Primer on Direct Instruction: DI vs. di

(If you already know what the title means, feel free to comment on ways I could make this explanation clearer. If you have no idea what the title means, then I hope you find this primer helpful.)

Over the past couple years, I’ve been unnerved at academics and other highly educated people using the term “direct instruction” in completely inaccurate ways. It’s becoming increasingly common to see someone start by reciting research on Direct Instruction and then morph to discussing direct instruction.

It’s a complicated topic for outsiders, and detangling it in terms that don’t rely on background knowledge isn’t easy. But I’m giving it a shot.

To begin with, what kind of teaching is not considered direct instruction in any way?

University-based ed schools overwhelmingly emphasize and often even demand what is variously referred to as  complex instruction, discovery-based learning, open-ended discourse. I’m going to call the whole category “progressive strategies”.  This pedagogical approach argues that only good teaching forces the student to engage with the material, that simply conveying academic content as  “passive” consumption provided by the “sage on the stage” is the wrong way to go about education. At best, their argument goes, the student simply absorbs the lecture or content as a rote matter, at worst, the student shuts down and rejects school altogether, feeling uninvolved and disconnected. Progressive strategies begin with John Dewey, but took on increased importance as ed schools began to argue that the achievement gap was exacerbated by teachers’ inability to engage students with “authentic inquiry” and “rich problems”.

A clarifier: “method of instruction” and “curriculum” are entirely different animals. Teachers can commit to one method of instruction or mix it up. They can use a textbook that mixes up instruction methods, going from direct to inquiry based, or textbooks that use only one method. Or they can build their own lessons using whatever method of instruction they like.

Curriculum means the specific sequence of lessons. Textbooks are a form of curriculum; however, many teachers just use textbooks as a source of problem sets without actually using the curriculum itself. Other teachers go through every problem in the book. Some formal curricula use entirely progressive strategies: e.g., CPM at the high school level. Quite a few elementary school textbooks are entirely inquiry based.  So progressive strategies can either be a method of instruction or encased in a formal curriculum that districts purchased.

The term “direct instruction” dates at least to 1893. Over time, the term splintered into a variety of meanings that center around the difference between curriculum and method of instruction.

Direct Instruction, hereafter referred to as DI–the body of curriculum built by Zig Engelmann (RIP).  DI’s reading curriculum won a major government competition intended to improve results for disadvantaged children.

DI is a collection of formal, highly scripted and formatted curricula–lessons, textbooks, sequencing, the works, for English and math (none of which are referred to as DI individually).  DI curriculum is primarily created for elementary school, through middle school in a few topics.  Teachers have to teach reading explicit text with sound cues. The students are grouped by ability and can only move on when they have proven mastery. The DI curricula in total was recently the favorable subject of a meta-analysis that I wrote about last year.  While DI is generally considered effective, it is not popular, some of the reasons for which I discuss here.  It has not been easily adopted, and has often been ripped out of schools despite the active resistance of principals and parents. 

di–The most important thing to understand is that di is not DIdi is an instruction strategy, not a curriculum. The only curriculum discussed specifically in this article is DI, above. The next most important thing to understand is that there isn’t one di, but several, which shall be categorized by subscripts.

dib — Broadly, direct instruction is any form of conveying information that is teacher-led. The teacher provides procedures, content, or methods verbally, or by providing materials that directly instruct the student–videos, readings, worksheets. Lectures are direct instruction. Explanations are direct instruction.  Written procedures are direct instruction. What most people think of when they hear the term “direct instruction” is the broad definition, the one that dates back to 1893.

dir –More narrowly, as the achievement gap proved resistant, researchers have tried to quantify specific methods of explicit instruction that work best in terms of improving academic outcomes for disadvantaged or low-performing students. Over time, some researchers began formalizing prescriptive strategies (not curriculum) of straightforwardly conveying information. As these methods derived from formal research, we’ll call these di.

Explicit Direct Instruction is a common research-based strategy. Barak Rosenshein referred to his methods of effective teaching as direct instruction. The bag of methodological tricks advised with the research on cognitive load theory  is another.  These are  prescriptive methodologies (eg, “I do, we do, you do” of EDI). They aren’t curriculum, but they aren’t “just tell the kids what to do” of dib , either. They also apply almost purely to procedural content, which means they are used almost exclusively in math, some applied science, and maybe grammar and phonics. You can’t use EDI  or worked examples when teaching history or literary analysis.

di–The last subscript of di is only distinct because its adherents make it so.  There are people, some of whom are teachers, many of whom are not, most of whom have access to a mainstream audience through various media outlets, who hold progressive strategies in contemptuous disdain.  People of this mindset use “direct instruction” to describe the method they actively support over progressive strategies. These people are wont to say “I believe in direct  (or explicit) instruction” or “I believe in traditional methods”.  dii  advocates see progressive methods as at best ineffective, at worst harmful or destructive. They feel that education schools are destroying America’s schools by indoctrinating teachers into a failed instruction technique.

It’s important to realize that this is an ideological position, not a curriculum or a strategy. In actual practice, most dii  teachers use dib  , although some may subscribe to a particular dir . They are stating an ideological position (hence the i subscript).

So DI curriculum exists outside of the di pedagogical strategies, and two of the three di strategies exist in planned and formal opposition to the progressive strategies that dominate in education schools. Got it?

Good.

Everything up to this point has been an honest attempt to describe the categories simply, without boring you to tears with unnecessary details. I’m not the first person to describe this ambiguous term–several explanations have been linked in throughout this essay and for just one more,  here’s Larry Cuban on the topic. I did not invent the DI/di nomenclature, nor am I the only person to categorize them (e.g., Rosenshein’s group of Five), although the subscripts are mine own.

I’m writing about these terms because very few of these explanations address the penetration levels of these strategies.

Add up all the teachers using strict versions DI curriculum , dir  strategies, or any formal, committedprogressive strategy.  What percentage of American teachers would that be?

No one knows. Everyone outside the DI/diproponents would agree unhesitatingly that the combined total is very small. Progressive advocates certainly know they’re in the minority.

My own guess would be about 10% of all the high school and middle school teachers and almost all of that number would be progressive teachers. DI curriculum barely exists for high school, and while districts periodically commit to various di strategies, they never follow through for long.  Others put the total number higher.

Everyone I know of agrees that the numbers, whatever they are, are higher in elementary school, if only because there are numerous elementary DI and progressive curricula and elementary school teachers are more committed to textbook use than middle and high school teachers are. I’d still place it low, at something like 15%, but it may be as high as 30%. Others would argue for more, but in my opinion that would be stretching the definition. Again, this percentage is combined  DI/dir and progressive strategies.

Understand my numbers aren’t counting as progressives teachers who run through  an occasional inquiry-based lesson, or who demand their students demonstrate they understand the “why”, nor am I counting as DI/dir the teachers who lecture or work an example on the board. I’m talking about full-throttle discovery all the time, or “word what word?” or “I do, we do, you do” every day without exception. It’s….not many teachers.

This debate, which consumes almost all schools of education, no small number of researchers, and and the bulk of education reformers, is almost entirely irrelevant to most actual teachers and their practice.

In the real world, most teachers use dib , without a conscious, fully formed method of instruction or pedagogical philosophy.

You’re thinking wait, ed schools mandate progressive strategies, but very few teachers use them?

Yes.

So this entire argument punches far outside its weight class. The research gets translated into mainstream publications and the di folks, those ideologically committed to fighting progressive strategies, are very good at getting published.  (I make that sound sinister, don’t I? No, I’m admiringly envious.)

I don’t know whether the DI/di confusion is cause or effect but increasingly I’m seeing a lot of highly educated people with a very consistent set of beliefs:

  1. Most teachers use progressive strategies.
  2. Research shows direct instruction is more effective than progressive strategies.
  3. If more teachers used direct instruction, students would learn more, like they did in the past when schools were more successful.
  4. Teachers refuse to use direct instruction because they are a) brainwashed, b) lazy, c) ideologically driven, d) some other reason involving their low status brain power

These beliefs are either completely false or, at best, incomplete. I sometimes wonder if these beliefs lead to the Mark Zuckerbergs and Bill Gates of the world thinking that K-12 education is an easy fix–just get those damn teachers to explain things clearly, and we’ll see a huge boost in academic outcomes.

But it’s not that simple. Nothing in education is ever simple. For example, the more heterogeneous the class ability, the more likely it is that whatever method the teacher uses is going to hamper some students while at best only slightly helping others. There isn’t a smart kid on the planet who is ideally served by a steady diet of DI or di*, and disadvantaged, low-skill student can at worst be actively harmed by progressive instruction methods.

So next time you read an article on DI/di*, see how well the writer manages to make these distinctions clear–and remember that regardless of the  writer’s intensity level, most teachers don’t care in the slightest.

Note: Michael Pershan was invaluable in giving me feedback on this piece, and Tom Loveless gave me some important data. Their help should not be construed as agreement. Thanks to both.

 


Public School Is A Property Right: The Connor Betts Case

Jim Geraghty on Connor Betts’ expulsion and readmittance

(Really? This is how schools are handling a student who threatens to rape, kill, and skin the bodies of other students? Readmittance after a letter of apology? How safe would you feel sending your children to that school knowing they handled this kind of a threat this way?)

Any Ohio public school that permanently expelled a student for nothing more than making a hate list would be violating  Ohio law. Notice all the time limits?

…the superintendent of schools of a city, exempted village, or local school district may expel a pupil from school for a period not to exceed the greater of eighty school days or the number of school days remaining in the semester or term in which the incident that gives rise to the expulsion takes place…

.. Unless a pupil is permanently excluded pursuant to section 3313.662 of the Revised Code, the superintendent of schools of a city, exempted village, or local school district shall expel a pupil from school for a period of one year for bringing a firearm to a school ..

…The board of education of a city, exempted village, or local school district may adopt a resolution authorizing the superintendent of schools to expel a pupil from school for a period not to exceed one year for bringing a knife capable of causing serious bodily injury.

Wonder what allows a school to at least consider permanent expulsion?  The student has to be convicted of:

  • murder
  • drug dealing
  • aggravated assault
  • rape
  • possession of a deadly weapon

But expulsion can be permanent if and only if he or she is over 16 or older. And of course, forget all those criteria for the disability manifestation exclusion–if the student was convicted but disability is the reason for the behavior, no action can be taken.

State laws vary, but not that much. Expulsion isn’t permanent in most states. Ohio was in fact the state whose law led to the  controlling public school due process  decision  Goss v. Lopez:

We do not believe that school authorities must be totally free from notice and hearing requirements if their schools are to operate with acceptable efficiency. Students facing temporary suspension have interests qualifying for protection of the Due Process Clause, and due process requires, in connection with a suspension of 10 days or less, that the student be given oral or written notice of the charges against him and, if he denies them, an explanation of the evidence the authorities have and an opportunity to present his side of the story.

We should also make it clear that we have addressed ourselves solely to the short suspension, not exceeding 10 days. Longer suspensions or expulsions for the remainder of the school term, or permanently, may require more formal procedures.

When the Supreme Court says education is a property right, expulsion becomes a temporary matter.

So yeah, Connor Betts had a hit list and a rape list, and none of those come anywhere near the list above. You don’t have to know the details of the school’s decision process to see it doesn’t really qualify. Sorry.

Virginia, where I think Geraghty lives, has considerably more lax expulsion and suspension procedures–that is, schools have more rights than students–but the state’s under pressure to change them. Northam and the VA legislature have already restricted long-term suspensions.

I wonder if Jim notices some small dissonance between his mockery of weeny overreactive schools  and his fury at a public school for not overreacting sufficiently to a hate list–law be damned.

Most idiocies inflicted on public schools were funded by the left side of the political spectrum. But rather than fighting back, the right tends to just sneer at public school requirements and preach the salvation of charters and choice.  That won’t work. Charters are bound by the same laws, and once a district becomes all charter, the pressure to restrict expulsions and suspensions will kick in. Ask New Orleans.  (By the way, there’s a lesson here for Uber and Lyft, too, provided they last that long.)

I don’t have any answers to the many other “why” questions involving the Dayton murders. But I do wish more people who casually complain about public schools would spend more time learning how much public schools are constrained by case law, much of it written by the Supreme Court.

Hey, under 1000.

***********************************

Note: In case it’s not clear, I don’t think a hate list  is an automatic reason for permanent expulsion.  I’m just troubled by the degree to which the Supreme Court and other lower courts place limitations on schools without really understanding the world of education. And more troubled by people who complain about public school limits without acknowledging the work of the courts  in putting these limits in place.

 

 


More than Gotcha: Kamala’s Busing Blunder

So I should confess to begin with that I really can’t stand Kamala Harris. As I say quite often on Twitter, her voice is as grating as Hillary Clinton’s, and it’s astonishing she doesn’t remind everyone of their least favorite ex-girlfriend or a really obnoxious seventh grade social studies teacher. What everyone else saw as passion in her debate, I saw as a windup doll whose string had been pulled.

But never mind that. As I write this, the consensus opinion among GOP analysts (Jonah Goldberg being the only demurrer I’ve seen) is that Harris poleaxed Biden when she said:

Clearly, her team had planned this carefully, up to and including using an altered image that makes her look like a black child of poverty.

But more to the point, why wasn’t every GOP analyst and every conservative reporter up in her face about it?

Harris lied, for one thing. Or at least implied, that we all might infer.

She was not the second class to be integrated at Berkeley public schools. The Berkeley school district, like most districts in California since Mendez vs Westminister, enrolled by neighborhood. Berkeley High School had always been integrated because it was the only high school in the district. After nearly a decade of black community pressure, junior high schools had been integrated in 1964. Berkeley High had tremendous racial tensions throughout the sixties, caused not by white segregationists but demands by emboldened black radicals. (I’m not saying that’s a bad thing).

After the school board survived a recall vote by opponents, they decided to work more slowly to integrate the elementary schools. This gave white opponents time to leave, and many of them did. (Prior to this white flight, Berkeley was a primarily conservative town; the liberals banded together with blacks to gain control. )  However, many other progressive whites moved to Berkeley to support the idea of voluntary integration, so the white population stayed the same. Notably, the black population didn’t increase: blacks in unintegrated Oakland stayed put rather than move to Berkeley.

Four years later, in 1968, the elementary schools were integrated via busing, with the black children in the Berkeley “flats” traveling to the mostly white schools of the hills, and vice versa. Kamala Harris was in the second class of integrated elementary school students. (all of this is easily sourced, but this book  goes into the most detail) While the elementary integration is generally considered successful, it hasn’t done anything to improve the achievement gap or de facto segregation.

All she had to do was insert one word in between “public” and “schools”.  There’s no question that Berkeley’s elementary school integration was notable for its two-directional busing and its smooth implementation. 1960s Berkeley was still discriminatory; it’s unlikely Harris’s academic mom could have lived outside the flats, thanks to redlinining practices. High school students were tracked ruthlessly, although most reports suggest accurately. Blacks weren’t doing well at Berkeley High, and Berkeley itself wasn’t the enlightened tolerant place it is today.

But to acknowledge that she wasn’t breaking color barriers would have ruined the narrative. How else could she hint at the horrors of racism if not to suggest that even liberal Berkeley was forcibly keeping black kids in black schools until she and her peers boldly broke the color lines?

Harris could rest assured that no mainstream media outlet would object to her lie. Factcheck.org supported her lie, even as it revealed the truth. This way, Harris could pretend that there but for the grace of liberal courts, her legal career would have been denied her.

The second part of Harris’s claim is ludicrous as well as dishonest. Her parents were academics, not working class or uneducated blacks. Her father was gone by that time, but Harris lived a very nice life even if her mother chose to live in the Berkeley flats while working at Cal. Given her parents’ background, how likely is it that the Harris sisters would have gone to a bad school?

Denied a professorship at Cal, Harris’s mother uprooted the family and took them to Canada for a new job, also in academia. Harris graduated from a Quebec high school.

So Harris is lying about the environment that gave her a bus ride, and pretending that going to a partially white elementary school when she was seven is all that prevented her from being a dropout or, god forbid, a teacher.

None of this is terrible. It’s just irritating in that no one picked up on the lie. Everyone accepted it, even though the misstatement is well-documented. Everyone allows her to pretend that busing is why she’s AG and a Senator.

But what I’m more puzzled and aggravated by is all the Republican pundits gleefully celebrating, or at least enjoying, the purported slam dunk of Biden. Ha, ha! Look, there’s Harris, a black woman, taking Biden apart for opposing busing when she was bused! It’s perfect! Wow, what timing! What elan! Harris wins!

It’s all about the gotcha and its entertainment value.

And I’m sitting here thinking what the hell? Busing? Busing was a disasterMuch of the country hated busing. Joe Biden took the lead on busing because he’d have been a one-term Senator if he didn’t. Read about the anger and the white flight throughout the 70s that resulted when cities tried to forcibly desegregate neighborhood schools and end de facto segregation and Biden’s position becomes obvious.

No one else seemed to notice, though. Even conservatives like Mollie Hemingway, Comfortably Smug, and Hugh Hewitt were gleefully celebrating Harris’s body blow based, from what I can tell, purely on hahahaha she’s black, he’s old, she’s using his decades old vote to catch him out on changing times.

Every conservative I follow was rightly stunned at the entire slate’s support for open borders. As Ari Fleischer put it:

But most people were so wowed by this comment that they don’t seem to think about what it meant:

And there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bussed [sic] to school every day. And that little girl was me. So I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate among Democrats. We have to take it seriously. We have to act swiftly.

…..It’s a failure of states to integrate public schools in America. I was a part of the second class to integrate Berkeley, California, public schools almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education.

That’s where the federal government must step in.

Look, Americans who aren’t dealing with immigrants every day often don’t completely grasp what it’s like, and go squishy on things like border control or amnesty.

In contrast, they are entirely clear on the intrusive, invasive ways the federal government can “step in” to order schools.  And they don’t like it one bit.

Go ahead, Kamala, you brave truth teller, you survivor of segregated Berkeley discrimination. Tell all those Dem voters how busing is what America’s schools need to achieve the necessary diversity. Tell them how you’ll appoint judges who’ll overrule Milliken, allow states to mandate integration across districts.

Tell  white working class voters the Dems still need in order to win, all those rich white progressives who purport to love people of color so long as some other school is being integrated, not theirs. Tell low income African Americans to forget about those charter schools they like so much, because your great integration plan means they’ll be unnecessary.  Trumpet your plans to mandate school systems like San Francisco, where racial quotas determine where and how far each child will be sent away from home. While you’re at it, explain how this system resulted in far more segregation. 

Go ahead and tell people that your plan will end segregation as the government sorts populations based on race, just like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 planned all along.

But best of all, go tell Asians all about your great plans. Tell all those parents at  those 80, 90% Asian public schools you plan to yank half of the kids out and send them into the inner cities with all sorts of poor black and Hispanic kids. Go ahead and tell Asian immigrants that they can’t cluster and dominate in certain schools, tested or otherwise.

This is a community that sent out a 12 year old girl  to say, in public: “If I work hard, shouldn’t I have an advantage over those who don’t even try?…It’s just not right for me to work hard and do my best while others are being lazy.”

And even after that, the New York legislature backed down on deBlasio’s plan to open up the schools to the kids that girl called lazy.

These are people who brought enormous, angry pressure on a Palo Alto school district when the board wanted to name a school after  a Japanese American who fought for his country.  As immigrants who think of themselves only as Chinese, the opponents looked at an American and saw only a hated enemy from Japan. They won, too.

Raise your hand, everyone who thinks Asian immigrants are going to give the smallest iota of a rat’s dropping about Kamala Harris’s guilt trips? Go grab some popcorn, I say.

I hope Andrew Ujifusa or one of the other Edweek reporters will run with this opportunity hound Harris relentlessly with:

“Senator Harris, you’ve opposed charters throughout your career. In the debate, you strongly supported busing. Are you planning on ending charter schools so you can more easily enforce busing mandates? Will you appoint judges who will overrule the ban on inter-district busing?”

She would have to choose. She could walk back her insistence that the federal government must intervene to enforce school integration. Or she could explain how she’s going to implement country wide integration by taking away all choice from America’s parents.

I don’t understand politics, I know, but for the life of me I don’t understand why every politician from Trump on down to dogcatcher isn’t tweeting about Harris’s plan. Then hound every other Dem candidate and force them to fight that battle for her. Harris will be oh so very popular.

“If you like your school, too bad. Democrats won’t let you keep it.”

Note: I teach in a school that may as well have been formed by Harris’s mandate, so integrated and diverse it is. I like it fine. I just live in a reality-based world most of the time.


Idiosyncratic Explanations for Teacher Shortages

“We have examined and rejected a number of idiosyncratic explanations for rising costs in education…” Why Are The Prices So D*** High?, Helland/Tabarrok

Economics papers always make my head hurt, but because they’re focusing on my field, I’ve been following Alex Tabarrok’s posts on his upcoming book–well, maybe not following, but reading. I was pleased to see they didn’t find “bloat” in educator salaries, and grok the Baumol effect, but consider myself wholly unable to comment on their basic argument. (Except, you know, pensions?)

But a commenter, Slocum, caught my interest:

Another problem with the Baumol story is that, in education, costs are increasing dramatically even when salaries of workers providing education are low and stagnant. At this point nearly three quarters of faculty are non-tenure track. These positions are generally neither secure nor well paid. This is possible because supply of PhDs wanting teaching positions far outstrips demand. How does the Baumol explanation dovetail with a great oversupply of high-skilled workers relative to demand?

This reminded me of a question I wonder more researchers don’t wonder about.

Group A: PhDs wanting tenure track positions but settling for contracted adjunct jobs. Pay: low. Job security: horrible. Benefits: none.

Group B: public school teachers with tenure positions. Pay: a lot better than adjuncts. Job security: famed and resented throughout the land. Benefits: famed and resented throughout the land.

One would expect that Group B had the greater barrier to entry, except of course that’s why the job security and benefits are resented. High school teachers are the plebes of the cognitive elite, and elementary school teachers aren’t even granted that lowly status. Meanwhile, college adjunct professors spent at least seven years and god knows how much money earning a PhD, usually at a research institution.

In a world ordered by economists and education reformers, the PhDs who didn’t find college tenure would move down to secondary school and, thanks to their superior education and instructional training, displace the far less-educated high school teachers at high-paying suburban schools, where the principals would be delighted to hire them over mere BAs who often don’t even have a degree in the subject they teach. Those high school teachers found wanting by the suburbs would be forced into middle school or even Title I high schools–maybe even inner city schools.

All those PhDs would create a surplus in the K-12 teaching population, making it much easier for administrators to hire and fire, create more job insecurity among teachers. Oversupply of teachers would weaken unions ability to demand more pay, thus putting downward pressure on salaries.

Robbed of their desperate labor pool, post-secondary institutions would be forced to raise salaries, offer more tenured positions, favor international students over citizens, or automate instruction.  Ultimately, balance would be restored either by increased tenure opportunities for PhDs, better pay and conditions, or a near elimination of college adjuncts.

But the world is not so ordered. Only 1.3% of public school teachers have PhDs. Private schools have a slightly higher 2.3%

Why don’t these adjunct professors rebel against the crappy pay and insecurity and move down to high school level teaching?

Granted, they would still have to go back to school and get a credential–but they could get through the credential nonsense quickly, while working as a paid teacher. All that education will push them all the way to the right on the payscale, although this double MA holder advises you not to mention that education.  Better, really, would be to get the credential while going through the PhD program. I’ve often wondered why all those criticizing universities for overproducing doctorates don’t suggest something like this.

But ed school is a pretty minor barrier, really. Given the investment, why not get the security they were looking for? Instead, when they do leave, they tend to become administrators in the very universities that rejected them.

I have observed this oddness before, and answered my own question.   But if I don’t say this directly, some reader will annoy me by pointing out the obvious: yes, of course, the adjuncts see k-12 as unworthy and low status.  I don’t know how or if economists take status into account when they talk about rational actors. Accepting a low-paying, low security job when a little extra work would net them a much higher paying, low risk job certainly seems to be acting against self-interest, but maybe I’m missing something.

However, it’s also clear that principals don’t regard PhDs as inherently superior to regular garden-variety credentialed teachers. If they did, the few thousand dollars extra in salary wouldn’t deter them. But research consistently shows that hiring districts don’t have any hiring criteria that would advantage additional education. Paradoxically, private schools have more PhDs because they don’t pay more for education–and also because they don’t require credentials. Lower standards, not higher. Yeah, weird.

I am not for a moment suggesting that the solution to the K-12 teacher shortage is more failed PhDs. Even if principals were to prefer credentialed PhDs to credentialed BA/MAs, there’s no guarantee that the lower status teachers would settle for less desirable schools. It’s well known that universities produce far more elementary school teachers than needed; less well known that inner city and rural schools still go begging for teachers because many would-be teachers simply leave the field if the location or the kids aren’t what they had in mind. It might just send even more down the PhD path, this time with the express intent of teaching.

I argue instead that K-12 teaching is an entirely different animal, an art more than a skill with all sorts of non-cognitive abilities required, that demanding kids take demanding classes despite  little interest or ability in the subject matter is a terrible idea, and that teacher supply will continue to dwindle if policy makers refuse to acknowledge these fundamentals.

Anyway. Given the imbalance in these two fields, I’m just surprised more researchers haven’t explored it.

Look at that, 1000 words.

Note: Fantastic, detailed comment by JC , also by James Miller and Andrew Biggs.

 


Learning Styles

 

Isaac Asimov’s third robot story, “Reason“, has all the hallmarks of his early work: painful stereotypes, hackneyed dialog. Still, the conflict it explored has always hooked me.

Powell and Donovan, two troubleshooters who fix puzzling problems with experimental robots, are stuck on a remote sun-mining station training a new robot to capture energy from a planet’s nearby sun, run it through an energy converter, and direct it back to the planet. The robot, QT-1, or Cutie, decides that these humans are naturally inferior and must be early models that his superior frame and brain are designed to replace. His world was the station, his god was the Energy Converter, known as the Master, who wanted Cutie to direct beams to the dots. Powell and Donovan try to convince Cutie that the dots are planets, that he is a robot created by humans to do their bidding. Cutie thinks this is absurd and creates his own cult of believers, indoctrinating all the robots on the station with the will of the Master, with  Cutie as the Prophet. Powell and Donovan worry themselves sick with aggravation and fury.

The tale reaches a climax when Donovan spits on the Energy Converter. Cutie is horrified and angry at the sacrilege and refuses to let the two men into the Operations room. Powell and Donovan see a dangerous asteroid storm coming,  a catastrophic event that could cause the energy beam to misdirect and incinerate a third of the planet. Desperate to convince Cutie of his wrongthink, they hit on the idea of building a robot from the box, as it were. They uncrated a spare robot,  disassembled into parts, and spent three hours painstakingly putting the robot together. See? They created the robot! Just like they created Cutie!

Cutie shakes his head. Silly weak humans. Of course, they assembled the parts. But how did the parts get to the station? Only the Master could achieve that. So he turns away and ignores the two men, who stop sleeping and eating in sick anxiety over the incoming storm and the annihilation it will pour down on earth.

When, after the storm, they are finally released into the Operations room, Powell and Donovan rush in to assess the devastation. But no! Cutie protected all the humans on Earth perfectly and kept the energy supply constant. Or, as Cutie describes it,  Cutie “obeys the will of the Master” and keeps the beams directed to the right place on the dots.

Powell and Donovan realize they were worried for nothing. They just have to bring all the robots be indoctrinated in the Will of the Master as told by the Prophet (that is, trained by Cutie)  and the stations will be run beautifully. Cutie waves goodbye to them regretfully, knowing they are bound for “dissolution”, but encourages them to believe they are going to a better place.

Reasonquote

tl,dr: If learning styles make no difference in outcomes, who the hell cares what teachers believe?


Great Moments in Teaching: When It Had to Be You

Teachers who work with a large population of Asian students occasionally describe a student as “not getting the memo”.  High achieving or just hard working, the bulk of eastern and southern Asians all got the word: school is important.

Taio, who has been in my ELD class for a year or so, is a tall, plump fifteen year old who spent all of last year on his phone. I’d take it away, and he’d just sit impassively. Miko mentioned last year that the kid had said I talked too fast, which amused us both, but when I mentioned to Taio that I’d try to talk more slowly, he was shocked and got out his phone for Google Translate. “I like your class very much,” the text said. Huh.

Taio would do work sheets, and occasionally write a sentence or two. But he hated to talk and would sit, sullenly staring at me, as I gave out sentence starters again and again.

Another conversation with Miko, asking if we needed a parent conference. “His dad is the only one here, and he works three jobs.”

I sighed. “How are these basically indigent people getting here from China? And why come here, with rents what they are?”

Miko shrugged.

Taio improved  with the new school year. The class was motivated, I had some curriculum, and last year’s experiences gave the returning students a bond that build more camaraderie.  He was still on his phone every chance I gave him, but he participated more, would occasionally speak unprompted, and even wrote brief paragraphs. But he still hadn’t had any kind of breakthrough, and while he wasn’t at all unintelligent, I couldn’t get a sense of his abilities.

I assess all my ELL students in their math abilities. You would weep at how commonly they are placed above their skill level. Just today, a new student from Pakistan arrived. Because he’s a freshman and it’s second semester, he was placed in Algebra I. But he has no idea how to use negative numbers, and no understanding of fractions.

Now, I’m not faulting the registrar–I have no idea how these decisions are made. It’s just that ELL students spend close to half their school day having no idea what’s going on in their classes. Teachers often have no idea how to adjust their curriculum to meet ELL needs, and still grade the students using the same standards. We put them in “sheltered” history and English classes but we only have one each of those a year. We finally started a sheltered science class, which is very popular. Other than that, ELL students take electives: art, PE, photography, cooking. We don’t yet have a sheltered math class. Most ELL kids with any math ability are put in mainstream classes. The problem arises with those who don’t.

I’d assessed Taio last year and earlier in the fall. He knew algebra basics, and was taking our non-freshman algebra course. His teacher, new to the school, told me in October that Taio was doing very badly in his class, but Taio told me he was doing great. He had a B, which isn’t that spectacular for a deliberately easy course (taught by a teacher who was having a horrible time managing his class). But it was a passing grade, which was better than two of his other classes, so I quit wondering.

Then Taio made a big mistake. We were playing Wheel of Fortune: I form them up into teams, come up with a puzzle, they spin an online wheel for points, and guess. The teams are grouped so that weaker students can watch stronger students mull over their choices. I wish I could remember what the phrase was, but they were down to just the tricky consonants. Taio was on a team with two strong English speakers who were moved to ELL 2 just a week later.He rarely participated in these games, but I noticed he was watching closely, and suddenly I saw him say, softly, “K”.

As it happened, “K” was a missing letter from the puzzle–which I can’t remember, but I do recall there were only two letters left, both of them difficult.  The other two didn’t hear him and were discussing other options.

I looked at Taio and said, softly, “Louder.” He smiled, and shook his head.

“Hey, guys! Check with Taio.”

Taio’s teammates looked at him. “K”. They shrugged. “K”.

“Yep.” I put in “K”, and Taio, unprompted, guessed the puzzle.

Why, the little weasel. He’d been holding out on me.

I started watching him closely and realized that Taio simply didn’t like to speak English. He understood far more than he let on. I discussed with this with Miko, who agreed but said he could not figure out how to motivate him to work harder. He’d passed Algebra with a C, but was failing Miko’s class for not working, and his art class as well.

A few days later, after the semester had ended, I saw Taio’s algebra teacher, an Indian gentleman new to American schools, in the copy room, and asked again how he’d done.

“Oh, terrible. He’s in my Discovering Geometry class now, too. Never does anything, zeros every day.”

“That’s so weird. Taio’s not a liar, normally, and he tells me his tests are all A.”

“Oh, they are. He does well on the tests, but no classwork. On his phone all day, doing nothing.”

I stopped dead in my tracks and said–literally–“Wait. What?”

“Yes, he’s fine on the tests, but no homework, no classwork, phone all day. Same thing now. He got an A on the test, but no homework all week. He has a D.”

“So….he has an A average on the tests, but because he does no homework or classwork he gets a C.”

“Yes. Is that a problem?”

In less than a day, I’d contacted Taio’s counselor, had him moved from Discovery Geometry to freshman Geometry. This is  much harder than our 10-12 Geometry class and it was taught by Chuck, which gave me pause. So I emailed Chuck, hoping he’d reassure me. Instead, Chuck wrote:

As you know, Geometry is requires vocabulary and syntax (if/then). My experience is that Geometry does not appeal to most EL students because it requires language skills. Geometry provides students the opportunity to practice, but most students who are not motivated and/or not confident typically won’t put themselves out there when verbalizing logic is required.

I crossed my fingers and hoped this wouldn’t make things worse. Miko thought it was a great idea, even better since the change meant Taio was in the sheltered science class instead of PE, which he hated.

Unfortunately, he still failed Science. However, he’s passing Chuck’s extremely rigorous  Geometry class with a B. He’s talking more in my class. Taking lead in class discussions.  Passing Miko’s class, which he wasn’t before. He’s even talking to Giancarlo, a Guatemalan, teaching him Chinese and learning a little Spanish. He asks me for help with math homework. So now I have to go talk to his science teacher and see how to get him moving.

Usually my “Great Moments” series are about exciting classroom action. This is just a story about a Chinese kid who doesn’t want to be in America and hates school. He ‘s a loner who doesn’t even use school hours for socializing.

But Taio understands what I was doing when I put him in that geometry class. He knows I put myself on the line to make school something both interesting and challenging–but doable. I’m not sure he’s working and trying for his own sake. He just doesn’t want to let me down. Good enough. It’s a start.

The thing is, it had to be me–more precisely, it had to be an ELL teacher with the math knowledge to instantly realize that a new math teacher didn’t understand he had a student who was bored silly.  It had to be an ELL teacher with the knowledge of the math sequence who could make a recommendation to a counselor and have the standing to back it up.

I love having all my credentials, but it’s usually for the flexibility and variety they give me. Every so often, however, they provide insights that move me millions of miles further down a problem path.

As an aside: you ever notice that ELL discussions by outsiders always focus around immersion vs bilingual education?  Neither method is going to get high school ELL students anywhere past pijin. It’s irrelevant.

 

Food for thought.

 


Getting Smarter, or Getting Better at Using Smarts?

Influence of young adult cognitive ability and additional education on later-life cognition

Or, as Stuart Richie says:

Cool new PNAS paper about potential educational effects on IQ.

Previous work: control for age-11 IQ, still find edu-IQ correlation later in life.

This paper: control for age-20 IQ, correlation is gone. Suggests education has limited influence after age 20.

IQ measurement doesn’t interest me much, but IQ development or change over time does, for ego-driven reasons. As long-time readers know, I have a very high IQ (I qualified and participated in a research study for 3SD+), but my spatial abilities are very weak and I was stymied in advanced math (past algebra 1)  until, in my early 40s, I learned how to compensate using logic. I also was late to learn how I learned; my brain won’t acquire new information unless it’s tagged with all sorts of meta-data. Learning new concepts was so laborious that in my teens, I simply assumed I was incapable of learning; not until I was faced with job-related challenges  did I learn how I learned. My verbal skills are extraordinarily high, although it’s hard for me to compare to others because my particular combination of smarts would have required a more thorough classical education, which I don’t have.  I read 1000 wpm and can acquire extraordinary amounts of information through inference, which of course can sometimes lead me astray.

So. In 2001, I took the GRE and got 790V, 640Q, 690A. It was the last time the Analytical section was included. 640 quant was the 65th percentile that year, 690 analytical was in the 85th percentile–some logic games are brutally spatial. Anything over 700 Verbal is in the 99th percentile. I was very proud of that quant score.

In 2008, I took the GRE and got 780V, 800Q. (I’m still annoyed by the 780; if I’d focused in more, I might have gotten a double 800.) 800 Q is just the top 4% in any given year, but it’s probably more accurate to call it a top 10% score.

According to this GRE IQ estimator, my original GRE V+Q of 1340 is 99.452nd percentile, and my second GRE V+Q of 1580 is 99.993. But (forgive me IQ estimators), any IQ based on combining V+Q makes no sense, because an 800V-640Q  is considerably more difficult to achieve than an 640V-800Q, so how can they be identical, IQ wise? Plus, the decimal point specificity is just goofy.

Looking at my quant score alone, in seven years from the age of 39 to 46, I jumped from just above average in math to pretty close to 2SD.

Did I get smarter, or did I simply learn how to use my existing intelligence?

The quant section of the old GRE was extremely g-loaded. I used to tutor for the test and ran into dozens of people who’d majored in college in math, knew more calculus and all that nonsense about vectors and matrix determinants and ordered ring fields than I’ll ever know, yet scored in the high 600s. Which is not to say that it wasn’t relatively easy, just that lots of smart people would occasionally miss questions because they were more about g than math competency. The new GRE combines both. I can’t find an online GRE practice test, but I did the problems on the ETS site, and I think I’d still get in the top 10%.

The GRE Math Subject test is what used to be called an “achievement” test. God, testing lingo has changed so dramatically in so little time. g is involved in the sense that a certain level of intelligence is required to learn the material. But a 120 IQ who’s taken calculus and number theory would outscore a 145+ IQ  who has not.

I got 13 right out of 56. A 390. I wonder how many people get an 800 on the GRE General Quant and a 390 on the GRE Math? That’s a terrific illustration, really, of the difference between achievement and aptitude.  I knew none of the number theory, only some of the stats, none of the integral questions, but all of the limit and derivative questions, and random other stuff.

Every single one of the questions I answered correctly was using math I’ve learned in the past fifteen years.  Had I taken the test in 2005, I would have gotten zero correct. I took AP Calculus as a senior, remember none of it.  All the math I know today is from my tutoring days or my time in teaching.

Did I get smarter, or did I simply learn how to use my existing intelligence? Here, it seems clearer than in the first case. The GRE Quant (old form) is definitely an aptitude test, which makes my big score jump odd. But acquiring new knowledge isn’t the same as having a higher IQ. Right? (asking seriously). I could do much better on this test if I studied up on integrals and 3-dimensional systems. Hold that thought.

To contrast, I took the GRE English Literature Subject Test, all 230 questions. For me, this test is diametrically opposite the GRE Math Subject test. The latter requires actual math knowledge. But the English Lit test is about 70% interpretation, 10% terminology (literary terms) and 20% content knowledge (knowing the plot of Ben Jonson’s plays, or familiarity with Matthew Arnold’s poems). I missed 56 questions, scoring a 650, in the 86th percentile (although I’ve always distrusted the scoring on English lit tests). Two of the misses were analysis and both were careless errors I’d never make in a real test. All the other missed problems were content knowledge–not anything I’d forgotten, but things I’d never learned. My English degree wasn’t terribly rigorous, but what I learned thirty five years ago, I remembered. I recognized Shakespeare’s writing in a sonnet I’d never read before–ditto Donne and Milton. I even guessed my way through Derrida and Foucault. But Wiliam Caxton, Nikki Giovanni–eh. Never heard of them. I read a lot of Faulkner short stories, but avoided his novels. And so on.

Most of the high difficulty questions (less than 30% answered correctly) were literary analysis, and I nailed them. The only hard questions I missed were three content knowledge (obscure authors) and  one grammar question. The rest were in the 45-65% range, which is typical when the test is covering a broad range of material and no one knows everything. I think I could probably learn my way to a 700, but higher than that would require more interest in literature than I have.

So the GRE Math subject test requires specific knowledge, while the GRE Literature subject test allows people with high aptitude to do very well, even if their specific literature content knowledge is weak.

There aren’t many forty-something folks taking GRE Subject tests, but doesn’t it seem likely that it’s more common for someone to develop math content knowledge later in life than it is to suddenly develop excellent reading skills? Which suggests that reading comprehension, verbal ability, is more hard-wired to cognitive ability than math is. That might explain why math test scores have improved more than reading scores, generally. For all the wailing about math achievement, we do better at teaching students to improve their math abilities than we do at making them better readers.

From the study abstract: “Education does improve cognitive ability”

It does? That seems backwards to me. Cognitive ability improves educability.  If all we had to do was educate people to make them smarter, I wouldn’t have this blog.

Does education actually make people smarter, or does it just teach them how to use their existing intelligence?

I have no answers, so I’ll stop here.


Education Reform with Beer and Bourbon

Tis my wont to recount conversations with colleagues and students by assigning them pseudonyms similar to their real names.  However, the debates I describe here weren’t with work folks, but two public figures, each quite well-known in their own field. Identifying them would not only compromise my own pseudonymity, but also be a bit too much like (heh) talking out of school.   Simply assigning them similar names might help someone figure out their identities as well.

Therefore, I’ve chosen to name the two men for the booze imbibed whilst debate was underway.

My first sparring partner is very well-known in education reform circles; anyone who reads or writes about ed policy would at least know his name. We met in a pub, a good one, and went through easily four rounds before dinner crossed our minds. And so he is Beer.

The second man is more famous than the first in any absolute sense. He’s frequently on TV where his name is met with applause, and writes for a major political magazine. If I described his achievements even in the most generic sense, most Republicans would be able to identify him. I met him in a bar with other fans, after he gave a speech (not at the bar), and Maker’s Mark was flowing free, so he’s Bourbon.

Bourbon doesn’t talk or present like an elite, but his educational resume reads like one. Describing Beer’s educational history would give away his identity, but suffice it to say a simple google doesn’t give up his alma mater, although he has one. Beer spent some time teaching K-12 in high poverty schools. Bourbon has not taught K-12, poverty or otherwise.

Beer’s views are difficult to predict, save his primary cause, which I can’t describe because it would instantly identify him. Bourbon, who is not involved with education in any real sense, holds utterly typical conservative views: choice, more choice, and more choice still, vouchers good, unions suck. In both cases, I knew this going in. I’ve read both men’s work for years.

As to my own participation, the setting with Beer is right in my zone. We talked for easily three hours. I had plenty of time to lose track, retrack, restate, dig deep, hop around, zing his boss with a clever tag (he laughed).  I was at my best.

Bourbon, on the other hand, was a celebrity giving time to fans. I was one of many. He was generously sharing his time with everyone.  It was a good time for an elevator speech, and, er, well. I write something under 1000 words, it’s a big day. Short enough for three floors, I don’t do. Paradigm-shifting takes time and in this case I’d never really expected education policy to emerge as a topic. So I don’t know what sort of impression I left. At my best, for better or worse,  people remember me. I’m not sure Bourbon would.

Wait. Trump-voting teacher,  three credentials, thinks charters and choice are overrated and expensive.

He’ll remember me.

Anyway.  While I enjoyed both encounters tremendously,  I’m writing about them because both Beer and Bourbon made comments that helped me to see past the end of this era of education reform. Both men, in the midst of discussions about various education policy issues, waved off an issue that was a foundational basis for the modern education reform movement.

In Beer’s case, we were discussing his ready acceptance of cherrypicking charters. Because charter school attendance isn’t a right linked directly to geography, as it is for public schools, charters can be selective. There are academically selective chartersimmigrant only charters, Muslim-run charters. Despite all these obvious cases, the major public argument is about the technically open charters (KIPP, Success, other no excuses charters) and whether or not they are secretly selective. The research is pretty conclusive on this point, much as charter advocates deny it.

But Beer shrugged this off. “I want charters to skim. I want them to be selective.”

I was taken aback. “I mean, come on.  Go back to the mid-90s when charters started taking off. The entire argument for charters was ‘failing public schools’. The whole point was that the failure of public education was located in the public schools themselves: unions, bad teachers, stupid rules, curriculum, whatever. Charter schools, freed from all those stupid laws, but open to everyone, could do better automatically simply by not being those rules bound public schools. Now you’re saying that they can’t actually do better unless they skim, unless they have different discipline rules.”

“Yeah.”

“But….that won’t scale.”

Shrug.

“And you’re going to increase segregation, probably, since if charters can skim then they’re going to focus more on homogeneity.”

Shrug. “I want as many kids to get as good an education as possible. Skim away.”

I don’t want to continue, because I don’t want to get his arguments wrong. And for this particular piece, the shrug is the point.

So now, on to Bourbon who was waxing eloquent on the uselessness of unions, one large one (with which I am unaffiliated) in particular.

“They’re losing kids because their schools suck. It’s not money.  They’ve had billions. They want more, more, always more. Charters just do a better job and don’t whine for money.”

“Well, charters get to pick and choose their kids. But leaev that aside, charters aren’t ever going to end public schools. Catholic schools in inner cities have been almost obliterated. and even  private schools are getting hurt bad by charters, with declining enrollment. Once you offer basically private school at public prices, then many people who would otherwise pay private are going to go for the free option.”

“That’s fine.”

“Wait, what? You’re arguing in favor of a government policy that kills private enterprise?”

“Sure. Well, I reject your premise that private schools are being hurt all that bad by charters. But if so, so what?”

I can only imagine the look on my face. “So you’re arguing against free markets and private enterprise?”

“No that’s what I’m arguing for. Free markets. Parental choice.”

“But no. You are arguing for public schools to be able to act like private schools. That’s government intervention. If the public option allows discrimination and selectivity,  there’s no need for private.”

“Great.”

“But then you’re moving all the teachers from the private market into the public market–meaning higher salaries, higher pensions, more government costs. And because these are basically private schools, so you can cap–so there will be even more teachers, thus creating shortages, driving up salaries, driving up costs.”

“So?”

“SO?”

I wasn’t mad. I was genuinely perplexed. Again, I’ll stop there, because I don’t want to recreate any part of a debate that I didn’t have down cold. In this case, as in Beer’s, I am certain that this was my understanding of Bourbon’s position, and I’m at least reasonably sure I had it right.

Like most teachers, I see the modern education reform movement (choice and accountability legs) as being fueled by two things. Funding the effort were billionaire Republicans or elitist technocrats, the first dedicated to killing the Democrat fundraising monster known as teacher unions, the second dedicated to upgrading a non-meritocratic profession. Nothing personal, that’s just how we see it.

But on the surface, where it counted, the argument for education reform focused on “failing schools”, caused by incompetent and stupid teachers, creating a horrible racial achievement gap because lazy teachers didn’t believe all students could succeed.

[Note: The actual arguments were often more nuanced than that, with many choice advocates like Cato and Jay Greene arguing for all choice and no accountability, and others arguing that all students, regardless of race, deserved the education of their choice. But the bottom line sale, the one designed to gain the support of a public who loved their own schools, was the let’s get poor kids out of failing schools pitch.}

A while back at Steve Sailer’s blog, I wrote a short synopsis of the rise and fall of the modern education reform era, and I probably should rewrite it for here sometime. I’ve also written at length about it here, notably “Good Teaching” and the Failure of Education ReformEnd of Education Reform?, and Charters: The Center Won’t Hold.

So the modern education reform movement will probably be dated in the future from either 1991 (first charter) or 1995, the year when the Public Charter Schools Program began, through the early heady days when people were allowed to say that KIPP was ending the achievement gap, the 1998 Higher Education Act, which advocates thought would kill ed schools, through No Child Left Behind,  onto New York becoming an all choice district, to Hurricane Katrina allowing the New Orleans’ conversion to an all-charter district, Race to the Top waivers, Common Core, and then the unspooling: Adrian Fenty getting thrown out of office on account of Michelle Rhee (who has apparently left education entirely), Common Core opposition leading to a massive repudiation of all forms of federal accountability, teacher unions rising in red states after Janus was supposed to end union power entirely, and the wholesale rewrite of the ESEA that wiped out most of the reforms won during the Bush/Obama era. Education reformers understand these are dark days, even though the mainstream media appears to have no idea anything happened.

Charters are ed reform’s one happy place. For the moment, they are still popular. Why not? They are, as I say, private schools at public prices.  Although everyone should look carefully at California, which is considering not only giving charter control to districts, but also restricting TFA and other alternative teacher programs.  Taxpayers may finally care about the issues that didn’t trouble Bourbon.

But as so much else falls away from their grasp, it’s instructive to see both an ed reformer and a conservative shrug off aspects of charters that the original case argued strongly against. Charters were supposed to weaken teachers, but unlimited charters coupled with strong federal laws will only increase their scarcity. Charters were supposed to improve the achievement gap for all kids, but now they’ll just do so for a lucky few.

Or am I missing something?

Anyway. They were great arguments, and have given me much to mull. My thanks to Beer and Bourbon–both the men and the booze.

***********************************************************************************

I met some other cool people at the Bourbon event, and at some point in the evening, I mentioned I write a blog.

One guy said, “Wow, that’s dangerous for a teacher.”

“Indeed, which is why it’s an anonymous blog.”

“Really? I read a blog written by an anonymous teacher from this area who voted for Trump.”

I laughed. “Well, if that’s true, then you read me, although I never say what area I’m from.”

“It can’t be you.”

“I’m crushed.”

“No, no, I just mean…it’s not you.”

“OK, then I’d love to know who it is, because as far as I know I’m the only anonymous teacher blogger, Trump voter or otherwise, from this area.”

He got out his phone, brought up his Twitter account, and clicked on a profile. “This you?”

And reader, it was.

First time I’ve met my audience!


Song Blue

Song spins are fun for English learner classes. So Monday, right after Scott Walker had just died, when I was reminded of the only hit of his I knew (remember, my tastes are relentlessly mainstream), the lyrics suggested a lesson.

“OK, listen up. Listen to this song once through.” While they listened, I printed out the lyrics, although I’m not sure that’s any better than putting them on the board. Huh. Next time.

“Take a look at the lyrics, now.”

Loneliness is the cloak you wear
A deep shade of blue is always there

Chorus:
The sun ain’t gonna shine anymore
The moon ain’t gonna rise in the sky
The tears are always clouding your eyes
When you’re without love, baby

Emptiness is the place you’re in
There’s nothing to lose but no more to win

Chorus:
The sun ain’t gonna shine anymore
The moon ain’t gonna rise in the sky
The tears are always clouding your eyes
When you’re without love

Lonely, without you, baby
Girl, I need you
I can’t go on

Chorus

Hooriyah can’t write an intelligible sentence and her reading skills are shaky, but what English she has is always ready.

“Loneliness is like being alone?”

“What is a cloak?” Matias puzzled.

Pro-tip: Pictures are far more useful than words to give definitions. The kids instantly make the connection without additional words to confuse them. I google “cloak”, click on “Images” and eight kids go “ahhha”.

“But how can clothes be alone?” Hooriyah asked.

I wrote “metaphor”.

“When you listen to songs, read poetry, read literature, you will see different ways that the artists use to communicate feelings. One of them is a metaphor, which is a way of comparing.”

“So…wearing lonely?” Vanessa squinched her face doubtfully.

“Yes. Imagine being so lonely, so without people, that you are surrounded in it.”

“Like a coat! And a coat is a cloak!” Matias again.

“Yes, a cloak is even more of a coat. You know, look at the picture. It covers even more of your body. So everywhere around your body, is loneliness. It’s not just in your head, in your heart. The song saying the loneliness is so painful, it’s like a real thing. The next line uses the color blue.

Taio frowned. “Chorus?”

“It’s a ‘k’ sound, not ch like cheese. Korus. What do you notice about the chorus?”

“Again and again.” Taio has, hands down, the best grammar and best vocabulary of my eight students. Vanessa is next. Both of them simply hate to talk.

I enjoy this activity so much because it carries itself along. Hooriyah was already mulling over the chorus. “So if the sun does not shine, then it’s night time.”

“But the moon isn’t rising,” I observed.

“Then it is not night…and not day?”

“Can it be day without the sun?”

“Yes, but it’s…what’s the word? Clawdy?”

“Cloudy! Good. What is a day like when it’s cloudy?”

Silence, so I google me up some cloudy days for clarification.

Vanessa snapped her fingers. “That’s gray!”

“Yes. No sun and no moon turns the world gray.”

Curiousity finally spurred Taio to venture a query. “The sky is blue when sun shines. But blue means sad, when sun isn’t shining.”

Huh. “That’s a great point, Taio, and I never really” I remember waving my hands shaping my thoughts, “I never had to explain the difference before. We talk about feeling blue, a cloak of blue, singing the blues. But yeah, you’re right. The color blue isn’t really sad. Just the….feeling.”

“Oh,” said Taio, still confused. “Like…song blue?”

“Hey, yeah. It’s a blue for songs. For poems. For words, in English. But now, think about someone you love very much. Your mother, father, grandma, sister, brother–family. Think how you would feel if they died.” I paused for a second to google translate to the newest students, Geovany and Jorge. This lesson was mainly for the more fluent kids; I was just keeping the new boys in the loop.

“Can you think how sad, how horrible you’d feel? What color would you call that?”

“Black,” Matias said, with no hesitation. Vanessa nodded.

Hooriyah, “I would feel very, very, terrible. So black, yes, that makes sense.”

Now Taio was really confused. “White is for death.”

“Oh, that’s right, Chinese wear white for funerals. Arggh.” I tap my chest with my palm. “Black is about feeling. Feeling death. Not what you wear. How you feel.” Taio nodded, getting it.

“Now I get to complicate it more. Bad grief, bad sadness, is black. But the world, when you feel so sad, well,…”

“THE SUN DOESN’T SHINE!” Hooriyah clapped her hands! “I GET IT!”

“And the moon…..” I prompted.

“Doesn’t rise!” Vanessa shouted.

“So blue is feeling sad and black is horrible loss, and the pain means you feel like the sun doesn’t shine and the moon doesn’t rise. And so we have a third color–or lack of color, which is….?”

“Gray!”

“Yes! Now look at the next verse. What does “empty” mean?”

“Nothing inside.” Taio held up his water bottle, turning it upside down.

“So being sad and black and gray is like being in an empty place,” Sanjana spoke up for the first time. She’d been watching carefully, but although she’s been in America twice as long as any of the others, speaking English comes very slowly.

“Think about the next part: nothing to lose and…”

Matias frowned. “But if you can’t lose and you can’t win then what happens?”

“Nothing!” Hooriyah again.

“Sanjana, what do you think? How is having nothing to win and nothing to lose part of the song?”

“I don’t know.”

“Oh, come on. Play along. See, Geovany and Jorge are waiting for your answer.” Silence.

“So you know why you’re not speaking?”

She grinned. “I don’t know the answer!”

“So are you worried you’re going to lose? Lose what?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing to lose!” Vanessa jumped in.

“In English, ‘nothing to lose’ can sometimes be a good thing because it means taking risks, taking a chance, has no bad side, no down side. So if you want to reach for something, try to get something…”

“…but the song says you can’t win.” Taio pointed out.

“Yes! Exactly. You have nothing good in your life, nothing that you can lose. But there’s no way to win.”

“It’s just like the sun and the moon.” put in Sanjana.

“There you go. The two verses are saying the same thing. They are reinforcing. Reinforcing…to make stronger. To make the meaning stronger. Even the tears. What do tears normally do? Jorge? When you cry, what happens?”

Jorge read the Google translate and looks at me like I’m crazy. “Lagrimas?” He mimed tears falling on his cheeks.

“YES! Perfect! The song doesn’t say tears falling from your eyes, but clouding your eyes. And clouds are….”

“GRAY!”

“More reinforcement, see? When artists use words to build a picture in your minds and hearts, that’s what creates…poetry. Songs. And part of knowing English, of knowing any language, is understanding the deep meanings of words. Of knowing not just blue, but song blue.”

And with that, I put on a second song, one I’ve played each year of my ELD class:

Song sung blue
Everybody knows one
Song sung blue
Every garden grows one
Me and you are subject to the blues now and then
But when you take the blues and make a song
You sing them out again
Sing them out again
Song sung blue
Weeping like a willow
Song sung blue
Sleeping on my pillow
Funny thing, but you can sing it with a cry in your voice
And before you know, it get to feeling good
You simply got no choice
Me and you are subject to the blues now and then
But when you take the blues and make a song
You sing them out again

Song sung blue

We go through the lyrics every year, but while they always love the song (even little Geovany tentatively sang along), this year I had the fun of seeing them realize that “Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” was a case of a Song Sung Blue, and take joy in their knowledge.

With fifteen minutes left, I introduced them to “Here Comes the Sun” and watched them grok the symbolism all on their own.

I swear, sometimes I’d do this for free.

 


Bob, Gwen, and Lines of Best Fit

I have no excuse for this article. Except the new Fosse/Verdon ads are showing up. Also, consider “lines of best fit” a descriptive, not technical, term.

“Hey, Gerardo. Take a look at this.”

Gerardo, my new TA, reluctantly removed his air pods. Like all my graders, he’d been my student for three classes before asking if I could take him in third block, but the rest of my TAs were chatty folks. Gerardo grades with fantastic efficiency, but the rest of the time he’d really rather be somewhere else working on his English essay.

“What the hell…heck is that?”

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“Well, this is an image from a famous dance. I took some images from it and started comparing movement lines for fun.”

Gerardo shot me a look. “Fun? You’re so weird.”

“Yeah. But it beats grading. So take a look. What do you notice?”

“You mean, what are the red lines telling me?” Gerardo did look, and think. But shook his head. “I don’t see anything.”

“Who’s taller?”

“What, that’s a trick question? The guy is.”

“Yep. The guy is Bob Fosse, one of the most famous choreographers in history, and Google says he’s 5’8″.  The woman is Gwen Verdon, his wife, and she’s 5’4″.”

“So what does….wait a minute. Gerry looked again. ” You’ve got the other lines at their butts and knees.”

“Yep.”

“And they’re, like, the same.”

“Exactly. So what does that mean?”

“She has to have really long legs. Yeah, I see it now. Look how far below her shoulders are. Her body’s a lot shorter.”

“Good! Try this one.”

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Gerardo was interested, now. “Okay, I get this. Her hips are way, way out. His aren’t. But what’s the line for…oh, I see. You have the lines right on their hips, and there’s all this space between her body and the line. But the line goes right through his body. So that means…he can’t push his hip out as far.”

“Nice. Now here’s two at once. What do they have in common?”

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Gerardo was hooked, now, leaning into my desk closely. Ideally, my trig students were getting some work done, but we were pretty intent on this.

“Okay, so the top red line on this one is about their height…it’s the same. How is that happening?”

“Good catch.”

“Their knees are lined up, their heads are lined up…wait. Their…what, hips? His is lower!”

“Look at his feet.”

“Oh, wow. He’s got way more give in his feet. So he’s using his feet to push up while his knees are bending down. Oh, you have it circled in the next one. So he’s able to bend down to her height on his toes using only his knees.”

“It’s unusual, because she’s clearly more flexible than he is in the hips, but he’s got very bendy feet. Try this one.”

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“Okay, those vertical lines are showing the distance.”

“Yeah. Later on I do slopes to show the difference.”

“What, you’ve got more?”

“You could always grade.”

“No, no. But on this one, I can’t figure out what it means. Her leg is straight up and down. His is all bent forward…oh, I see. He has to bend forward, to do that thing with the shoulder. But she can keep her whole body straight.”

“Neat. Next up.”

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“Oh my god. How does she do that with her leg? And she’s almost straight up. She is straight up. He’s kind of tilted just to try and get his leg up nearly as much. Not that I could lift my leg more than an inch.”

Despite his complaints, Gerardo had moved far in to check out the pictures.

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“He’s way higher.”

“Yep. Fosse was a jumper.”

“But the other lines show his leg is below his waist. Hers is above…hey, she’s lower than he is in the air, but her leg is higher–not just relatively, but like higher than his. ”

“How about this one?”

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“These are getting easy. She’s standing straight up, while he’s having to bend to get the same results. And this one, she’s got the flexible hip thing going, while his is straight.”

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“Here I was trying to show that she is turning faster. But I honestly don’t know if that’s a problem, if they’re supposed to time it perfectly, or what. I was just trying to show the turn.”

FosseVerdon12

“Yeah, you can see he’s barely started when she’s halfway around.”

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“So he’s having to bend to get the same positions that she can do standing straight up. What part of the body allows that?”

“Hips, definitely. Knees? Good question. Here’s a sequence of three that probably look strange, but it’s like a fake exaggerated run.”

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“Jeez, her leg is at 90 degrees, and her body is tilted over. What is she holding herself up with–just her foot?”

“And some pretty impressive legs and abs, I’m thinking.”

“He’s solid on that one, too. But in the next ones, her body is practically an L.  He’s balancing. Like throwing his weight forward to get his leg up. In the last one, he has his leg up as high as hers but tilts over a bit to do it.”

“Well, keep in mind that on relative terms, she outranks him. Gwen Verdon was probably the best dancer ever seen on Broadway, and the rest of the best were trained by her. In her prime, no one was better at that time. Fosse was a groundbreaking choreographer and an excellent dancer, but not in the same league as a performer or star. I know nothing about dancing, so I can’t tell you how the two of them are rated by others, nor do I have any clear idea of who was “better”.

“So this was a long time ago?”

“Yes, Damn Yankees is sixty years old. Try this group of pictures of a sequence of two jumps.”

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“He’d have been a damn good basketball player.”

“I know, his vertical jump stats had to be amazing. ”

“You know what else? And you didn’t red line it, so maybe I’m getting good at this. He’s the one who’s straight up. She’s the one bending to balance and get more flight.”

“Whoa. I didn’t catch that. You’re right.”

“Unless maybe the middle picture is just her on the way down?”

“No, I caught the first two on the way up and the last one, after they’d switched sides, at as close to peak as I could. That’s another sign that he’s much more comfortable at jumping than swinging his hips.”

“Well. As it is for most guys.”

“Ha. True.”

FosseVerdon21

“This is obvious. She’s got a straight leg, up and down, and then just a tilt of her body. He’s tilting his body one way to get the hip out, then the other way for the…whatever you call it, the show. Hey, you know, this really is a good use of slopes.”

“Thanks.”

“What the fuck…oh, sorry. What is happening with her leg!”

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“I love this one, because it’s related to the reason I became fascinated with this dance.”

“But man, look at it! He’s at his highest point and she’s got a whole additional gear yet!”

“And the funny thing is it makes Fosse look almost clumsy, which he wasn’t. Not many male dancers could do anywhere near as well.”

“How come you got so interested in this dance you’re breaking it down image by image?”

“My interest was first.  I made the images for math class, but much later.   I was watching a documentary once years ago where Gwen was talking about this dance and how Bob Fosse was always yelling at her to jump! because she can’t fly like he does.  I’ve been watching musicals my entire life, but I never really considered comparing dancers. When I was a kid, I always wondered why Cyd Charisse was brought in to dance with Gene Kelly…”

“Who?”

“Remember that movie we watched with Princess Leia’s mom at Christmas?”

“Oh, and then  she died! Yeah, the musical about silent movies. That was good.”

“So you remember how in the big dance number at the end, it wasn’t Princess Leia’s mom?”

“The brunette lady with the legs.”

“Exactly. I used to wonder why they brought her in. But when I grew up, I realized it was because Debbie was a  movie hoofer, while Cyd Charisse rivals Verdon as the best there is. So when I found the dance on Youtube, I analyzed the whole dance and noticed differences that went both ways.”

“You do that with a lot of dances?”

“No. Most famous dances with men and women aren’t doing identical steps–and most of the ones that do exist are tap dances.”

“So you made these pictures?”

“I was having trouble sleeping one night and  watched Cabaret, which he directed. That got me thinking about this dance, and wondering if I could capture their differences in a way a student could analyze.”

“For class?”

“Yeah, maybe. It was just a whim.”

fosseverdon23

“How does she hold that balance? Even for a second? I mean, he looks good, but normal.”

“Here’s another spin. This time, it goes from a spin into her going on the floor into a goofy tug and him pulling her by the leg. I should say that some of their spins were perfectly synchronized. I was more curious as to what it meant.”

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“Ha, I like that little arrow you put! He just jumps like it’s nothing.”

“Wanna see the actual dance?”

“Wait. That’s all the pictures? You mean, there aren’t like, five hundred?”

But Gerardo watched the clip closely, despite the clear implication that I’m a tad, oh, obsessive.

“OK, I get it now. If I’d watched this first, I’d say they were completely identical. But looking through those pictures lets me see the differences.”

“Thanks. Now. You’ve been a really good sport, but can you do me one more favor?”

Gerardo looked warily skeptical. “What?”

“These pictures are from a recreation of that dance from a new show coming out on their lives. I don’t have any red lines drawn, but do you notice anything?”

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He snorted. “Yeah, right, like I’m going to see any  differences…wait a minute. Their hips and knees aren’t even. She doesn’t have the long legs.”

“And?”

Gerardo sighed, but complied. Suddenly he leaned forward, and smiled. “Got it. He’s the one dipping his hips! She’s holding them straight.”

I startled him, and the class, by thumping my desk. “I am justified.”

“What?”

“That’s the whole reason I asked you to look through those pictures. Because when the new trailer came out, all I could think was hey, they’ve got it backwards! and I wanted to have someone else know. Thank you, Gerardo. I’ll give you an A.”

“All TAs get an A. Is the guy a better dancer than the lady, or just more flexible?”

“Well, they’re both actors, not dancers. But Sam Rockwell, who’s playing Fosse, has danced in almost all of his movies and you can see he’s really loose-limbed, with hip action. Michelle Williams famously recreated one of Marilyn Monroe’s dances and got nominated for it, but it may or may not be significant that they cut away during a lot of the dips and weaves. Or maybe these few seconds aren’t representative, of course.”

(Note: I didn’t bore Gerardo with this picture, but hey, this is my blog so I’ll bore you. Here’s one example:

MichelleMarilyn

Williams, on the right, has to turn her entire body back to kick backwards. Monroe, who had been well-trained to use her body in dancing, can turn her head and neck, kick her leg back–farther, no less– while keeping her body straight.)

I’d like to tell you that Gerardo then asked me dozens of questions about movie lore, but instead he went back to modern music on his air pods. But I felt better for the validation, and got some grading done. While I told the story uninterrupted,I did take some time for student trig questions, pesky though they were.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, “Who’s Got the Pain” is a throwaway number from “Damn Yankees”. For years, it was considered a time-waster and often cut out of TV broadcasts. But dancers and choreographers treat the scene like the Talmud, studying it endlessly. And over time, “Who’s Got the Pain” became known as the only time Fosse and Verdon danced together in a production movie number. Definitely watch the dance all the way through if you’ve made it this far into the read.