Monday, April 29, 2019


 Rafe Esquith [2003]

When you work as hard as so many teachers do, having a brilliant child in class makes you feel good. Teachers, me included, often suffer the delusion that much of a child’s success is because of the teacher. That would be nice if it were true, but it isn’t. A teacher can help guide a brilliant child, and certainly expose him to new ideas and experiences, but you cannot teach intelligence. Bright children make teachers feel that they’re doing a fine job in the classroom, and it’s understandable why we cherish that feeling, because so often we feel as if we’re failing. But we have to remind ourselves that we must always try to do what’s in the best interest of the student, and if that means sending him to another classroom where he has better opportunities to fly high, let him go.

My experience working with youngsters has taught me many things. It’s common to have gifted students do fifty multiplication problems while other students do twenty-five, but piling on busywork is not the way to help gifted children develop their abilities. The key is to keep giving the gifted ones twenty-five problems—the twenty-five right ones; these children need to be challenged and worked hard, but wasting their time is no answer. If other children in class need extra practice with a math skill, why make children who have mastered the skill wait? We don’t want to leave children behind, but we don’t want to slow down those ready to move ahead.

To complicate things further, GATE students are often used to tutor their peers who need help. There is merit to this, as it helps bright youngsters develop compassion for others. However, teachers must be careful in finding a balance here: it’s nice for Johnny to take some time to help someone in need, but Johnny has needs, too. That’s why it’s best for Johnny to have the same hour of math but with more difficult problems, the same time for reading but with more difficult literature, and the same time for language arts but with more advanced vocabulary to study. GATE children form their own branch of special education, and just as children with learning disabilities need individualized lesson plans, GATE children need them, too.

Exposure is crucial. Gifted students need opportunities in every subject to give them the chance to develop a love of some activity in which they can then thrive. It is becoming common these days [2003] to visit classrooms in which art, music, science, history, geography, and physical education are barely taught, because the teachers are under pressure to prepare and assess their students in reading and arithmetic. At the Jungle, the school district has ordered its teachers to spend a minimum of three and a half hours per day teaching these two subjects. The entire school day is only seven hours long, and with recess and lunch taking one and a quarter hours, that leaves teachers only two and a quarter hours to teach all the other subjects we’re supposed to cover.

More often than not, these subjects have disappeared in elementary schools. Students, regular as well as GATE, will never discover they have a passion for mapmaking, painting, singing, biology, writing, or retracing the steps of Chief Crazy Horse. How can these children develop such interests if they don’t know these things exist? I’ve solved the problem by lengthening my school day to cover each of these forgotten subjects. It’s not rocket science. A child will more likely find something she likes to eat if there are more items on the menu. Of these subjects, I’ve found music and drama to be crucial in reaching gifted students. The arts bridge the gap when kids of vastly different abilities are in the same room. With drama, a good teacher can find the right role providing the proper challenge for each individual. Recently, my fifth-graders performed an unabridged production of King Lear. A brilliant young girl played Goneril. It was challenging but possible for her to learn the part. Another child with less advanced language skills played a smaller role, but the experience of learning lines and being in the production was equally rewarding for her. In this way, each child can face a challenge and be part of a happy and successful fellowship of learning.

If offered music, children of different abilities can be singers, dancers, and musicians. There is something for everyone. Visitors are surprised to see that children in my class receive little homework. Because of our extended day, I don’t pile it on when they go home. They work less than one hour per night. When youngsters can perform Shakespeare and solve algebra problems, it’s easy to forget they’re still children. Good teachers make sure the kids have time to play baseball, listen to their favorite pop star, and just look at the clouds and relax. In addition, passionate students often create homework for themselves. Students who have become fascinated with history will go home and research things that interest them. Students with a love of music practice their instruments constantly. Good readers always have homework. An exciting day of class leads to children pursuing things at home for all the right reasons.

Rafe Esquith, There Are No Shortcuts (152-155).
[2003] Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019


Students Voting With Their Feet

April 15, 2019

One of the worst consequences of the politicization of the academic humanities is the drift of it down into the secondary level.

By Mark Bauerlein – 

Thirty years ago, when Allan Bloom, Bill Bennett, Dinesh D’Souza, Roger Kimball, Camille Paglia, Lynne Cheney, and many others decried the rise of identity politics in the humanities, the professors had a ready response.  “The humanities have never been more vibrant and relevant and rigorous,” they proclaimed.  The steady put-down of Dead White Male authors and artists that the conservative critics bemoaned was not a suppression that forsook the Western tradition and turned people off.  It was, instead, an exciting opening that brought unjustly overlooked individuals and cultures into the curriculum.  The humanities had never been so healthy and attractive! 

That was in 1994.  It was hard then for critics of the humanities to prove them wrong.  After all, many of those critics weren’t even practicing professors, and the ones who were practicing professors were mightily outnumbered on campus.  While the critics were writing best-selling books such as Tenured Radicals and appearing on talk shows, the professors were changing the syllabus and devising new theories and creating new job descriptions.  The critics got all the publicity—Bloom became a national celebrity—but they had little impact on the course of the disciplines.  Why should the professors care what the critics said?  They had the jobs, they controlled the hiring. 

And so they drove ever farther into Queer Theory, Postcolonialism, Ecocriticism, Cultural Studies, Gender Theory, Intersectionality, and various exotic sub-formations.  Let the conservatives howl all they want.  The rising generation of humanities scholars and teachers would transform the study of the past, and nobody could stop them. 

That was how bold and ambitious the professors were in the Nineties.  They were on a roll, riding high, convinced that the institution was in their hands and would last forever. 

All that confidence is gone now, and it wasn’t the critics who took it away.  Go to conferences, mingle in departments, talk to editors in the fields, and you will find a general pessimism and quiet desperation.  The cause isn’t Donald Trump.  It’s the undergraduates, who over the last several years have been turning away from humanities courses and going to other majors.  According to various reports, the number of degrees granted in history, English, foreign languages, and philosophy have fallen disastrously.  That’s the cold reality humanities professors face, and it has squelched their revolutionary dreams.  

Disciplines that used to stand at the center of higher education are now at the margins.  

Let’s get specific.  Right now, English, history, foreign languages, and philosophy together collect a mere one in 20 of all the bachelor’s degrees awarded each year.  According to the American Historical Association, from the years 2011 to 2017, the number of history degrees earned fell more than 30 percent, while degrees in philosophy, English, and foreign languages went down more than 20 percent.  We have reached the point that the humanities are a negligible part of most Americans’ undergraduate experience. 

What can the professors say about this?  It leaves them at a total loss.  It is easy for them to denounce conservative critics as reactionary, uptight, racist, and sexist, but they can’t attack 19-year-olds in the same way.  Indeed, to criticize the young is to start sounding conservative!  But how are they to respond to the loss of their formerly captive audience.  The professors ho believed fervently in the rightness and goodness of their actions must admit that they have presided over an institutional collapse of their domains that is astonishing, not to mention caused by an unexpected source.   

The professors believe just as strongly as ever that the turn of their fields away from traditionalist orientations (Great Books, Western Civilization, the Great American Novel) and toward identity themes of race, and sex was wholly just and timely.  But those convictions haven’t carried over to undergraduates.  They’re not interested in what today’s humanities professorate has to offer.  The professors still think intersectionality is a captivating idea, but it hasn’t seemed to have inspired very many 20-year-olds.  What is a professor to do when the small revolution he helped bring about proves to be a bust? 

There is, however, another small revolution taking place right now.  Or rather, now a revolution, but a restoration.  At several campuses around the country, professors have created special programs devoted to teaching the very works using the very approaches that the humanities theorists derided starting several decades ago.  These programs are frank about wanting to maintain the Western tradition.  They refer unabashedly to “the classics.”  They boast of their commitment to the canon.  They avoid the trendy language of cultural theory. 

Everything about them is unfashionable.  They sound oh-so-19th century.  All the hot social issues (white privilege, toxic masculinity . . .) they ignore.  

The people operating those programs sound like they missed the insertion of political awareness into the humanities that was cast as a liberation long ago, one which academics would never abandon.  Indeed, that political awareness was understood as disciplinary competence.  If you can’t do race theory, you don’t qualify for the field. 

What is the result of these out-of-touch, backward-looking, old-fashioned programs?  It is the opposite of what is happening in standard humanities departments.  Applications and enrollments are climbing, sometimes astoundingly. 

At Clemson University, an initiative called the Lyceum Program offers a minor in Political Science that emphasizes classics of political theory–the Greeks, Machiavelli, Marx, Mill. . .Students have to enroll in eight courses taught as Socratic seminars, and they have to meet with professors each week for on-on-one tutorials.  The program offers ten scholarships per year ($2,500).  When it started four years ago, the program got 200 applications.  This year, they got more than 650 applications.  Demand is so high that the program has opened up to non-scholarship students, kids who get no money but can enroll in the courses.  In two years, those enrollments have climbed from zero to 102. 

The University of Texas-Austin has the Jefferson Center for the Study of Core Texts & Ideas, which announces up front that it involves “the study of the great books.”  It began in 2014.  Currently, the program gets 500 applications for only 130 available posts in its Scholars Program. 

One of the worst consequences of the politicization of the academic humanities is the drift of it down into the secondary level.  High school humanities teachers have picked up the identity focus and changed their syllabi accordingly–more contemporary, multicultural material, less traditional, canonical, dead White Male stuff.  Students are stuck in those courses; they can’t go down the hall and pursue other subjects.  

But when alternative schools open, such as classical education charter schools, parents leap at them.  Great Hearts Academies is a charter network that began in the mid-00s as a single middle school in Arizona.  The curriculum proudly imparts Western Civilization, praising the moral imagination, not social justice, teaching Latin and Greek, not climate change.  Here is how the network has changed: it now operates in Arizona and Texas in 28 schools with 17,000 students and some 14,000 kids on the waiting list.  

It is hard not to draw the conclusion from these examples (one could list many more) that these programs have prospered because the humanities departments have abandoned the traditional turf.  

Demand for the old-fashioned humanities remains, and regular departments aren’t meeting it.  The numbers make the argument all by themselves.   

They also chart the way toward the revival of the humanities in higher education.  No matter what happens in the humanities world of research, pedagogy, conferences, publishing, and all the other things the professors do, if undergraduates continue to slide away from humanities courses, the fields can’t thrive.  We should be looking closely at these success stories and give no more credence to the academic left and its promises of social progress. 

Last month, I gave a lecture on the humanities at a small Christian college in the middle of the country.  In the question & answer period, a young man stated that he had gotten a degree in English at the school, which gave him traditional instruction in the canon.  But now, he continued, he was enrolled in a graduate literature program at a large state university and was receiving a more critical instruction in issues of identity and “exclusion.”  He was quite gratified by that.  What did I think? 

I answered: “Right now, debates over the canon and who gets included and excluded don’t really matter.  We are in a survival situation.  All theoretical questions begin with how the answers will affect enrollments.”  

We have to consider what 19-year-olds want.  Do they find the identity politics classroom compelling?  Only a few of them do.   

Do they find Hamlet’s dilemma interesting?  Is Jane Eyre’s situation meaningful?  Do Beethoven’s symphonies excite them?  Do they like Impressionist paintings?  Yes, they do, lots of them.  Undergraduate tastes spell the end of the political hijacking of the humanities.  Smart professors will realize this and get back to the core of their mission: to pass along the Great Books and High Culture of the past. 

Friday, April 12, 2019


       Let me emphasize the term story. Professional historical writing has, for a great many years now, been resistant to the idea of history as narrative. Some historians have even hoped that history could be made into a science. But this approach seems unlikely ever to succeed, if for no other reason than that it fails to take into account the ways we need stories to speak to the fullness of our humanity and help us orient ourselves in the world. The impulse to write history and organize our world around stories is intrinsic to us as human beings. We are, at our core, remembering and story-making creatures, and stories are one of the chief ways we find meaning in the flow of events. What we call “history” and “literature” are merely the refinement and intensification of that basic human impulse, that need.

        The word need is not an exaggeration. For the human animal, meaning is not a luxury; it is a necessity. Without it, we perish. Historical consciousness is to civilized society what memory is to individual identity. Without memory, and without the stories by which our memories are carried forward, we cannot say who, or what, we are. Without them, our life and thought dissolve into a meaningless, unrelated rush of events. Without them, we cannot do the most human of things: we cannot learn, use language, pass on knowledge, raise children, establish rules of conduct, engage in science, or dwell harmoniously in society. Without them, we cannot govern ourselves.

        Nor can we have a sense of the future as a time we know will come, because we remember that other tomorrows have also come and gone. A culture without memory will necessarily be barbarous and easily tyrannized, even if it is technologically advanced. The incessant waves of daily events will occupy all our attention and defeat all our efforts to connect past, present, and future, thereby diverting us from an understanding of the human things that unfold in time, including the paths of our own lives.

        The stakes were beautifully expressed in the words of the great Jewish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer: “When a day passes it is no longer there. What remains of it? Nothing more than a story. If stories weren’t told or books weren’t written, man would live like the beasts, only for the day. The whole world, all human life, is one long story.”

Wilfred McClay, Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story (New York: Encounter Books, 2019)

Monday, April 1, 2019


The ‘Crayola Curriculum’
Mike Schmoker
Education Week, Commentary
October 24, 2001

For Improvements in Early Literacy, We Should Take a Hard Look at What’s Really Happening in Reading Classes.

    We may have the reading crisis all wrong. It may have far less to do with the “reading wars” than we presumed. I am convinced that the following explanation is, without doubt, the least recognized but most salient explanation for why there is a reading gap between rich and poor, for why so many kids reach upper-elementary and middle school with less than even minimal ability to read and make sense of text. But the evidence for it is compelling. Best of all, this explanation holds out enormous hope for dramatic, near-term improvements at every level of education.

    A couple of years ago, I found myself touring a school that had received an international award for excellence in staff development. Roaming from class to class—on what was clearly a “showcase day”—I went from being puzzled to being astonished by what I saw.

    Two things were terribly wrong: One, a majority of students were sitting in small, unsupervised groups, barely, if at all, engaged in what were supposedly learning activities. Many of the children were chatting. Second, but more important, was that the activities themselves seemed to bear no relation whatsoever to reading, the presumed subject being taught at the time. After seeing this pattern in several classes, I finally asked my host what kinds of gains had been made in this award-winning but high-poverty school. I was regretfully informed that there had been no gains, what with the hardships these children faced at home and in their neighborhoods.

    This had to be an aberration, I thought. Nevertheless, I came away from this experience a little jaded, and anxious to see if this pattern held in other places. So I began, as part of my work with school districts—most, but not all of them low-performing—to tour early grade classrooms during the reading period. I purposely took several people along with me each time: building and district administrators, teachers, even an occasional superintendent. I briefed them on what to look for: (1) reasonably good reading activities, the kind almost anyone would agree on, and (2) the majority of students at least nominally attending to them. We wandered in and out of classrooms, deliberately returning to many of them to see how long students were engaged in certain activities. Along the way, I asked the group how the lessons stood up to our scrutiny.

    From the start, the virtually unanimous impression was that (1) most of the activities had very little relation to reading—to acquiring the ability to read, and (2) students were barely, if at all, engaged in their work. We weren’t looking for perfection; we were looking for a reasonable amount of student engagement in garden-variety literacy activities.

    After a few such tours, I became more convinced that something was truly awry, something more profound than the debates that perennially rage about such matters as phonics vs. whole language. After touring about 50 classrooms in several schools in several states—always with others from that same school or district—I became doubly convinced. I  am now up to about 300 classrooms, and the pattern still holds.

    What is actually going on during these early-grade reading periods? A number of things, but the activity that overwhelmed all legitimate literacy activities may surprise you. Students were not reading, they weren’t writing about what they had read, they weren’t learning the alphabet or its corresponding sounds; they weren’t learning words or sentences or how to read short texts.

    They were coloring.
Coloring on a scale unimaginable to us before these classroom tours. The crayons were ever-present. Sometimes, students were cutting or building things out of paper (which they had colored) or just talking quietly while sitting at “activity centers” that were presumably for the purpose of promoting reading and writing skills. These centers, too, were ubiquitous, and a great source of pride to many teachers and administrators. There were great for classroom management—and patently, tragically counterproductive.

    One of the questions I would occasionally ask teachers during these rounds, especially if it was late in the school year, was whether or not students knew the alphabet and its sounds. The teachers would regularly say no, but add that, after all, these were either poor or second-language students. The question in my mind, never uttered, was this: “Why wouldn’t they be learning the alphabet? Why are they coloring instead of being taught to read?”

    Well into this journey, I ran into a friend and fellow consultant who travels all over the world and has also been in a great number of classrooms. He too vehemently decried, and confirmed, exactly what I was seeing—even in my high-scoring schools. Not long after that, I heard Joyce Bales, the superintendent of the Pueblo, Colorado, schools, imploring her principals to be on the watch for the excessive “coloring, cutting, and pasting” she saw going on in elementary classrooms during reading instruction.

    This story ends with my listening to an audiotape of Kati Haycock, the director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based nonprofit group that is working to improve achievement in poor schools. Her teams had toured thousands of classrooms as part of their landmark study on disadvantaged schools that had beaten the odds. Look hard at her remarks, which may be as revealing in the current context as anything ever said or written:

I can only summarize the findings by saying that we’ve been stunned [that]…kids are given more coloring assignments than mathematics and writing assignments. I want to repeat that, because I’m not joking, nor am I exaggerating.

    For those who aren’t yet convinced, I urge you to conduct just such an audit yourselves.

    As for my own classroom tours, in every case but one, the people who accompanied me have found them to be a revelation—and a hugely positive one. The one administrator who did not found herself at odds with her faculty, which had been mobilized to seize the opportunity that this new awareness made possible. In one high-poverty district where I made several visits, the principals were not only ecstatic, but ecstatic about the opportunity these observations created. In two years, their scores on the Stanford Achievement Test—9th Edition for grades 2-4—went up by 25 percentage points; in math, they went up by 40 points.

    None of these tours was conducted in a spirit of accusation. On the contrary, we were looking for patterns. It was those patterns, not individual teachers, that were discussed. Rather than condemn teachers, it is time for us to condemn the traditions, the institutional inertia, that account for these practices. They represent nothing less than a crisis in teaching, in teacher training, and in reading research itself, which is still far too esoteric and remote from the trenches where teachers teach and students learn.

    We should see this as an unparalleled opportunity for near-term improvement. It is time to redirect our focus to attend to simple things: the amount of time kids spend reading, just plain reading; and drill—yes, drill—in letters, sounds, and phonemic patterns. It is worth emphasizing that the most important single activity to promote reading is reading. It is even better if this is done with a purpose, and if we regularly write about and discuss what we have read. Several studies have shown that having students read an additional 280,000 words per year can mean the difference between scoring at the 20th percentile and scoring at the 50th. That’s like reading two books the length of a Harry Potter novel (about 155,000 words).

    But these are not the activities we encountered in the classrooms I visited, even as we returned to them several times over the course of the reading period.

    If our perceptions are well-founded, if Ms. Haycock and others are correct, then all of us may be in denial about the actualities of time and tasks in early-grade reading classrooms. The logic is pretty plain: Kids, especially those in disadvantaged settings, don’t have a chance unless we teach them to read, early and well. This can happen the moment we charge teachers and administrators in every school and district to give reading and language arts instruction the thoroughgoing, common-sense review it so desperately needs.