assigned to them works well in a self-paced learning environment (e.g., credit recovery programs), but it spells the end of collective education as we know it. If I as a teacher want my class to discuss George Saunders’s short story “The Tenth of December” in class on Tuesday (a collective experience), I will need them to read that story before Tuesday. When only half show up having read the story, the discussion flops. And like it or not, one of the only reasons students will read that story before Tuesday is they know I’ll give them a zero in the gradebook if they don’t. Would they read it for the sake of discussion, if I were to make the reason for the assignment clear? Some will, but most won’t: I have been teaching AP language for too many years to see any substance to that hope–the concern about a zero or a quiz keeps students accountable.

Discussions are not the only collective experience in a typical classroom. I’d guess that a majority of my colleagues’ lessons are designed to capitalize upon the collective presence of a class. And why shouldn’t they? There is a ton of theory supporting the idea (social learning theory) and we’re all here together, so why not enjoy and encourage one another? But when students are not in the same place on the academic journey, it becomes almost impossible to enjoy group projects (including labs), small group discussions, study games, or even lectures or mini-lessons. What is the point in having a journalist come and help students edit their news stories if half of them haven’t chosen a topic and written a first draft before she visits?

So if we withdraw zeroes from our system, it affects more than the students plagued by them, it affects everyone in the system.

As I mentioned, I’m not opposed to eliminating zeroes and encouraging re-do’s for D’s and F’s, but I do wonder if enough consideration has been given to how that new policy tweaks the everyday collective experiences classroom learning is built upon. I suspect the unintended consequences will be significant.

What should one teach when teaching students grammar?

When I started out as a copy editor, I realized that most of what I knew about grammar I knew instinctively. That is, I knew how most–certainly not all–of the grammar things worked; I simply didn’t know what they were called.

Even now I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what a nominative absolute is, I think that the word “genetive” sounds vaguely smutty, and I certainly don’t know, or care to know, how to diagram a sentence.

I hope I’m not shocking you.

But at a certain point I figured that if I was going to be fixing grammar for a living, I might do well to learn a little something about it, and that’s precisely what I did: I learned a little something about it. As little as I needed to. I still, at the slightest puzzlement, run back to my big fat stylebooks, and likely always will.

I do believe, though, that if as a writer you know how to do a thing, it’s not terribly important that you know what it’s called.

I think Benjamin Dreyer’s point here is a helpful reminder for those of us who long for  our students to know grammar. Dreyer knows more about this stuff than anyone not named Mrs. Dussault*–he wrote a book about it–and he doesn’t consider himself a terminology expert. This raises a question of distinction: Do our students not know grammar, or do they not know the terminology? My students who are native English speakers all sound like native English speakers, which suggests they know English grammar. If knowledge of the parts of speech and the sentence is essential for literacy, then they write remarkably well. But if it’s not–and their skill suggests it isn’t–then maybe it’s not so crucial that I make them experts in identifying direct objects and predicate nominatives.

Granted, I think knowing the difference between direct objects and predicate nominatives is helpful even if one can’t name the terms–but that’s the teaching challenge: how can I convey the information so students learn the grammatical skill without bogging them down with the grammatical terminology?

What I don’t think is the answer is inventing new terms. Calling clauses “branches” doesn’t help students when the next teacher calls them clauses. But trying to reduce the number of terms we use can help; I have found teaching commas, semi-colons, and colons relatively well requires only one technical term: the independent clause. With it, students can master most uses of common punctuation.

*Mrs. Dussault was my 7th and 8th grade English teacher. More than 90% of what I know about grammar I learned from her.


Saying goodbye to Mr. Palmer

We honored retiring teachers today and our department publicly said goodbye to Mr. Palmer. We wrote a tribute to him that contained a lot of personal stories, which I won’t share online, but I wanted to publish the last comments, which describe something I try to make true in my classroom as well. May I do so as well as you have, Mr. Palmer!

Mr. Palmer enjoyed his students, having a blast with them and working diligently for them. He never put them down and never saw their academic struggles as making them less important as people.

Nick Palmer grasps that in the story of his life, he is living a kind of comedy, and as he has told that story to us—in lunch, in meetings, on hall duty, at staff parties—we have laughed ourselves to tears and howled with joy.

The story of our department and school is richer for his sparking such laughter and joy among us.

In recognition of his retirement, the Pine Needle posted a previously unpublished profile of Mr. Palmer. Read it!

The Arts are a Beautiful Educational Pathway

My daughter is finishing her freshman year of high school and has shown some interest in and capacity for art. She is not one of those kids who draws all the time and sketches life-like portraits, but she has filled up the memory card on our camera too many times to count, has taken to careful (and tasteful!) decoration of her room, and has spent increasing quantities of time painting over canvases to try something new. Combined with the interest she has shown in working on the computer, I’ve discussed with her the world of design–graphic arts, web design, and more–and will be happy to encourage any vocational interest she shows in the field.

Knowing this, I have been planning to zip down to my colleague’s classroom in the art department to ask his advice for her high school course schedule. While my daughter has not wanted thus far to take a drawing class, for example (I won’t share her reasons, but she has some legitimate ones), I wondered if not taking one would put her at a disadvantage if she wanted to pursue design. Should she focus on developing a stronger sense of artistry through drawing, painting, or ceramics? Will those courses push her in the ‘grammar’ of art she will need if she wants to use design and art in a vocational endeavor?

I mention my conundrum because it flies in the face of how many view education and what its focus should be. Our school district is developing pathways to help students grasp what their education is for. The intention is to lend purpose to school and help students see where their education could take them. I understand the idea and am generally ambivalent about it (that is, I know education has problems and am open to this solving some of them), but I find it interesting how none of the initial pathways we are constructing clearly involve the arts (including music, theatre, or art), writing, journalism, or even law and government (to name a few that come to mind immediately).

Now, everyone who is pursuing a field wants to see their field featured prominently, so of course I’d be sensitive to journalism and writing being downgraded or subsumed in other categories. Is journalism a relevant thing to study? You’d better believe it is! Just because newspapers are struggling doesn’t mean the job opportunities are grim. I read this week at Axios, for example, that the “job of the future” is editor-in-chief.

But so far, my district’s answer to why none of the arts is a pathway is to compliment the arts, to say they’re important, but that the pathways will help steer students into realistic vocational tracks. So an artist or musician could take the business pathway and learn how to market herself and create an entrepreneurship opportunity.

But that is sad, because it assumes that business is the real path. Instead, why not create an arts path and within that path offer courses in how students could incorporate business and marketing to what they do as artists? Interestingly to me, the approach of asking arts students to tread the business pathway is the opposite approach to what I am seeking for my daughter. If she wants to pursue design, I am not concerned that she develop a sense of business but that she properly develop a sense of artistry.

But to create no pathway for fine arts is to say to her that such a path is not a legitimate use of her time. That it is a vocational dead-end. And I know many will object–that is a myth! We love the arts!–but they’ve not spoken with my students’ parents, the ones who come to me with horror at parent-teacher conferences when they learn their child is considering an English major. Why, the parents want to know, would my child want to  work at Starbucks for the rest of their lives?

To subsume the arts into obscure spurs of the pathways is to confirm these parents’ assumptions that the humanities and arts are skills of leisure, not skills of vocation. It is to reveal an assumption that arts education is a petri dish where dreams of fame and American Idol are grown. It is to declare that artists and art teachers do not grasp how hard one has to work in these fields, how much skill is required to succeed.

I’m game for the pathways coming to my school district, but I also suspect that what my daughter really needs if she wants to succeed in a career in design is not to pursue a business pathway, but to double-down on the arts. I suspect she should learn what artists can teach her and then bring that skill to the world.

Retrieval Practice as Optimal Study Method

In recent years, cognitive psychologists have been comparing retrieval practice with other methods of studying material—things like giving review lectures, study guides, and re-reading texts. And what they’re finding is that nothing is as powerful for cementing long-term learning as retrieval practice.

One of those studies was conducted in 2006 by my guest, Dr. Pooja Agarwal, and her colleagues. They looked at students in a middle school social studies course. Over a year and a half, while the teacher continued teaching as normal, students were regularly given no-stakes quizzes (meaning they wouldn’t count against their grades) on the material. These quizzes only covered about one-third of what was being taught at any given time. The teacher left the room for every quiz, so she had no idea what material was included in the quizzes. Here were the results: On exams given at the end of every unit, students scored a full grade level higher on the material that had been included in the quizzes than on any of the other material. The other concepts had been taught and reviewed by the teacher as they normally would; the only difference is that some things also appeared on the no-stakes quizzes, and those were the things that students retained more fully when tested on the end-of-unit exam. The very act of being quizzed actually helped students learn better.

Here’s what this means for teachers: When we teach something once, then want to do something else to help students learn it better, instead of just reviewing the content, we’re much better off giving students something like a quiz instead. In other words, if we do more asking students to pull concepts out of their brains, rather than continually trying to put concepts in, students will actually learn those concepts better.

From Jennifer Gonzalez

This rings true with my own experience. “Practice quizzes” are something I’ve employed for years when teaching literary terminology, as the quiz element, even when it’s practice, makes students take it more seriously than any other method of review. The quizzes also force all students to attempt to retrieve the information, whereas a group review (e.g., playing Jeopardy or reading over a study guide) allows many students to tune out.

DFW on college writers’ most common error: self-absorption

As rhetoric, this sort of attitude works only in sermons to the choir, and as pedagogy it’s disastrous, and in terms of teaching writing it’s especially bad because it commits precisely the error that most Freshman Composition classes spend all semester trying to keep kids from making–the error of presuming the very audience-agreement that it is really their rhetorical job to earn. This kind of mistake results more from a habit of mind than from any particular false premise–it is a function not of fallacy or ignorance but of self-absorption. It also happens to be the most persistent and damaging error that most college writers make, and one so deeply rooted that it often takes several essays and conferences and revisions to get them to even see what the problem is. Helping them eliminate the error involves drumming into student writers two big injunctions: (1) Do not presume that the reader can read your mind–anything that you want the reader to visualize or consider or conclude, you must provide; (2) Do not presume that the reader feels the same way that you do about a given experience or issue–your argument cannot just assume as true the very things you’re trying to argue for.

Because (1) and (2) seem so simple and obvious, it may surprise you to know that they are actually incredibly hard to get students to understand in such a way that the principles inform their writing. The reason for the difficulty is that, in the abstract, (1) and (2) are intellectual, whereas in practice they are more things of the spirit. The injunctions require of the student both the imagination to conceive of the reader as a separate human being and the empathy to realize that this separate person has preferences and confusions and beliefs of her own, p/c/b’s that are just as deserving of respectful consideration as the writer’s. More, (1) and (2) require of students the humility to distinguish between a universal truth (“This is the way things are, and only an idiot would disagree”) and something that the writer merely opines (“My reasons for recommending this are as follows:”). These sorts of requirements are, of course, also the elements of a Democratic Spirit. I therefore submit that the hoary cliche “Teaching the student to write is teaching the student to think” sells the enterprise way short. Thinking isn’t even half of it. (106, FN 59)

Wallace, David Foster. “Authority and American Usage.” Consider the Lobster and Other Essays. Little, Brown, 2006.