Thursday, January 31, 2013

What is the Value of High Value-Added Teachers?

NB: Things got a little crazy this week, so this is a repost from one year ago. However, the sentiments are as true today as they were then. 

Great news emerged this week for elementary- and middle-school teachers who make gains in their students' test scores – while the teachers themselves may not be pulling down big salaries, their efforts result in increased earnings for their students. In a study that tracked 2.5 million students for over 20 years, researchers found that good teachers have a long-lasting positive effect on their students’ lives, including those higher salaries, lower teen-pregnancy rates, and higher college matriculation rates.

In the midst of the debate surrounding this study, it is important to remember that its authors, Raj Chetty, John N. Freidman, and Jonah E. Rockoff, are all economists. Their study measures tangible, economic outcomes from what they call high versus low “value-added” teachers. This “value-added” approach, which is defined as “the average test-score gain for his or her students, adjusted for differences across classrooms in student characteristics such as prior scores,” may work for measuring such tangible outcomes as future earnings, but it misses so much of the point of education.

I asked my husband's Uncle Michael, a professor of law and economics, what he thought of the study, and he compared the proponents of the study’s mathematical economic approach to education to acolytes of The Who’s Tommy, pinball wizards who “sought to isolate themselves from the world so as to improve their perception of a very narrow sliver of that world. The entire ‘assessment’ enterprise defiles education as that word once meant.”

He attempted to explain his feelings about the study in terms of mathematical equations – something to do with linear regression thinking and educational outcomes, but I got lost in the Y = a + bX + errors of it all.

Tim Ogburn, 5th grade teacher in California, phrases the debate a bit more simply: Why are we educating children?

His answer goes like this: Until fairly recently, teachers would have answered that they were educating children to become good Americans or good citizens, but now we seem to teach only to prepare elementary- and middle-school children for high paying jobs. When money figures into the goal, we lose so much along the way, such as curiosity, a love of learning for its own sake, and an awareness that many of the most worthwhile endeavors (both personally and socially) are not those with the highest monetary rewards.

To which I reply: Hear, hear. If economic gain is the measure of our success, we have lost sight our goals in education.

In order to round out the definition of “value” as defined by Chetty’s study, I conducted my own research project. Sure, my sample was smaller - about thirty versus Chetty’s 2.5 million, and the duration of my study was three days rather than 20 years…and of course there might just have been a wee bit of selection bias in my Facebook sampling. Oh, and I chose not to apply Uncle Michael’s formulas because they gave me a headache.

The goal of my study was to find out what some of the other, less measurable benefits of good teaching. I asked people to write in with examples of good teaching, teaching that has resulted in positive outcomes in their lives. Who were their “high value-added” teachers?

Sarah Pinneo, a writer from New Hampshire, recalled her third grade teacher, who took her aside one day and said, “You are going to be a writer. Here’s your portfolio. Every poem you finish, we’re going to save it in here.” Sarah’s first novel, Julia's Child, will be released on Feb 1.

Carol Blymire, a food writer and public relations executive in Washington, D.C, recalled her kindergarten teacher “who taught me that letters make words and words make sentences…and is the reason I love to write today.” She counts among her low value-added teachers, “Every other teacher who reprimanded me for asking questions that came across as challenging them, even though it was really my way of wanting to know more and understand the bigger picture.”

My favorite example came from Dr. Jeffrey Fast, an English teacher in Massachusetts. “One morning, when I was a senior, we were discussing Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset. While I can no longer remember exactly what I said, it was something about the interaction among the characters. Immediately after I spoke, [my teacher] responded by saying – for all to hear: ‘I like you!’ His response, of course, was coded language to identify and mark – for both me and my peers – something insightful. I felt enormously rewarded. That was the benchmark that I tried to replicate in dealing with literature ever afterwards. That was 50 years ago. He never knew that those three words catapulted me – to a Ph.D. and a career as an English teacher!”

I have written about my value-added teachers, but who are yours? What value have they added to your life?

Monday, January 28, 2013

The High Untrespassed Sanctity of Space

I taught one of my favorite lessons today, the 27th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy. No, I don't have this lesson on my calendar scheduled for every January 28th; the lovely people at The New York Times Learning Network reminded me.

I only realized the significance of the date at lunchtime, and I had other lessons planned for my afternoon English classes (Robert Frost for seventh grade, A Tale of Two Cities for eighth), but I was happy to change my plans. Teachers learn early on that flexibility is all. 

I begin by telling my students that on this day, 27 years ago, children across America were watching the launch of the Space Shuttle, eager to see the first teacher go up in to space. New Hampshire children thwart the cloak and dagger nature of this lesson, as they are immediately on to me. Christa McAuliffe was a New Hampshire teacher. My students know her name. She, and the planetarium bearing her name, are memorialized in Concord, N.H., and most of my students have been there. When I've taught this lesson in Utah, it's quite a different story. I had the element of surprise in Utah.

Let's assume your students don't know. Queue up the launch video (below) for your students, but make sure it's ready to roll, not on the freeze frame moment of explosion, or on the "Challenger Disaster" title frame. Be very careful to preserve the surprise, much as the student watching this clip in 1986 would have been surprised. Start the clip, then hit pause, so all they see is the space shuttle on the launch pad, ready to launch. Set the scene; schoolchildren all over America were watching, waiting, to see a teacher go into space. They were imagining their teacher up there, strapped in to the space shuttle, scared, but determined, and ready to make that giant leap into space. In fact, Christa McCauliffe's students were there, watching the shuttle that carried their teacher away from earth, and up into the sky. 

Hit play, and say nothing else until the clip runs its course. 

Turn off the projector, and explain that you are going to read from the memoir of Peggy Noonan, speechwriter for the then-President, Ronald Reagan. Her account in What I Saw a the Revolution, Chapter 13, "Challenger," is not all of it is for the kids, so I start at p. 253, from "It was a pretty morning" to p. 254, "I got it Dick, Thanks." This passage describes what she was doing the morning the Challenger exploded, at that moment, while her boss' kid was in the office, and sets the tone for the lesson. 

Ms. Noonan has very little time to write Reagan's remarks to the country - I tell my students one hour, but in reality Reagan does not speak until after the search for survivors is called off, a couple of hours later - and segues into the next part of the lesson. I won't re-type the entire section out of respect for Ms. Noonan's book - a great read, no matter your politics. Pick up a copy. You will enjoy it and use it year in and year out for this lesson. 

After "I got it, Dick. Thanks," make sure everyone has a sheet of paper and a pencil and give your students ten minutes to write down five goals for Reagan's speech. Tell them to imagine that they are Reagan's speechwriter, that they have been given less than an hour to write Reagan's address to the nation. A nation in shock. A nation that can't comprehend what has just happened. 

Okay.....go. You have ten minutes. 

Political speechwriting is about three vital elements - voice, audience, and rhetoric. In this lesson, I focus on audience. I was a political speechwriter about a decade ago, and it was a gift. The best writing education I could have received. I wrote for a politician whose views could not have been more disparate from my own, but as any writer will tell you, having to write - and write persuasively - from another viewpoint is an invaluable education.

But back to the lesson. 

Once the students have laid out their five goals, go around the room and ask for one goal from each student. They may run out by the time you get around the room, but that's fine. Keep it moving. Get all of their ideas up on the board. Teacher tip: I start on the side of the room with the less participatory kids so they can't use the excuse of "all my ideas are on the board already" by the time I get around to them. 

I try to dig into ideas that will come up later in Reagan's speech - service, exploration, knowledge of risk, the future of the space program, the kids watching, the families. I make it clear that Reagan did not go on air until the search had been called off and NASA was sure there were no survivors so we can avoid a discussion of who lived and who died. Once the kids have exhausted their ideas, I queue up the video of Reagan's speech.

Make sure you get past the requisite ad before opening the projector up for viewing. 

Ladies and Gentlemen, I’d planned to speak to you tonight to report on the state of the Union, but the events of earlier today have led me to change those plans. Today is a day for mourning and remembering. Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss. 
Nineteen years ago, almost to the day, we lost three astronauts in a terrible accident on the ground. But, we’ve never lost an astronaut in flight; we’ve never had a tragedy like this. And perhaps we’ve forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle; but they, the Challenger Seven, were aware of the dangers, but overcame them and did their jobs brilliantly. We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. We mourn their loss as a nation together. 
For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, "give me a challenge and I’ll meet it with joy." They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us. 
We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for twenty-five years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the member of the Challenger crew, were pioneers. 
And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them. 
I’ve always had great faith in and respect for our space program, and what happened today does nothing to diminish it. We don’t hide our space program. We don’t keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That’s the way freedom is, and we wouldn’t change it for a minute. We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. 
Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue. I want to add that I wish I could talk to every man and woman who works for NASA or who worked on this mission and tell them: "Your dedication and professionalism have moved an impressed us for decades. And we know of your anguish. We share it." 
There’s a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said, "He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it." Well, today we can say of the challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete. 
The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God."

As Reagan speaks, jot down the big points on the board:

National loss
19 years ago (reference to the fire in the Apollo 1 capsule in which three crew members were killed in a launch pad test)
"Challenger Seven"
Aware of the dangers
Names of the fallen
"Hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths."
Service to us all
Schoolchildren of America (note the diction of children's language used)
Don't hide
Don't keep secrets
"We'll continue our quest in space."
Sir Francis Drake
"Their dedication, was, like Drake's, complete."
Never forget
"Slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God."

We talk about the theme of exploration, pioneers, and bravery, and how it lends itself to the allusion to Drake. We talk about the language of transparency, about only through honesty comes freedom. 

We talk about how Reagan modulates his language in the section for the children of America. "And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle's takeoff. I know it's hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen - it's all part of the process of exploration and discovery - it's all a part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons." 

Lovely. See that adjustment in the speech? See the switch from "They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. they wished to serve and they did  - they served us all" to "I know it's hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen"? Note the switch in tone and diction [word choice]? It's subtle, but clear. Nicely done, Ms. Noonan. 

I talk with the class about how many of their points overlapped with what Reagan/Noonan actually said. As a side note: I tend to slip in to "what she [Noonan] said" rather than "what he [Reagan] said," which inevitably leads to a discussion about Presidents and why they don't write their own speeches anymore. I talk about the reality of the office and why we don't have many Lincolns anymore. Eventually, I have to tamp down this discussion and segue back to the topic at hand. 

I go back to Ms. Noonan's book and read from the first sentence of p. 258: "The next morning there was a deluge." I read through Ms. Noonan's discussion with Reagan about the speech and the poem, and end with the top of page 259, "And you comforted everybody."

I like to close with a quote from Christa McAuliffe as it relates to the ending of Reagan's speech. Reagan [Noonan] quotes a poem at the end of his speech. The poem, "High Flight," by John Magee, was written in 1941 well known to pilots. Pilots such as Ronald Reagan. 

 Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
 And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
 Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
 of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
 You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
 High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
 I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
 My eager craft through footless halls of air....

 Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
 I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
 Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
 And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
 The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

 - Put out my hand, and touched the face of God. 

Peggy Noonan used lines one and fourteen, "slipped the surly bonds of Earth"..."and touched the face of God." to close Reagan's speech because she knew he would have seen or heard that poem. And she was right. Reagan knew that poem well. Christa McAuliffe may have been thinking of the same poem - or at least the same theme when she said,

"I touch the future. I teach."

I leave it there. I don't care if the class period is over or not. There's not much else to add. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

What Storms May Come: Teaching Obama's First Inaugural Address

This afternoon will be dedicated to wiping away my tears of pride and preparing my notes for tomorrow's lesson on the rhetoric, metaphors, and allusions of today's glorious inaugural speech. In the meantime, here's the lesson I taught four years ago:

President Barak Obama’s Inaugural Address
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

My fellow citizens: I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.

[the parallel construction and rhythm of the above passage sets the beat for the entire speech and signals the three most important sentiments he wishes to convey for the tone of the speech: humble, grateful and mindful.]

I thank President Bush for his service to our nation as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath.

[This is incorrect. 43 have taken the oath. Grover Cleveland took it twice because there was another president in between his two terms. He was the 22nd and 24th president.]

The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents.

[“…still waters of peace”comes from Psalm 23, “…leadeth me beside still waters.”]

[“…gathering clouds and raging storms” is reminiscent of the sermons of John Newton, and as in Dickens and Shakespeare, natural forces such as storms and comets portend great change and upheaval. Think The Tempest, Henry IV, Part I, King Lear.]

[“…We the People” obviously comes from the Constitution and “…ideals of our forebears, and true to our founding documents” indicates that while we are a modern society with modern problems, we still look to our great leaders and documents for guidance.]

So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.

[Note the biblical cadence and phrasing of “So it has been,” which sounds like a proclomation, e.g. “And God said it was good.” Biblical language and cadence automatically elevates the gravity and tone of a speech.]

[This section is what’s called the ‘exhordium,’ the introduction of a speech, where one announces the subject and purpose of the discourse, and where one usually employs the persuasive appeal of ethos in order to establish credibility with the audience. This next section is the ‘narratio,’ the second part of a classical oration, following the introduction or exordium. The speaker here provides a narrative account of what has happened and generally explains the nature of the case.]

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.

[“That we are in the midst of a crisis is now well understood.” The syntax (word order) of this sentence is notable. Rather than go with the obvious syntax, “We understand that we are in the midst of a crisis,” Obama chooses to alter the sentence in order end on understanding rather than crisis, thus allowing the key word to be the last, and linger in the mind of the audience to set a tone. Frost does this in "Mending Wall" and, well, so does Yoda. And who doesn't take Yoda seriously?]

Homes have been lost, jobs shed, businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many, and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

[“Our…our…” The repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a sentence (or line, in poetry) for emphasis is called ‘apostrope,’ a rhetorical device that allows for both the aforementioned emphasis, but also for rhythm.]

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable, but no less profound, is a sapping of confidence across our land; a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, that the next generation must lower its sights.

[“indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics” sets up economic language, checked by sentiments of humanity such as “sapping of confidence across ourland; a nagging fear…” One counterbalances the other.]

[“America’s decline…” America is set up as a collective, anthromorphized being. More of this “we” and “our” stuff in order to bind together and build up a feeling of consensus.]

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real, they are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this America: They will be met.

[The language goes from complex and poetic to brief and simple in order to metaphorically reduce complex problems down to simple language. Such short statements also indicate decisiveness, repeated in the “They will be met” to punctuate the sentiment in meaning as well as form.]

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics.

[Again with the anaphora – “On this day…on this day.”]

[“…hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord” is classic ‘antithesis,’ or the juxtaposition of two contrasting ideas, usually through parallel structure. This allows Obama to use the proximity of the contrasting ideas in order to highlight the contrasts inherent in the ideas.]

We remain a young nation, but in the words of scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

[“…the time has come to set aside childish things” comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (13:11) “…when I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things.”]

[“…our better history” echoes Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address: “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grade to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”]

[“…full measure of happiness” is an echo of the last line of the Gettysburg Address, “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.” The phrase ‘full measure’ can also be found in the Declaration of Independence.]

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of shortcuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted, for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame.

[I read somewhere that Obama has spoken out before on his dislike of hip-hop music and its obsession with the pursuit of riches and fame, but can't remember where. Nice little allusion to that idea here.]

Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things -- some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor -- who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.

For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West, endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died in places Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh.

[Again with the anaphora, “for us..” is repeated for the cadence, rhythm and emphasis of unity as a country and as a modern people indebted to their forebears.]

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions -- that time has surely passed.

Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

[“Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began” is reminiscent of FDR’s first inaugural in 1933.]

[‘pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off…” ("and start all over again") is a reference to the 1936 Jerome Kern song from the depression-era film “Swing Time”indicating a parallel to the economic crisis of the depression and to the fact that it is up to us as a people to take our destiny in our own hands, to remain optimistic about the future.”]

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done.

The state of our economy calls for action: bold and swift. And we will act not only to create new jobs but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its costs. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.
All this we can do. All this we will do.

[The use of action verbs and reference to rebuilding strikes me as a reference to Reconstruction, but more simply, it’s a reference to all the work that is to be done and the action with which we as a country will get down to it.]

[Note also the anaphora in “we will” repeated, over and over, rising to the crescendo of “All this we can do. All this we will do” in simple, forceful language.]

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done, what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose and necessity to courage. What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long, no longer apply.

[…there are some here who question…who suggest…” this is a classic ‘refutatio’ or the section of a speech was devoted to answering the counterarguments of one's opponent.]

The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works, whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account, to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day, because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched.

But this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control. The nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.

The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our gross domestic product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on the ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart -- not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.

[…”To every willing heart” is from Ecclesiastes.]

[“…common defense” is from the preamble to the Constitution and signals a return to discussion of our forefathers.]

Our founding fathers faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations.

Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake.

And so, to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and we are ready to lead once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with the sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use. Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

We are the keepers of this legacy, guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort, even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We'll begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people and forge a hard- earned peace in Afghanistan.

With old friends and former foes, we'll work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life nor will we waver in its defense. And for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that, "Our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken. You cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you."

[Slaughter of innocents is from the Bible, more biblical language]

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.

We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth. And because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict or blame their society's ills on the West, know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds.

[“To the people of poor nations” is reminiscent of JFK: “to those people in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery…”]

And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders, nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages.
We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service: a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment, a moment that will define a generation, it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break; the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.
Our challenges may be new, the instruments with which we meet them may be new, but those values upon which our success depends, honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism -- these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history.

What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility -- a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and the promise of citizenship. This is the source of our confidence: the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

[“God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny” is reminiscent of Kennedy: “Here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”]

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed, why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall. And why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

So let us mark this day in remembrance of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

"Let it be told to the future world that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive, that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it."

[This passage above is from Thomas Paine’s 1776 pamphlet “The Crisis,” famous for the line, “These are the times that try men’s souls.” George Washington had it read aloud to the troops.]

America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words; with hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come; let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

[“…winter of our hardship” is much like Shakespeare’s words for Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent” and speaks to the metaphorical winter our country is enduring.]

[“…children’s children” comes from Psalm 103, verses 17-18, “But the loving kindness…righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember his precepts to do them.”]

[“…eyes fixed on the horizon” recalls the 1965 folk song “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize”and the eponymous documentary aired on PBS in 1987 on the civil rights movement.]

[This last section of the speech is called the ‘peroration,’ and it employed appeals through pathos, and often included a summing up of the speech via many different rhetorical devices I won’t bore you with here.]

Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

In Both Countries it Was Clearer Than Crystal

The stars have aligned and my love of literature has come full circle. I am teaching Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities at the same time that my fourteen year old son has (finally) agreed to read this, one of my favorite books. I think Ben (the aforesaid son) has finally given in because I said I came to love it in sixth grade when my teacher, Mr. Akeley, read it aloud while we ate our lunches. Ben's in 8th grade, so I think he sensed a challenge. 

Yeah, that's right, a gauntlet was tossed down, and I can win. But only if he loves the book.

So. Taking a cue from a post I did a while back for Great Expectations, I'm doing the same for the first book of A Tale of Two Cities. This is for my students, their parents, and my son. Accordingly, all page numbers in my notes refer to the text I like to use in my classroom, the EMC Masterpiece Series Access Edition. I like the notes in the margins and use them as quiz questions.

Oh! And Katherine Schulten, the august and editorial genius of The New York Times Learning Network. She became my editor last summer when she asked me to write some critical thinking quizzes for The Learning Network. She was a teacher in Brooklyn for ten years, has been a curriculum writer since the invention of fire, and has won all kinds of awards for her work in education, but she has one major failing. She does not love A Tale of Two Cities. 

Today, I made a bet with her: one lunch in the New York Times cafeteria (notably not excluding the sushi bar) that I can make her love this book. The stakes are high, people, and I'm playing for keeps.

Brace yourself, Ben and Katherine, because this will be one wild ride.

Book the First - Recalled to Life

Chapter One: The Period

As we go through this novel, remember that Dickens published it in installments. In the tradition of serial writers and dramatic television series writers throughout history, that calls for some really great cliffhangers, and Dickens delivers.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity [skepticism], it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the season of hope, it was the winter of despair..."

Yeah. I know you know that one, and it goes on for a while. 

This paragraph is one of the most famous in all of literature. I like to bring in some other famous first lines when we talk about this one in order to compare/contrast. Moby Dick ("Call me Ishmael") and Pride and Prejudice (extra credit for the students who memorize this one: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.") top the list. 

This first paragraph is easy at first - best/worst, wisdom/foolishness, belief/incredulity, Light/Darkness, hope/despair - but goes off into stuff that only readers in Victorian London will understand. But that first part? That first part is killer. It's the contrast of opposites - a rhetorical device called antithesis. Antithesis is about the setting up opposites for effect, and to take it one step beyond the pale, there's another rhetorical device that defines serial antithesis called isocolon. This first paragraph is one massive example of isocolon, and it's chock full 'o examples of allusion to the Enlightenment ("Light," "Dark"), Genesis ("Light," "Dark"), Revelations ("clearer than crystal"), Matthew ("loaves and fishes," 14:17), and some verbal irony. "Things in general were settled forever." Um, no. They were the exact opposite. Totally unsettled in the short term. 

This is why Tale of Two Cities is perfect for the 8th grade. Middle school students are smack in the middle of so many things, notably their transition from literal to figurative thought. This transition is not about "smart"; it's about neurological development. Sorry, parents of kids who have been accelerated in school, but this ability to connect can't be taught. I can present metaphor and allusion until I turn blue, but those sort of connections just have to happen on their own sweet neurological time. These connections must be made in the brain before my students can make the leap from concrete understanding of literature to the symbolic, abstract, figurative wonderland that is the stuff of mature reading. I've written about this transition before, the moment when a student moves from the world of black and white to one of technicolor. I call it the "Dorothy Moment," and I am forever grateful to be there when it happens to my students. For seventh graders fortunate enough to make that leap, it tends to happen during Great Expectations. If it happens in 8th grade, it happens during A Tale of Two Cities. The allusions, metaphors, and symbols are just too thick on the ground, and even the most immature 8th grader can't help but trip on a few. 

But back to the text. 

You can just relax through some of the incomprehensible references of the next couple of pages, because all that stuff about the Cock Lane Ghost and the sister of shield and trident (Britannia), people being buried alive after not kneeling down to monks (the execution of Chevelier de Barre in 1766; he did not take his hat off at an inopportune moment in front of church members), and the state of rampant lawlessness in England is only comprehensible to people who lived and read the newspaper during Dickens' lifetime. Don't worry about it. Dickens is setting the scene. Here are the relevant points:

1. Things were bad in England. Worse, actually, than in France, where much of the action of this novel will take place. Lawlessness reigned, no one trusted anyone else, and people were put to death for everything from the worst to the most trifling offenses. The country was overrun by burglars and highwaymen (this will be important in chapter 2). 
2. Dickens uses a lot of irony and dark humor to convey how bad things actually were. "Dear old year one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five" (3) is ironic. It was not, in the least, "a dear old year." It was horrific. 

One last note. Note the mentions of the Woodman, Fate and the Farmer, Death. Keep these allusions in mind. This paragraph (2) just beautiful, just so...oh, dear, so lovely. 

"It is likely enough that, rooted in the wood of France and Norway, there were growing trees, when that sufferer was put to death, already marked by the Woodman, Fate, to come down and be sawn into boards, to make a certain movable framework with a sack and a knife in it. terrible in history." (2) 

This quote refers to the trees that will someday become guillotine. That have already been marked for that purpose. Fate, the Woodsman, already knows. It's already done. The trees are growing, they will be felled, the guillotine will be made, and the Revolution will take place. Capital F-Fate has determined it all. 

"It is likely enough that in the rough outhouses of some tillers of the heavy lands adjacent to Paris, there were sheltered from the weather that very day, rude carts, bespattered with rustic mire, snuffed about by pigs, and roosted in by poultry, which the Farmer, Death, had already set apart to be his tumbrils of the Revolution." (2) 

See? Again, it's already done. Death has already decided which farmer's carts will serve as the tumbrils (carts) that will transport what used to be farmers' harvests but which will now be the prisoners of the Revolution to the guillotine. Done. Over. Don't even try to pretend the future is not set in cobblestones. 

Chapter Two: The Mail

Jarvis Lorry (the "he" of this chapter), an employee of Tellson's Bank in London (and its profitable Paris branch) is on the Dover Road (the road between London and Dover, about 71 miles long) in a mail coach - hence "The Mail."

The coach at Shooter's Hill, about 8.5 miles outside London, when it gets stuck in the much and mire and fog. At this point, I tend to gesture back one year to our reading of Great Expectations when we talked so much about the fog and "clammy and intensely cold mist" (4) and its ability to create a mood of tension and uncertainty. That's what's going on here. The passengers have to get out and push. No one trusts anyone else, everyone is freaked out, and the coach is stuck on a hill. The horses are shaking and breathing so hard that the motion is transferred to the coach and, well, yikes. 

A messenger approaches the coach from "T, and Co." (Tellson's Bank), looking for Jarvis Lorry. Everyone else is frightened and hangs back. The message for Jarvis Lorry (after some paranoid back-and-forth between the coach drivers and the messenger) is: RECALLED TO LIFE. No, you are not supposed to understand this message. Yet. 

Jerry, the messenger, reveals that he'd be sunk if "RECALLED TO LIFE" were to come into fashion. This will be important later. I get kind of tired repeating "Trust me, this will be important later," but trust me. This will be important later. 

NB to teachers and frustrated readers: Adolescents are not used to waiting for information. YA fiction and television tend to give the plot away on an as-needed basis, and as today's adolescents NEED stuff IMMEDIATELY, they are not used to waiting. I like to assign a book like Skellig as a way of getting used to the idea of waiting for information. It's short, but doesn't give it all up in the first chapter. 

Chapter 3: The Night Shadows 

"A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other." (10) This, and "He was on his way to dig someone out of a grave" (12) are the main points of this chapter. 

People in England are so freaked out by each other, that even among those three passengers in the Dover Mail, "they were mysteries to one another, as complete as if each had been in his own coach and six, or his own coach and sixty, with the breadth of a county between him and the next." (10) Those passengers are so distrustful, and the people of England, by extension, are so distrustful of each other, that even when they are sitting next to each other in a coach, they may as well have the distance of an entire county between them. 

This whole first paragraph is about mood. Well, tone and mood. Okay, well tone and mood and the theme of imprisonment

Jarvis Lorry is on his way to Dover to meet someone and then head to France, where he will "dig someone out of a grave." (12) Not literally, of course. Jarvis Lorry is no grave-digger; he's a man of business. His digging will be metaphorical. Trust me, it's okay that you don't understand what his musings/delusions/nightmares mean yet. 

Know that the subject of this chapter, even with the switches between "he" and "I" is Jarvis Lorry. Jerry Cruncher, the messenger, makes some appearances to wonder about that RECALLED TO LIFE message, but the main focus of this chapter is Lorry. 

All of that confusing "dialogue" between Lorry and someone else is imagined. He's dreaming, hallucinating, fearing, whatever...he's worried about his coming meeting with the person who has been RECALLED TO LIFE and it haunts him. All that dig - dig - dig, is figurative, not literal digging, as I mentioned before. 

And in the final paragraph, we find out that whomever has been buried, has been buried for eighteen years. 

But the lovely part of this chapter is the change in tone between the meat of the chapter and this final paragraph. Dark, mist, hallucinatory nighttime images morph into, "He lowered the window, and looked out into the rising sun. There was a ridge of plowed land, with a plow upon it where it has been left last night when the horses were unyoked; beyond, a quiet coppice wood, in which many leaves of burning red and golden yellow still remained upon the trees. Though the earth was cold and wet, the sky was clear, and the sun rose bright, placid and beautiful." (14)

Can you see it? The beautiful scene indicating a change in tone from hopeless to hopeful, all "placid and beautiful"?

And with that new sense of hope, I call it a night. Even the dog is having nightmares as Ben watches the British version of The Office, which means it's time to go to bed. Please forgive the insane commentary behind the twitching paws. It's not me, it's Ricky Gervais. 

Tomorrow, chapters 4-6.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

On Tony Danza, Algebra, Giant Squid, Grading Papers, and Nikhil Goyal.

I'm torn this weekend. I'm going do something I would not usually do. A round-up. 

I hate round-ups.

I like blog posts with an arc, with a thesis, allusions, metaphors, a conclusion that brings the reader back around to a satisfying resolution. I like blog posts that transport and tell a story  on more than one level. 

Round-ups can read like laundry lists, capsule summaries of all the subjects, peeves, and brain farts a blogger doesn't have the imagination to fashion in to a larger arc.

So...there's that. But in order to get some of the stuff off of my chest that, if I come up with arcs for each, could fill up six to eight blog posts, I'm just going to go all Spark Notes on this one and get these topics out of the way so I can clear the boards and get down to the posts I really want to write. I may have to take a shower after I hit the "publish" button, but sometimes a girl's got to do what a girl's got to do. 

1. What's up with people who teach for one year and write a book about it?

God love Tony Danza. He rocked feathered hair and flared yet very snug jeans on Taxi, and while I was not a fan of Who's the Boss, anyone who can ride that blind, three-legged pony for eight seasons deserves some sort of cred. Not sure what kind of cred, but cred nonetheless. I received an advance copy of his book about teaching in a Philadelphia public school for one year, I'd Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had, and I got a little bit pissed off. 

I was torn: I love getting advance copies of books because I feel so very special, as if someone really cares about my opinion. Even better, it means that someone believes I have the influence to help an author in their efforts to sell said books. For publishers reading this post, I do. I'm very powerful.

Because come on, admit it, advance anything is exciting. I remember the first time I got my hands on a copy of the New York Times Saturday Styles section on a Thursday. I hardly knew what to do with myself. It was as if I was starring in that 90's show Early Edition, where the main character magically receives a copy of the Chicago Sun-Times delivered the day before it is published and has to decide what to do with all that information. 

But back to advance copies of books, specifically Mr. Danza's. Normally, I dive right in, and take advantage of that fleeting feeling of exclusivity (I'm only special until the publication date, when everyone else can get the book in stores), but this book sat on my nightstand for a while because I just wasn't buying what Tony Danza had to sell. It got me all worked up every time I looked at it and I just could not bring myself to read it. The advance copy came out ages ago (the actual book has been out for four months, if that's any indication), and I have finally dipped in. And out. And in. And out for good. 

Because here's Mr. Danza's problem. First year teachers are idiots. I feel so very, very sorry for the students I taught in the first year of my teaching career, because I was hanging on by a thread. I was about 24 hours ahead of them on a good day. Some days I was a couple of hours behind, and God bless 'em, they pretended not to notice. 

I know Tony Danza had his teaching certificate so he was kinda sorta qualified to teach English, and I was kinda sorta of moved when he cried (I may have been a trifle overwhelmed myself at the time), but note to all first year teachers in search of a book deal: I'm far more interested in what comes after that first year. I'm interested in the story of that teacher after the shock wears off, the brightness has dulled, and the bushy tail hangs limp. 

I won't even go into the fact that he conducted parent-teacher meetings armed with a camera crew. I can't even imagine how weird (and yet oddly reassuring) it would be to interpose a camera crew in the delicate dance of the parent-teacher conference

Which leads me to number two. 

2. Students are easy, parents are hard. 

An educator friend of mine had to call the police on a parent this week. S/he could not tell me the details of his/her parent-teacher conference (of course), but it required three police officers and resulted in an arrest for disorderly conduct. 

I'd love to write an entire blog post about this topic, but I can't. I love my job, and would like to keep it. I don't have an anonymous blog such as Tales in Education, one of my favorite education sites. I'd kill for an anonymous blog. I even fantasized with a writer friend about creating a website that publishes writers anonymously, sort of a clearing house for people like Mrs. Q (who used to be anonymous, anyway) or teachers afraid of being fired for talking about the most challenging aspects of educating children. It would never work, but a girl can dream. 

3. I finally got around to reading William Poundstone's book, and no, I am not smart enough to work at Google.

4. It will take me three years to get through Algebra I

I took the third trimester last year, the first trimester this year, and will have to complete winter trimester next year. I was doing great until December, when I hit the Bermuda Triangle of report card writing, letter of recommendation writing, and mid-year writing assessment grading. I had to admit to my students that I can't do everything, and that they would not be seeing me in their Algebra I class any more. I was doing pretty well, though, and I'm pretty darn proud of that. I was getting my weekly review sheets in early, consistently scoring in the 90s on my assessments, and participating in class. But I'd warned my students that Algebra I was extracurricular for me, I had to put my teaching first. Maybe next year. Lord knows if I will ever make it to Geometry. 

5. A giant squid was captured on film. 

It's incredible how happy this makes me. I'm kind of obsessed with them. 

Photos by NHK/NEP/Discovery Channel/European Pressphoto Agency.

7. The secret is out, and John T. Tierney finally said it in The Atlantic: "Why Teachers Secretly Hate Grading Papers."

There are lots of great quotes in this article, but this pretty much sums it up: 

No matter how hard you try, you realize there's a good chance you're grading some students more harshly than they deserve, and giving others more credit than they deserve. This doesn't have anything to do with favoritism (a whole other problem), but with human error and weakness. Your temperament and disposition change over the hours or days you spend grading an assignment. In fact, your frame of mind can change in moments for any number of reasons: Five weak essays in a row can put you in a foul mood; fatigue can set in; a too-hot or too-noisy room can set your nerves on edge. Maybe you're suddenly reminded that you have only 48 hours left to finish clearing out your deceased parent's apartment. How can any teacher be confident that his or her assessment of student work is always fair and accurate in the face of such vagaries? An essay that earns a B+ at one moment might earn a B- the next day. It shouldn't be that way, but any honest teacher will admit it's true.

6. I loved both the idea and the reality of Nikhil Goyal's book, One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student's Assessment of School.

I try to condition my students to have great expectations for their lives, so when Nikhil offered to send me an advance copy of his book, I was thrilled (and so very, very special and influential in the publishing industry, of course). 

Nikhil is 17. Seventeen. And he's written a really good book about what's wrong with American education. He understands the history and evolution education policy, and clearly explains his issues with the fine kettle of fish students and teachers find themselves in today. 

The book is great. That said, I'd kill to have Nikhil in my writing class, because I have a few notes for him on his style and I can't wait for him to develop a distinct voice, but he's seventeen years old and he's influencing education reform. He's mixing it up with the experts. Grown-up experts with decades of experience in education under their collective belts. 

Every year, I have a few students who are good, smart kids, but disengaged from their education. When their parents fret over this lack of engagement, and worry about their children's future, I let them in on a little secret: someday, there will be one thing, a perfect thing, that will catch hold of their kids and light a fire in their hearts. I saw this happen last year to one of my students, Ellie Pschirrer-West, and the change in her was stunning. It was like watching a miracle take place right in front of me. Well, not in front of me, because it happened in science class, but still. 

I plan to purchase a copy of Nikhil's book for my independent reading shelf, if only to show my students what can be, what it looks like when the fire is lit, and a kid finds their calling. My middle school students are not (yet) interested in debating the merits of No Child Left Behind or  value-added modeling as a way of assessing teacher effectiveness*, but they are interested in the story of a teenager who is taken seriously in The New York Times, CNN, Forbes, HuffPo, NPR, NBC, and FOX before he's even eligible to vote. 

But...while I loved that Nikhil was quoted in the recent New York Times piece, "Saying No to College," I don't think I will tell my students about Nikhil's opinion on school:

Nikhil Goyal, a 17-year-old high school student in Long Island, published “One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School,” contending that some students are better served by ditching lecture halls and treating the world as their classroom.

Because if my students go home and tell their parents that I recommended they ditch school and treat the world as their classroom, my next round of parent-teacher conferences may just require the assistance of law enforcement. 

I think that's it. Phew. Thanks for reading, and I promise, a real post with beginning, middle, and end is coming later this week. 

*Super-Geek (and by super I mean SUPER) Nate Silver weighed in on VAM, in the wake of the Gates Foundation justifying its use in assessing teachers.