Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Book Whisperer

Here is the review I wrote for Amazon about this great book, The Book Whisperer by Donalyn Miller. I received it as part of the Amazon vine program. This program sends out free books to willing reviewers (of which I am one). They send you a list via email of the books that are available for review, and you can choose two. Last month The Book Whisperer was one of my choices.

"This book by a Texas sixth grade teacher confirms what I've long believed, as a teacher myself: that books are way under-rated. I tutor students from first grade to college, and I consistently find that students don't read enough real books for pleasure, usually. The ones who do become the good students, and they usually read outside of class, on their own time. Many students' lives are so crowded with busy work--a.k.a. homework--that they don't have time to sink into a great book and read for long periods of time.

"It's amazing how teachers whose job it is to teach reading don't actually use real books to teach reading: they use interminable worksheets, exercises, vocabulary drills, reading primers, anything but a real book. Recently I was tutoring a first grader who is slightly behind in his reading skills. His mother is very worried. All I did was show him a book that emerging readers love: Bears on Wheels. Pretty soon he could read that book. Then he read Hop on Pop. He was so excited! I had told him that the books were library books. After our tutoring session, he ran up to me in the parking lot and said, 'Shannon! How much do those library books cost?' Imagine my pleasure in telling him that they were completely free.

"I was surprised, though, that he had not been to a public library yet. It seems that many parents don't avail themselves of this wonderful free resource. But teaching a child to read is not rocket science: all it takes is a pile of picture books, a lap, and some time. Yes, phonics is important; but it's a means to an end, not an end in itself. The end is reading pleasure.

"Ms. Miller requires her sixth graders to read forty books during the school year. And they do! One secret to her success is simply having a lot of books in her classroom: two thousand to be precise. These are her own books, and she can loan them as she likes to students. She has an index card system for tracking who has the books, but she doesn't worry about it too much. Also, she doesn't make them do book reports, vocabulary quizzes about the books, etc. They keep a notebook on their responses to the books they are reading, and they voluntarily do "book commercials" where they tell the class about a book that they loved.

"She does not have the class read a book together, with everybody reading the same novel, as most English teachers do. But she does read aloud to her students, so there are certain books that they all are following and can discuss together.

"In this way, she establishes in her students a habit of reading, which she hopes will last a lifetime. The results are impressive: students who have repeatedly done poorly on standardized tests start to do well on these tests for the first time. It turns out that endless test-taking drills are not nearly as effective in raising test scores as simply letting students read for pleasure.

"I wish more teachers would throw away their worksheets and book report assignments, and just let students read, and read, and read."

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Writing on Demand

I used to know that school was deadening, artificial, and prison-like. Why do I keep forgetting that?

Lately, the whole phenomenon of the "writing assignment" seems especially depressing and artificial to me. Students are required to write about things that they know nothing and care nothing about; sometimes they are required to write the opposite of what they really think.

An example of that was the writing assignment I was helping a student with today. She had to write an article against abortion, even though she is an abortion supporter. She was also told that she could use no religious arguments or even refer to religion in her essay. But the more she researched the evidence against abortion, the more she found that there was no credible scientific argument against abortion. Basically, all the arguments against it are religious. But she couldn't cite those. So she had to pretend in her essay that weak arguments, unsupported by science, had more validity than they really do: that abortion causes women to become depressed or infertile or have breast cancer, etc.

This is similar to the difficulty I experienced on Tuesday, when a student had to write an essay explaining why she thought the government should intervene in the sinking economy. The student didn't understand the global financial crisis well at all. So her essay consisted of a list of everything that's wrong--unemployment, foreclosures, banks going under-- with no real explanation of how government intervention would help relieve those problems. Her argument was basically, "Things are all messed up, so we have to do something!" But people who think the government should do nothing say the same thing: "Things are all messed up, so keep the government out of it! Let the market fix itself!"

Paul Goodman wrote a book called Growing Up Absurd. He became a home school advocate, in the hopes of reducing the absurdity in the lives of children and young people. I think he was right: school is a major source of absurdity in students' lives, in large part because of writing assignments that mean nothing to the student.

Donalyn Miller, who wrote The Book Whisperer, developed a reading program for her sixth graders that enables them to choose the books that they will read. The class does not all read the same novel together; each student reads forty books a year, and that is the main requirement. Why couldn't we make similar requirements about writing? Students could be required to write a certain number of words per semester, but that writing could be about anything, and in any form: in the form of a formal essay, or blogs, or poetry, or raps, or letters to people.

It would be a lot more fun to help students with writing that they really care about, rather than having to read and fix up these make-work essays that nobody cares about.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Goldilocks Zone

Climate scientists talk about planets where life can exist as planets that exist in the Goldilocks zone: not too hot and not too cold.

I think there might be a zone like that for school assignments: not too hard and not too soft, like the Three Bears' beds.

The other day I ran into an assignment that I thought was too hard. The assignment was to analyze the global financial crisis and determine whether or not the federal government should intervene, and why or why not.

This seems to me to be the $64 trillion dollar question, possibly the hardest question in the world right now. The student that I was tutoring said that yes, the government should intervene. But then she went on to simply describe how bad the crisis was. She didn't say what the government should do, or why it should do that.

But could you explain that? I couldn't. I trust Paul Krugman's judgment that the government should intervene, probably by nationalizing the banks. But I can't explain why Krugman thinks that. And it would take me weeks to get up to speed enough to explain it.

I know that there are lots of questions about what the government should do: how big the bail outs and stimulus should be; how much debt the government can accrue as a percentage of GDP before our own bonds become bad investments; which toxic assets the government should buy, and for how much; how the government should deal with mortgage defaults; whether any of this is fair to the average citizen; what to do about the money that has already simply disappeared into the pockets of CEOs at banks and car companies; and on and on ad nauseum. I don't understand credit default swaps or zombie banks, but I believe that the Dow could go much, much lower, and that unemployment will go a lot higher before this is over. That is to say, I know that this is a very complex issue that I don't really understand at all. I really, really hope that some people in the Obama administration understand it, and that the Congress acts on these understandings.

Back to the pedagogical issue. Some people say that difficult assignments are good for students. But I think there's such a thing as an assignment that is too difficult. The ideal assignment is challenging, but the student should be able to do a good job on it with some guidance from the teacher. It should be a little harder than the last assignment, but not a lot harder. Assignments that are too difficult can be harmful in that (1) they can frustrate the student and in the long run make her cynical about school, if the student understands that she doesn't really understand the assignment and that she just has to fake her way through it; (2) they can teach students that school is mystifying and at times meaningless, because often you don't understand what you are supposed to be doing. This is demoralizing.

Grading presents a problem because if an assignment is too difficult, the teacher either has to give the student a bad grade despite the fact that she struggled hard to do the assignment, or the teacher gives the student a good grade for a bad paper, which misinforms the student about what a good job on that assignment would look like.

I think sometimes that teachers who teach little kids think more about these things than college teachers do. I am teaching a first grader to read. I know that giving him a "hard" book, like Frog and Toad Are Friends, would be a mistake right now. I can read that aloud to him while he watches. But when I want him to read to me, I give him Go Dog Go, or Hop on Pop. He reads those over and over again until he is perfectly confident with them. Then we might go on to The Cat in the Hat. His reading is carefully paced to challenge yet encourage him and give him a sense of mastery.

That's harder to do at the college level, where texts are not so easy to sequence. Still, I think college professors should think carefully about the sequence of assignments and try not to give freshmen and sophomores assignments that they will only be ready for when they get to graduate school.

Do graduate students in economics know the answer to the global financial crisis? Could they write an essay supporting government intervention in the economy? Could Geitner do it? Can Obama? Is there anybody out there who really knows what to do? Or can even explain what the options are, and why some are better than others? I trust that there might be, but I bet you can count the number of people who really understand this on one hand.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Good book recommendation site

Here's a cool site about reading and books. You can create an account as on Facebook or Twitter, where you can archive lists of all the books you've read, are reading now, and intend to read!

Perhaps the most useful aspect of the site for teachers or parents is the fact that it has extensive lists of books that are popular with young adults and children. These are lists of books that young people are actually reading, not lists of books that adults think they should be reading. Of course the Harry Potter books are at the top of those lists, but also very popular are the Twilight series about vampires. I have to admit that I know very little about these books except what I have gleaned from the posters I've seen in Walmart featuring the main characters, a rather ordinary looking girl and a sexy vampire guy.

Another interesting aspect of this site is that they are currently running a contest for the best "status update novel." This is a novel written using Twitter, or other status update online software, where you keep adding information about yourself or a fictional character as a 24 hour cycle goes by. You can only add 140 characters per post, which is an interesting formal constraint. As a child, I used to imagine myself as the heroine of the ultimate novel, which would tell every single thing that I did all day long, every day, for my entire life! It would be told in the third person, by an imagined narrator who spent her entire "life" documenting my life. Sometimes when I was playing after school I would narrate this novel in my head: "Now she's playing with her dog. She's singing songs to her dog in the yard."

Little did I know in 1964 that eventually technology would make this very thing possible. But lately I haven't been singing to dogs. Maybe I should, again.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

1952; 1962; 1972

Here are two passages that I read recently that seem to have something to do with each other. Both are written by women in love. The first is by Carolyn Cassady, who was married in 1952 to Neal Cassady, but having an affair with his best friend Jack Kerouac, who lived with them in a bohemian menage a trois. Neal knew about the affair but didn't seem to mind. Both Neal and Jack became "accustomed to the idea" of sharing one woman.

"When both men became accustomed to the idea, they dropped their defenses and joined me downstairs in the kitchen. While I performed my chores, they'd read each other excerpts from their works-in-progress or bring out Spengler, Proust, Celine or Shakespeare to read aloud, interrupted by energetic discussions and analyses. Frequently they would digress and discuss a musician, or a riff or an interesting arrangement emanating from the radio. I was happy listening to them and filling their cups. Yet, I never felt left out any more. They'd address remarks to me and include me with smiles and pats, or request my view."

So, in 1952, Carolyn Cassady was "happy" just listening to men's talk while she did her chores, grateful for the occasional "smiles and pats," as if she were a dog. A dog who does dishes. I guess, with the children and two men to take care of, she didn't have time to read or write herself. O tempora! O mores!

The other passage is also about a girl watching a man at a table. It was written by Amy Bloom, who, as a girl in 1962, had the great good fortune of having lunch with Marcella Mastroianni, then at the peak of his acting career. He had already made La Dolce Vita and 8 1/2.

"1962. I have been swimming for hours, wearing my new navy blue one-piece with the red vinyl anchor on one shoulder. I swim to the side of the pool and fall in love with Marcello Mastroianni. He's the guest of my parents' dear friends, who are in the movie business. Clouds blow past. Shafts of light fall upon il Signor Mastroianni, who is not quite 40 years old and so darkly handsome and loose-limbed and charmingly weary, but not too weary to splash me while he has a drink poolside. I suddenly understand why people like to kiss, why sitting in the company of another person is as thrilling as the Steeplechase at Coney Island, how watching a man pop a cracked green olive into his mouth and then lick his fingers could cause a person to be both breathless and uncomfortable. Il Signor Mastroianni brought out a plate of antipasti and we ate lunch under the patio umbrella, and in addition to discovering desire, I discovered roasted red peppers, soppressata, and marinated eggplant."

Flash forward another ten years, to 1972. It is my freshman year in college, and I am having breakfast in the cavernous, noisy freshman/sophomore dining hall. Across from me is a young man who is not eating his grits. They are getting cold. So I help myself to some of his grits, reaching across the table with my spoon.
"What are you doing? You're eating my breakfast!" He looks really indignant.
Oops. I made a mistake, I guess. Yankees may eat grits, but they don't eat off each other's plates like that.

However, in twenty years, one can see a lot of progress: women go from silently waiting on men at tables, grateful for the occasional pat, to ogling film stars poolside, to finally taking men's food away from them and eating it themselves! What next?