Archive for April, 2010

Pushing versus Encouraging

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I witnessed something bizarre at Barnes and Noble this weekend.  I sat in the cafe, grading papers, when I began overhearing a conversation between a mother and son behind me.  It went something like this:

mumble mumble… paragraph… you don’t have an introduction… mumble… the exam…”

“I did that already… sniff… sniff… I know, Mom…”

I couldn’t help but sneak a look at their table.  Stacked about three or four volumes high were test prep books with “NJ ASK” on the binding.  NJ ASK is the test that middle schoolers must pass in New Jersey.

Wow, I thought.  It was a Sunday afternoon and this kid, who couldn’t have been more than 13 if he’s prepping for the NJ ASK, was sitting in a bookstore cafe while his mom yelled at him about introductions and transition sentences.  I couldn’t tell if the sniffs were allergies or his crying, but either way, he seemed to be suffering.  I never bought a test prep book until maybe my junior year of high school, before I took the SAT.  I can’t believe kids that young are stressing over test prep–in addition to whatever homework he had to complete over the weekend.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m all for high expectations and pushing kids to learn, to work their hardest.  After all, I had my own stack of essays I was working through, assessing, judging.  I’m not for coddling.  I just wonder how we–both educators and parents–can strike a balance between pushing kids to their highest abilities and encouraging a love of learning.  Lecturing an eighth grader for two hours about what constitutes a perfect-score essay is hardly a way to get him to appreciate the art of writing.  Yet if we don’t push students to learn, how will they grow?

I took piano lessons for a long time when I was younger, and I absolutely hated practicing.  Once I knew a piece and could play it easily, I loved being a pianist, but I didn’t like putting in the initial effort.  When I stopped taking lessons, I started buying contemporary sheet music and playing songs I enjoyed, inadvertantly picking up the music theory I’d avoided learning in my years as a student of classical music.  Perhaps in a perfect world, students would “pick their own music,” learning at their leisure, learning for enjoyment.  Unfortunately, we live in reality, most recently complicated by the onslaught of exams students must pass in order to move forward through our educational system.  There are skills that they have to master to be successful, whether they’re intrinsically motivated or not. 

Or, if you like, “because I said so.”

Best Practices?

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There are some schools in America that aren’t afraid to shake things up.  A study conducted by a Harvard professor has some districts paying students for good grades, and a school in Texas has reinstated corporal punishment as a form of punishment for poor student conduct.

To the shock of many, both of these new strategies found a degree of success in their implementation.  However, they obviously go against popular pedagogical practices today.  The recent English Journal cover asking the question “Have We Killed Imagination?” would suggest that payment for knowledge gained is anything but the approach to take in schools.  Alfie Kohn’s popular Beyond Discipline approach, which suggests that a properly managed classroom would eradicate the need to discipline students at all, certainly reflects a more modern, progressive approach to classroom management than the physical discipline Louisa May Alcott’s Amy March–and now the students in Texas–had to endure. 

The takeaway of all this, I believe, is that educators will never have a definitive “this works” way of doing things.  In one era, popular assessment involves standardized testing; in another era, it’s the portfolio.  In one era, physical discipline rules; in another era, it’s positive reinforcement.  In one era, rows of desks are popular; in another era, it’s the circle formation.  In one era, students must read the classics; in another era, students must read contemporary literature that they can relate to. 

I’d like to think that the further we progress into public education, the sharper and sharper our understanding of “best practices” becomes.  But then something like these reports come along and shake up what educators believe might be true.  I think this means that educators can never become complacent.  We must be willing to constantly revise and rethink the ways we educate students.  I could never believe physical punishment has a place in educating a child, but everything else is up for grabs.  Homework?  Assessment?  Motivation?  Curriculum?  Schedules?  The ten-month model?  In the words of Virginia Woolf upon beginning the era of the Bloomsbury evenings:  “Everything was going to be new; everything was going to be different. Everything was on trial.”

I hope that, much like my students must learn something new in my class every day, I continue to learn as an educator, to play with methods and practices, never to become complacent.  To believe, for as long as the generations continue to evolve and change, that everything is on trial.

How To Go On a Literary Pilgrimage


1)  Arrive in London.  Ignore jet lag.  The literary ghosts and spirits are waiting for you.

2)  Go to Virginia Woolf’s former residence at 46 Gordon Square.  Stand outside the front door.  Bawl.

3)  Have dinner at the Fitzroy Pub.  Note that outside the door leading to the downstairs eating area hangs a sign:  “Writers and Artists Convene Downstairs.”  Unfortunately, the door might be locked, and you will have to eat your steak and kidney pud’ upstairs with the lay.

4)  Go to the Courtauld Gallery.  Admire the paintings of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant.

5)  Take a train to Canterbury.  Gape at the cathedral.  Try not to fall down the marble steps that have been worn down by the feet of pilgrims across the generations.

6)  Go to the British Library.  Admire the original manuscripts of Beowulf and Magna Carta, a page from Virginia Woolf’s diary, a handwritten poem from Sylvia Plath, and Lewis Carroll’s original text and illustrations of Alice in Wonderland.

7)  Meet your mentor.  Become reinspired to write between sips of tea and conversation in a lovely English garden.

8)  Find yourself in the establishment where George Orwell used to hang out.  It’s not on a map; fate will bring you there.  Jump up and down when the owner gives you an inscribed copy of 1984.

9)  Eat your last scone, buy your last book, board a flight back to reality.  But don’t worry.  The spirit of Bloomsbury, of London, of literary adventure will stay with you after you go back to everyday life.