Archive for the 'Essay' Category

Plantagenetics

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

In which I defend the honor of the Queen…

The DNA reports are in, and the skeleton they found in that Leicester parking lot is now confirmed to be that of King Richard III. Analysis also shows he had blonde hair and blue eyes.

Somewhat overshadowing the exciting news is a discovery that came from the research team’s comparing the old king’s DNA to that of his present-day relatives. It turns out that there is a break somewhere in the male-line continuity of the Y-chromosome, the collection of genes that are only passed from father to son, suggesting a false paternity event somewhere in the timeline.

The news media, with its trademark restraint, has jumped all over this, trumpeting that the already much-maligned Richard has infidelity in his family tree, with some even suggesting that this means that the Queen may not even be the legitimate heir to the throne anymore.

Okay, let’s all take a breath now. Her Majesty’s reign is in no danger here.

I spent a lot of time this past summer with my nose buried in the Plantagenet family tree, and may be able to add a modicum of perspective.

You can read the science team’s original report here, but a brief summary should suffice. Richard III and his distant cousin Henry Somerset, Duke of Beaufort are both direct male-line descendants of King Edward III. The Duke has five male-line descendants alive today who agreed to participate in the study, and four of them share the same Y-chromosome, presumably inherited from Beaufort. The one who doesn’t suggests a false paternity event (or “cuckolding” in the parlance) at some point along the way, but that’s not the infidelity that made the headlines. Richard III’s Y-chromosome also doesn’t match the Duke’s, which means that at least one of them is not actually a male-line descendant of Edward III.

Okay, so that’s pretty saucy news in itself. But it’s an overreach to drag Queen Elizabeth II into this story for several reasons.

First of all, what is the probability that the break in paternity is even in Elizabeth’s line? Here is the family tree for the relevant players (scroll down to the “Geneology of the Y chromosome lineage” graphic). It shows fifteen paternal links between Edward III and Beaufort, and only four between Edward III and Richard III. Assuming only one false paternity (which is all that’s been established here) and that all paternity events are equally likely to be false, the odds are 15:4 in favor of Beaufort being the non-heir rather than Richard. Also, if Richard III’s own parentage is the false one, it doesn’t affect Elizabeth, as she is descended from Richard’s older brother King Edward IV. So the odds of the break even being in Elizabeth’s lineage is 16:3 against or just under 16%.

Still, a 16% chance the Queen is illegitimate would indeed be headline-worthy, but let’s examine this claim more closely. Here it may be helpful to refer to the family tree I put together for Shakespeare’s King Richard III. In the column all the way to the right, close to the center of the column, you can find Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond. This is the future King Henry VII. Five slots down, you can find Elizabeth of York.

Henry and Elizabeth will wed, and their offspring will include King Henry VIII and his sister Margaret Tudor. If you look one column to the left, all the way at the bottom, you will see Richard Plantagenet, Duke of Gloucester. This is the future King Richard III. From here on, I will use “Richard Plantagenet” to refer to his father, the Duke of York, who is also on the chart.

Queen Elizabeth II is descended from Margaret Tudor, which means that she is a descendant of Richard III’s brother Edward IV. Edward became king as a result of the Wars of the Roses, which were fought between the houses of York and Lancaster. His claim comes from his father, Richard Plantagenet.

Richard Plantagenet does indeed inherit his surname from his paternal lineage through the York line, being the grandson of Edmund of Langley, the First Duke of York. However, Richard Plantagenet stakes his claim to the throne from his mother’s side, as Anne Mortimer is descended from Edmund of Langley’s older brother, Lionel, Duke of Clarence. What’s more, Richard Plantagenet’s wife, Cecily Neville, who is mother to Edward IV and Richard III, is the granddaughter of John of Gaunt, who is also an older brother to Edmund of Langley (though younger than Lionel, Duke of Clarence). Henry VII is also descended from John of Gaunt.

What all of this means is that even if the Y-chromosomal break is in the 16% that would make Richard Plantagenet illegitimate, it would not affect Edward IV’s claim to the throne. It would therefore not affect Margaret Tudor’s legitimacy, nor would it affect the current monarch.

More to the point, it’s been almost one thousand years since William the Conqueror defeated the Anglo-Saxons in the Battle of Hastings, beginning the dynasty of which Queen Elizabeth II is the current representative. What else don’t we know? It seems very unlikely that, were a complete set of the genetic data magically available to us, Elizabeth would emerge as the clear genealogical winner. Not only do we have a millennium of regal shenanigans to wrangle with, but there is also the human element to consider. A lot of the lineage disputes from the past have been settled by people’s decisions and actions: who had political power, who was a bastard, who won a war, who was the right or wrong religion, etc. The question of whether women could inherit the crown changed the equation at several crucial junctures, so applying a single standard throughout English history would certainly change the outcome.

The bottom line is that we basically don’t know anything about anything, and we certainly don’t know much more today than we did yesterday. Queen Elizabeth shouldn’t start packing her bags based on this new revelation.

UPDATE: In the post, I claim the odds of the false paternity event being in the Queen’s lineage is 16:3 against. However, she is also descended from two other candidates: John of Gaunt and his son John Beaufort, the Earl of Somerset. So the odds of the break being in her ancestry would actually be 14:5 against. But she doesn’t derive her claim to the throne through this line either, so the rest of the argument still stands. See the comments for a clearer explanation.

Don’t Be Rotten to the Core

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

I thought I’d take this opportunity, while the federal government is shut down over the question of its own power to legislate, to talk about another somewhat controversial initiative, namely the Common Core State Standards.

It should be noted that this is not a simple left-right issue. At a recent conference, I heard Kim Marshall joke that he never thought he’d see national standards because “the right doesn’t like national, and the left doesn’t like standards.” So, as you might expect, the Common Core seems to be embraced by moderates in both parties, while being attacked by extremists on both sides. Teachers and parents, who are the most directly affected by the changes, express the same range of opinions as policymakers and pundits. So, the discussion continues.

To get a sense of the issues involved, as well as the general tone, check out this New York Times editorial by Bill Keller, and this response by Susan Ohanian.

For the record, I agree with the Bill Keller editorial (you can just change that “K” into an “H” and we’re good). I’m a fan of the Common Core, though I have a number of concerns about the way it’s being implemented. But I respect the opinions of many who oppose it, and understand the quite valid reasons why they do. Unfortunately, most of the rhetoric that I encounter against the initiative is either focused on areas that have very little to do with the standards themselves, or are based in a fog of misinformation.

Now, if you’ve read the standards, and you honestly believe that we should not want our students to be able to cite evidence from informational texts to support an argument, I’m very willing to have that conversation. If you think the Common Core shifts aren’t the right direction for our students, I’m very willing to have that conversation. If you have a problem with emphasizing literacy in the content areas, I’m very willing to have that conversation. That’s just not the conversation I’ve been hearing about the Common Core, and if we’re going to discuss these very large-scale changes in the way they deserve to be discussed, we need to clear the air of distractions and distortions.

With that in mind, I present the Top Ten Most Common Objections to the Common Core, and my responses to them. This is meant to be the beginning of a conversation and not the last word, so please feel free to continue the discussion in the comments section below.

1. The Common Core is too rigorous. The standards are not developmentally appropriate.

I think we’re feeling that now because we’re transitioning into these standards from a less rigorous system. If students come in on grade level, what they’re being asked to learn in each year is very reasonable. The problem is that we’re so far from that “if,” that the standards can often seem very unreasonable. Add to that a rushed implementation, complete with career-destroying and school-closing accountability, and the Common Core expectations can leave a very bad taste in our mouths.

What’s more, the Common Core includes qualitative shifts as well as quantitative shifts, so students will be as unfamiliar with the new ways of learning as their teachers are. The good news is that each year we implement the Common Core, students will become more used to Common Core ideas such as text-based answers and standards of mathematical practice, and will be better prepared for the work of their grade each year. It will likely get worse before it gets better, but I do think there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it will at least become visible in the next year or two.

2. The Common Core is not rigorous enough. My state had better standards before.

Well, the standards are meant to represent only the minimum of where students need to be in their grade level in order to be on track for college and career readiness by the end of Grade 12. So if you can meet these standards and then exceed them, more power to you. States that adopt the Common Core are also free to change up to 15%, and to add additional standards as well.

So here in New York State, we added Pre-K standards that aren’t in the national version, we put in additional standards throughout the documents (including Responding to Literature standards in ELA and teaching money in early-grade math classrooms), and we still retain the state-wide content standards in social studies and science that students need to pass their Regents. And even where states are slacking, a high-performing school won’t suddenly lower their standards just because they can. That’s not how they became high-performing schools in the first place.

3. The Common Core is a mandated top-down program that infringes on state control of schools.

The Common Core is not mandated by the federal government. States can choose to adopt the Common Core or opt out. I hesitate to present the most blindingly obvious of proofs, but here we go: not all of the states adopted the standards. Some states chose to opt out. That should suffice as proof enough that states can choose to opt out if they want to.

Did the federal government sweeten the deal by adding Race to the Top incentives for states that adopted the Common Core? Yes. But that’s bribery, not coersion. You can say no to a bribe, even if you need the money. And this wasn’t even that much of a bribe, as everyone knew there were only going to be a limited number of states that won Race to the Top funding and Common Core adoption was far from a guarantee.

Whether you love or hate the Common Core, it was your state legislature that adopted the standards, and the credit or blame should be placed there. States are just as capable of having cynical self-serving politicians as the federal government is, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. But some states may have genuinely adopted the Common Core to improve education for their students, even if you don’t think it will.

Frankly, I’m no more a fan of Race to the Top than I was of No Child Left Behind. I don’t think states should have to compete for education funding. And there were other incentives in the Race to the Top formula I had issues with, like the charter school expansions. But these are criticisms of federal education policy, and not the Common Core standards themselves.

4. The Common Core is a result of the corporate reform movement that’s undermining public education.

Maybe.

I don’t think the standards do undermine public education, though, and I believe the people who actually put them together are earnest in their attempts to improve it. I’m not blind to some of the strange bedfellows involved with the process, but if an idea leads to good things, I don’t care where it comes from. This is an argument that just doesn’t work on its own. Just because Bill Gates funded it, it isn’t necessarily Windows 7. Zing!

5. The Common Core is only about testing and accountability.

I hate to break it to you, but the testing and accountability movement has been around a lot longer than the Common Core. We’re already teaching to the test, so it makes sense to design a better test, one worth teaching to. You can read about early attempts to align New York’s state-wide exams to the Common Core in this article, and I’m quoted towards the end, but the bottom line is that they didn’t go very well.

Two multi-state consortiums are now hard at work to build a better test, though this turns out to be a tougher job than they originally thought. They are talking about having students take the state-wide (actually, consortium-wide) tests on computers, which means that every school needs to have computers. That could be a logistical nightmare in itself, but it could also mean more funding for computers in schools.

In New York City, teachers are being evaluated through a system that uses test scores, in one form or another, as 40% of a teacher’s score, while the other 60% will be based on the Danielson Framework. In my opinion, that’s a vast improvement over using test scores alone, which even the Gates-funded MET study doesn’t endorse.

6. The Common Core is a conspiracy to keep the poor uneducated.

No, that’s what we have now. There is a strong correlation between socioeconomic status and academic achievement. Having a set of common standards is one step in the process of attempting to close that gap.

7. The Common Core replaces literature with government manuals.

That simply isn’t true. There is an entire section of the standards that covers Reading Literature. There may be a government manual listed somewhere in the examples of informational texts, but it’s disingenuous to hold that up as the centerpiece of Common Core expectations for student reading. Anyone who makes this argument is either unfamiliar with the standards, or uninterested in engaging in a serious discussion about them.

8. People are making money from the Common Core!

This is true, in as much as we need people to write tests, publish classroom materials, and train teachers. But we would have needed this anyway, Common Core or no.

Liberals tend to think that everyone should do their jobs with the purest of motives, and if someone’s profiting from something, it must be an evil conspiracy. Conservatives tend to believe the opposite: that if you made money from an idea, then that proves the idea had market value, and those who improve the system deserve to profit from their innovations. I take a more neutral view of profit’s correlation with good in the world. I work in teacher training, and the Common Core affects what I teach, but not how often I teach or how much money I make. I have no financial interest in defending the Common Core.

Keller’s editorial estimates the costs of the new tests at about $29 per student, in a system that spends over $9,000 per student in a year. You might not like the Common Core for other reasons, but cost alone can’t be the only reason to oppose it.

9. These Common Core-aligned materials I have are bad.

I don’t doubt it. But just because a product claims to be “Common Core-aligned,” it doesn’t mean that it is Common Core-endorsed. I have no end of problems with the range of “Common Core-aligned” curricula being rolled out by New York City alone. This is not a function of poor standards, but rather poor implementation.

By the way, a lot of the Common Core-aligned materials were delayed getting into schools this year, even as teachers were required to start using them. You don’t have to convince me that we’re having implementation problems.

And I spent last summer modifying my own organization’s social studies curricula to be Common Core-aligned, and I feel strongly that our products improved immensely because of it.

10. The Common Core is untested, and shouldn’t be implemented on such a large scale without a pilot program.

This is from Reign of Error author Diane Ravitch, and she makes a fair point. But nothing’s written in stone. The standards will work in some ways and need mending in others. And where they need mending, we’ll mend them. Ten years from now, we may come to see the current version of the Common Core as a really good first draft. Or we may remember it as New Coke. There’s no way to know until we try it out. That can be used as an argument for it as well as against it.

I do think that we should do everything we can do to make it work. That’s the only way we’ll really know if it doesn’t.

Honorable Mention: President Obama is for it, and therefore I must be against it.

Hey, look! Someone over there is getting health care.

I really do see a lot of parallel between the Affordable Care Act debacle and the Common Core controversy. Tea party Republicans want to talk about how Obamacare will destroy the economy and force the government between you and your doctor and lead to the apocalypse, but they really oppose it on ideological principles. If they would talk about their principles, we could have an honest debate, but they know these principles sound cold and selfish, so they obfuscate. Common Core opponents dance around the actual changes being made in education because most of them make sense. The real concern, as I see it, is the danger of the larger corporate-funded movement to use testing and data to prove the ineffectiveness of public education in order to move to a privatized free-market system.

That’s a concern worth discussing directly, and I’m very willing to have that conversation.

The Wager

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

The year was 2002. I was teaching an advanced graduate course on Shakespeare, and I chose to give my final exam as a take-home. The questions included true/false, short answer, extended response, and one long essay.

I mentioned this while having dinner one night with friends. Brian, who runs a successful business he built himself, scoffed at the very notion of a take-home final in the age of the Internet. Couldn’t the students just look up all of the answers? This was around the time when people were starting to use “Google” as a verb, and many students were more tech-savvy than their professors. I assured Brian that the test would still be challenging as a take-home, but he remained unconvinced.

Brian offered me a wager. He would take the exam along with my students, despite not having taken the course or even knowing very much about Shakespeare. As long as he could research and plagiarize as much as he wanted, he claimed he could pass my final. I accepted the bet.

In the weeks to come, Brian became consumed with the task. He researched each question, writing and rewriting answers to perfection. He put way more time into that final than any of the students, and he plagiarized without shame. But, he completed the final on the same schedule as the students, and ended up scoring a 91 out of a possible 100 points. This was slightly below the class average, but he clearly won the bet.

However, he did admit that, in order to be successful on the final, he had to learn a whole lot about Shakespeare along the way. He may not have taken the course, but he ended up doing much of the work he would have had to do anyway, engaging with the material throughout the process.

It’s worth noting at this point that the exam only represented 10% of the final grade. Much more of the course was about participation in class discussions and completing projects. But with Brian’s self-guided work, he was able to earn 9.1% of the course grade without ever setting foot in my classroom. Had he attempted some of the projects, and applied the same level of drive to them, he could have earned even more points, learning even more about Shakespeare in the process.

This is a good way to think about assessment. We define what students should be able to do after a unit of study, and we define a way to measure whether or not they’ve learned it. The unit of study, then, should be designed to help students succeed in the measurement. If that sounds too much like teaching to the test, that’s fine, but then we should start designing tests worth teaching to.

This is the idea of the performance task. Rather than having students fill out multiple-choice bubble sheets, they do authentic tasks. They understand how the skills they are learning in school are applied in the real world. And when students show they are able to transfer their learning into unfamiliar contexts, as they should in any good performance task, they demonstrate deep understanding of the skills and concepts being covered.

So, if a student can succeed in the teacher-created assessment before the instruction, is the instruction really necessary? If students can take the initiative to demonstrate their meeting the same learning goals some other way, shouldn’t they get credit for it? And if real-world authenticity is the aim, shouldn’t students be able to use the same tools a real-world businessman would use when working toward the same goal?

These are questions we’re now grappling with in assessment. But I thank Brian for giving me a head start in thinking about them so many years ago.

In the Zone

Wednesday, March 6th, 2013

As we begin implementing the Common Core State Standards this year, many of the schools I advise are having very similar problems with grade-level readiness. This isn’t a new problem, to be sure, but it has become intensified by Common Core expectations. The Common Core standards are more rigorous than last year’s New York State standards, so even students who were on grade level last year have some catching up to do. Also, built into the DNA of the Common Core is the idea of a “staircase of complexity” in which students must master the standards of the prior year before they are ready for the standards of the current year. In other words, they must master the 5th-grade standards in order to become 6th-grade ready.

For example, students in Kindergarten learn to state an opinion (”My favorite book is…”). In Grade 1, they provide a reason for their opinion. In Grade 4, they support their reasons with information, while in Grade 6 they write arguments to support claims with reasons and evidence. In math, students are expected to be effortlessly fluent in addition and subtraction by the end of Grade 2, so they will be ready to begin fractions in Grade 3. By the end of Grade 5, their understanding of fractions is thorough enough to begin algebra in the 6th grade. It’s a well-structured progression that brings students step-by-step from Kindergarten to college and career readiness by providing incremental support based on the learning that has accrued through the previous years of instruction in every grade.

What happens, then, during the first year of implementation? Our students aren’t even coming in on grade level based on the old standards, let alone the more rigorous standards demanded by (and required for) the Common Core. Our 6th graders aren’t coming in having mastered fractions or the opinion essay. Their reading levels do not prepare them to approach the complex texts in the new reading band levels, which themselves are set higher than previous levels by the Common Core (as can be seen in the chart at the bottom of page 8 of the ELA Appendix A):

(Click for a larger image.)

And this problem is even more profound in high school, where the high-stakes Regents Exams are looming, and many students aren’t even prepared to read the instructions.

In a December 2011 keynote titled “What Must Be Done in the Next Two Years” (you can download the transcript here), David Coleman, the architect of the Common Core Standards, addresses the idea of grade-level readiness. He’s a brilliant man who speaks with a persuasive confidence, but he’s on the wrong side of this particular issue.

But for your sakes, the really exciting thing is for the first time there’s a measure in the standards that insists that students at each level are encountering texts of adequate complexity.

Nonetheless, you could nonetheless be defeated, because the most popular instructional practice for students who are behind is to replace their core reading with leveled text at their level, right? So if you were to actually look at what your kids are being given, they are constantly matched in this seeming noble idea that you should match everything they read to where they are today, often called a proximal zone of development, et cetera.

Let me be rather clear. Leveled readers and reading at your own level has a crucial role to play for kids in terms of their vocabulary growth, their love of reading, and has a very important role, so I’m not saying kind of just get rid of it. But what I am saying is the core of instruction, if we want kids to catch up, has to be the deliberate study of sufficiently complex texts, again and – we cannot exclude students from that and expect them to magically catch up. That’s a scaffolded environment, do you get me? Where their frustration – they are expected to be frustrated. That frustration is managed. It’s part of the classroom community, and they engage repeatedly in dealing with things that are more difficult than they can handle.

First of all, it’s the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), not the “proximal zone of development, et cetera.” I’m less bothered by his mixing the words around than I am by the “et cetera,” as if to say “yeah, there was more but I couldn’t be bothered to absorb it.” The ZPD is the range between what a child can do independently and what that same child can do with support. The concept was first described by Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky in the 1930’s, and has had a profound impact on developmental psychology and learning science. You can’t be dismissive of the ZPD in one breath, and then go on to recommend scaffolding in the next. The very idea of scaffolding is based on a Vygostkian model of development. The term was introduced by American psychologist Jerome Bruner, and it refers to the supports that we provide students within their ZPD to help them achieve at higher levels. As the metaphor suggests, once students can do these tasks independently, we can remove the scaffolding.

Coleman’s right that there should be managed frustration. If students read texts that are too easy for them, they may enjoy those texts, but it’s not the best way to support reading progress. When students have to read within their ZPD, they feel a frustration we might accurately describe as growing pains. They experience a stretch, and in that stretch, learning can actually help drive cognitive development. If, on the other hand, the material is above the upper limit of their ZPD, they will not experience that productive frustration. They will simply shut down and not attempt to read the material at all. And there is no amount of scaffolding that will make it possible. Think of a weight you can lift easily, a weight that requires some effort to lift, and a weight you can’t budge at all. Which of those three weights would you choose if you wanted to promote muscle growth?

So if you have students who are one or two grades below grade level, it might be worth trying to push them in the way Coleman describes. But students who are four, five, six years below their grade level, aren’t going to be reading on grade level by the end of the year no matter whose philosophical outlook you subscribe to. Nobody is expecting them to “magically catch up.” The idea is to support them in making the greatest progress possible. It is Coleman who is invoking magic when he expects that these students will be able to catch up simply through teacher patience, student frustration, and intense scaffolding.

But if anybody should be a proponent of Vygotsky, it’s David Coleman himself, for Vygotsky provides a clear developmental framework for the Common Core. If learning really can drive development, and I believe it can, then having a rigorous set of standards defined for each grade level organized into a staircase of complexity makes a lot of sense. If we adhere to these standards from Kindergarten, making sure that students receive support in a multi-tiered Response to Intervention system to ensure that they remain on grade level at the end of each year, then the Common Core might actually be a blueprint for making sure that our students are well prepared for the rigors of college and the workplace by the end of Grade 12. Wouldn’t it be a shame if that were all true and the Common Core really is a better way of doing business, but nobody ever knew it because the implementation was so badly botched?

So what can we do? If I were in charge of implementation, I would have had two years of bridge standards before fully adopting the Common Core. If the 5th grade NYS standards say ABC and the 8th grade Common Core standards say JKL, then we develop a logical DEF for 6th grade and a 7th-grade GHI that allow us to incrementally meet the higher standards. Instead, we’re going right from 5th-grade NYS to 6th-grade Common Core, and even students that were on grade level last year are being left behind. The folks at the New York City Department of Education, for their part, seem to understand the difficulties involved, and are trying to make the changes as gradually as possible to support teachers. But no such support is available for students, as the level of rigor expected for them is coming from Albany, and is out of the city’s hands.

I can’t tell you what the statewide assessments are going to look like at the end of this year, but I’m pretty sure the students are going to be expected to read on what is now considered grade level, and this is the problem. What do you do if you have 8th-grade students reading on a 4th-grade level, when you know you are going to be accountable for them passing an 8th-grade test at the end of the year? One option is, as Coleman describes, to give them 8th-grade reading selections anyway, have them read fewer overall texts, and heavily scaffold the texts being read. Another option is to try to give them two years of instruction in a year, committing to bring them from a 4th-grade level to 6th-grade level. Neither strategy will prepare them to read on the 8th-grade level by test time, but I prefer the latter method. It’s better to make meaningful progress in the time that you have than to squander the opportunity by fumbling around with inappropriately difficult texts. I understand, respect, and even admire Coleman’s desire to get everyone on grade level. It’s not going to happen this year.

Given that some of the quantitative targets may not be possible this year, another option is to focus on the qualitative shifts. Give students more exposure to informational texts. Give them more complex texts than they are reading now. Have them read more independently, and give them opportunities to cite evidence from the things they read to support their writing. These are all Common Core-aligned shifts, and can be implemented right away, regardless of student reading levels.

Finally, teachers can make a big difference by differentiating instruction. Some students may have higher upper bounds in their ZPD than might be apparent at first. And if you’ve agreed with me up until now, follow me the rest of the way. It’s important for teachers to challenge their students to the highest extent as is possible for them. Students will push back, but being a teacher means to encourage students to do more than they ever thought they could. Now is the time to do that. Please don’t mistake my nuanced understanding of cognitive development for timidity. I’ve taught Shakespeare, in the original language, to low-performing 5th graders. But to do that, I had to have some confidence that my learning goals were within their Zone of Proximal Development. And when they were, it turned out that it was possible!

As for the end-of-the-year tests, the whole state is in the same bind, so relative success is still very much in reach given the right strategies. Students feel growing pains, and so do teachers. But that pain just means that we’re working outside of our comfort zone, and are instead in a zone that is more conducive to growth.

A Few Thoughts about Guns

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

Is it just me, or is all of the rhetoric about gun control getting a bit overheated?

If there are two sides – pro-gun and anti-gun – then I’d have to put myself on the side that favors more control than we have now. But the spectrum of options available to us as a society is wide-ranging, and the changes we are talking about are relatively small. There’s no serious movement to ban and confiscate guns. Nobody is proposing allowing citizens to own biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons. Where we come down is going to be somewhere very much in the middle of these polar extremes, and pretty close to where we are now.

You wouldn’t know it by listening to the bombast coming from the right, though. It’s as though all of the issues from the 2012 election have faded away, and conservatives have decided to concentrate their efforts over the one issue where they feel like they’re on solid ground. Their arguments range from absolutist interpretations of the Constitution to catchy slogans to actual threats of violence. The threats of violence in particular seem an odd strategy for convincing us that they should keep their guns, but it’s hard to stay rational once the panic sets in. When the only tool you have is a TEC-9, the whole world looks like Call of Duty. I will admit that some of the slogans use some nice wordplay. “The only thing to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Nice use of antithesis with parallel structure! And then, there’s the Constitution…

Just as the First Amendment doesn’t give you the right to yell “Fire” in a crowded theatre, the Second Amendment doesn’t give you the right to turn a traffic jam into the end of a Quentin Tarantino movie. It is true that the founders gave us the right to keep and bear arms so that we could protect ourselves from government tyranny. The only problem is that the people currently making that argument are the same people who screamed that the Affordable Care Act was government tyranny. So, Freedom-Protectors, at what point are you planning to break out the arsenal? And when you fantasize about protecting our freedoms with an assault rifle, precisely who is it that you imagine yourself gunning down? American soldiers? Uniformed police officers? Elected officials? Federal agents? Protecting our freedom sounds pretty messy.

Speaking of the Affordable Care Act, one of the heartwarming things to come out of the gun-control debate is to see the right starting to call for better mental healthcare in the wake of the school shootings. Yeah, someone should get on that. I’m thinking some kind of public option, or even a single-payer system. What say you?

So, really, most of the pro-gun arguments I’ve heard are pure nonsense, and are embraced largely for their favorable conclusion: we should be allowed to have guns. The good news for gun enthusiasts, though, is that they don’t actually need to make a case to protect guns. In a free society, the burden of evidence is on those of us who would take rights away. And most people who are in favor of guns largely have positive experiences with them. They go hunting on the weekends, or they take their kids to the shooting range. Maybe they like to do a little skeet-shooting at Camp David. Everyone has fun and nobody gets hurt. They aren’t bothering anybody, and don’t understand why they should have to make any changes in their lifestyle just because some lunatic decides to go on a rampage in a school or a movie theatre. I agree.

What we’re talking about, though, is just some simple common sense reforms, such as requiring background checks or restricting assault weapons. We regulate cars better than we regulate guns, and yeah, you can have as many cars as you want. One of the weapons under discussion is called the Street Sweeper. Whoever named that gun had a pretty good idea about what it was primarily going to be used for. We should take notice. That doesn’t make a good fundraising pitch for the NRA, though, so they talk about the government coming for your guns, a scenario that doesn’t even make practical sense let alone political sense.

Ultimately, the actual changes being proposed are slight and incremental. We can have reasonable discussions about whether or not we should do them, but doing them won’t necessarily bring about major changes in gun violence in this country. Nor will they amount to an egregious violation of civil liberties. At this point, the heat generated by the argument is mostly about culture. There is one culture that wants an armed society, and another culture that doesn’t. We’ll argue it out and then we’ll vote through our elected representatives. But in so much as it is about culture, it’s worth giving some thought about what kind of country we want to live in.

Which side are you on? The litmus test is not the Sandy Hook school shooting. It’s not Aurora or Tuscon or Columbine. We’re all against random shootings of innocent people. The real litmus test centers on the events of February 26, 2012. That was one year ago tonight. That was the night that George Zimmerman shot and killed Treyvon Martin.

That much is certain, but the details are still murky a year later. That didn’t seem to matter so much at the time. People on both sides of the debate rushed to judgement before all of the facts were in. Did a trigger-happy gun nut racially profile a black kid and then shoot him? Or, is it true that a vigilant neighborhood watchman bravely defended his person and his community from a dangerous thug who attacked him without provocation? Or is the truth somewhere in the middle? Where it always, always is.

In the examination of this particular incident, it matters a great deal. This is a real case. One person is dead, another is on trial for his murder. A jury will have to weigh the evidence and make a serious deliberation to make sure their determination is just. But in a more general sense, it doesn’t really matter what happened this one time.

There is a more generalized version of the incident that has played out in the media and in the imaginations of everyone who has a purely political stake in the outcome for the past year. In the real case, we want to know facts, details, evidence. In the imaginary case, these things are a distraction. They take the case further away from what we need it to be. Because when the case remains general, we can imagine all of the possible angles and discuss how we feel about them. It’s not hard to imagine each various interpretation of this one incident being true in another similar incident. What we’re really arguing about is the sum total of all of the possible permutations of the event. What we’re really arguing is about the next time. I can’t tell you what to think about that, but I can tell you what I think.

I’m not really afraid of bad guys with guns. Maybe I should be. Studies show that people who tend to be more fearful skew conservative, so maybe they feel like they really need to protect themselves against bad guys with guns. For my part, I feel like there are so many other things out there that are going to get me first that I really don’t put it high on my list. So, I don’t live in fear of bad guys with guns. What terrifies me beyond belief is good guys with guns.

Good guys come in all shapes and sizes, and I don’t like the idea of them all carrying guns. There are so many more good guys than bad guys, and with a wider range of skills, judgment, and common sense. Some people carry a gun hoping they will never have to use it. Other people carry a gun with a hope that they will. And then there are the mistakes. Recall the vice president who shot his friend in the face while hunting. Recall the heroic athlete who fired four shots into a bathroom door. Choose your favorite statistic about guns kept in the home. It turns out that introducing a new gun into a situation is almost always a bad idea, unless you are well trained and have strictly enforced rules of engagement. George Zimmerman was supposed to be a good guy with a gun. Whether he turned out to be or not depends on your culture.

So I support the proposed changes to our existing gun laws, incremental as they may be. Could they lead to a slippery slope? I certainly hope so.

Shakespeare High

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

New research from Liverpool University shows that Shakespeare (and other classical writers) can stimulate the brain. For me, what stood out from earlier studies, was the attention to the duration of the phenomenon:

The study went on to test how long the effect lasted. It found that the “peak” triggered by the unfamiliar word was sustained onto the following phrases, suggesting the striking word had hooked the reader, with their mind “primed for more attention”.

This means that if you’re experiencing a work by Shakespeare, who is constantly throwing these poetic curve balls, you can sustain the brain boost over long periods of time. I’ve certainly experienced this sensation many times. I’ll basically go to see any Shakespeare play, regardless of the venue, just so I can hear these words spoken to me. I participate in a monthly Shakespeare reading group, and feel the effect even more profoundly when I am the one reading the words.

Even seeing the text written can do the job, though I often pause a lot when reading and so the pace isn’t necessarily the same. But the research shows an increase in reflection as well, so perhaps that’s a different manifestation of the effect. I subscribe to a Twitter feed that only tweets the plays themselves, one line every ten minutes like clockwork. Every now and then I’ll hit a familiar line and feel the brain bolt. I don’t know why that should be, but I get my shot to the brain all the same.

If I’m doing something that requires no mental attention, I’ll listen to an audio lecture. If I’m doing something that requires my full attention, I’ll listen to music. But if I’m doing something tedious that needs some focus but provides no mental stimulation, I’ll listen to Shakespeare. I’ll typically choose an audio production that I’ve listened to many times before, so I don’t need to be an engaged audience member the whole time. But I find that I can keep my conscious mind engaged on the task much more easily if my subconscious mind is swept away on a wave of poetic bliss. And when a line or two does drift into my awareness, I know the play well enough that I can enjoy it out of context, much like I do the Twitter feed. I get the hit without having to break my stride.

This is your brain on Shakespeare. Any questions?

Science!

Monday, January 7th, 2013

Today, I worked with science teachers on their performance tasks. Actually, I’ve been doing a lot of consulting this year on performance tasks, which is the hot new trend in assessment.

A performance task is an opportunity for students to demonstrate that they can independently apply the skills they’ve learned in a real-world context. So it’s like a post-test, only instead of multiple-choice questions, students have to do an authentic activity. Teachers examine the resulting student work with a rubric to measure whether or not students have learned the skills, and they can then use this information to plan future instruction. It’s much more effective than standardized-testing data in diagnosing student needs, though I do admit it is much more time-consuming.

This year, I’ve been working a lot with social studies and science teachers. Because of the Common Core shifts, these teachers are now required to teach literacy skills. There are no actual content standards in social studies or science in the Common Core; all of the standards for these subject areas are literacy standards. There are science content standards currently under development by Next Generation. When they are completed, states will have the option of adopting them in the same way they adopted Common Core. But until then, science content standards come from the states, and literacy standards from the Common Core are applied across the curriculum.

Now, I actually like the idea of literacy across the curriculum, but it is a big adjustment for science and social studies teachers, and so the schools where I consult have asked me to work with these teachers to help them infuse literacy skills into their curriculum and their assessments, particularly the performance tasks that New York City is requiring them to administer this year.

I have had a lot of experience working with social studies teachers in the past, but I’m probably working more with science teachers this year than I ever have before. And that’s fantastic, because I get the opportunity to learn a lot of new things. I also get the chance to yell “Science!” like Magnus Pyke a lot. No, I don’t really do that, but it would be fun.

One of the science teachers I worked with today swears by a website for an organization called Urban Advantage. It has some great resources for teaching middle-school science with an inquiry-based approach. I like the way that their materials scaffold scientific writing, which is my focus this year.

Another science teacher I worked with today showed me the PhET website, which has some really compelling interactive simulations in the sciences. I watched 7th-grade students run a simulation on density, in which they had to determine the mass and volume of various mystery substances and identify them from a list of materials and their densities.

Science!

Shakespeare and the Common Core

Sunday, January 6th, 2013

Across the United States, education is undergoing a sea-change (into something rich and strange) surrounding the adoption of something called the Common Core State Standards.

Standards are simply a list of what students should be able to do by the end of each grade. Traditionally, these have been defined by states, with a requirement for them to do so by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. States still define their own standards, but, in an unprecedented act of coordination, 45 states (plus the District of Columbia and a few of the territories) have adopted the Common Core as their state standards. Full adoption has been targeted for next year, though New York has started phasing in significant portions of it this year.

Love it or hate it, the Common Core represents a new direction in pedagogical thinking, both qualitatively and quantitatively. Personally, I think the Common Core standards are a lot better than the existing New York State Standards, but we’re going to have to suffer through a difficult transition period before we can reap the benefits of that improvement. Right now is probably the most difficult time, as we have to deal with students who are not starting on what the new structure defines as grade-level, a lack of Common Core-aligned teaching materials, and uncertainty surrounding precisely how these new standards will be assessed. May you live in interesting times.

As with anything new and complex, there are going to be a number of misconceptions floating around about it. One of the most prevalent I’ve seen is that the Common Core eliminates (or at least de-emphasizes) literature, in favor of informational texts. In particular, many are convinced that Shakespeare will be replaced entirely by non-fiction, as public education descends into a Dickensian nightmare of Shakespeare-deprived conformity and standardization.

In fact, Shakespeare is mandated by the Common Core.

The confusion seems to stem from a chart that appears on page 5 of the English Language Arts Standards document, outlining the percentages of literary vs. informational texts included in the National Assessment of Educational Progress:

(Click for a larger image.)

The Common Core is explicit about aligning curricula with this framework, but it is just as explicit about how that alignment should be distributed:

Fulfilling the Standards for 6–12 ELA requires much greater attention to a specific category of informational text—literary nonfiction—than has been traditional. Because the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction, a great deal of informational reading in grades 6–12 must take place in other classes if the NAEP assessment framework is to be matched instructionally.

So, despite the canard that high-school English classes will only be allowed to teach literature 30% of the time, the 70% informational text requirement refers to the entirety of student reading across the curriculum. Given that one of the major shifts is an increase in reading and writing in the content areas, the ratio makes sense.

Let’s say that, over the course of a particular unit, a high-school English teacher is assigning 3 literary texts and 1 informational text. That means that (text length aside) students are reading 75% literature in English class. And if this is the only reading the students are doing, then they are reading 75% literature overall. But now imagine that, during the same timeframe, they are also reading 2 informational texts in social studies, 2 informational texts in science, and 2 informational texts in all of their other classes combined. They are still reading 75% literature in English class, but this now represents 30% of their reading overall.

And, far from being lost in the informational-text shuffle, Shakespeare now becomes the man of the hour. As the only author explicitly required by the Common Core, Shakespeare must be taught in grades 11 and 12 (see page 38, right column, Standards 4 and 7). Shakespeare is also included in the recommended texts for grades 9 and 10 (see page 58, left column, center). And Shakespeare is not excluded for younger students either, as the standards outline only the minimum of what must be taught in each grade. The Common Core does stress using authentic texts, so updated language versions of Shakespeare would be frowned upon, but that’s actually an adjustment I can get behind.

There is a lot of controversy surrounding the Common Core, and a lot of objections surrounding the new changes. Some of these objections are legitimate, and some are not. I look forward to continuing that conversation as the implementation develops. But rest assured that Shakespeare isn’t going anywhere.

I Talk About Politics

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

I wanted to address a question that isn’t Frequently Asked, but one that is often raised in more subtle ways: Why would a blog dedicated to the teaching of Shakespeare talk so much about politics? Why risk alienating Shakespeare fans that may not agree with my viewpoints? Wouldn’t it be better to build a community of Shakespeare teachers without venturing into the socially impolite topic of partisan politics?

First of all, allow me to clarify that this blog isn’t entirely dedicated to teaching Shakespeare, as you may have noticed. “Shakespeare Teacher” is simply meant to be my blogger handle. The blog has always been about whatever I happen to find interesting at the moment, which often includes education and Shakespeare, but it also will include politics from time to time. But the question does lead to a more interesting question about how contemporary politics and Shakespeare are related in the roles they play in our lives.

In The Theatre of the Oppressed, Augusto Boal tells us that “all theater is necessarily political, because all the activities of man are political and theater is one of them.” What’s the point of studying Shakespeare if we’re not going to learn from him? And what’s the point of learning from him if we’re not going to apply what we’ve learned to build a better world? People who study that other great work of literature never hesitate to cite passages from it to imply an endorsement of their political views. We should not be timid to bring Shakespeare into the discussion when his insights would add a vital perspective.

I sometimes try to do this with the anagram, and this example from King Lear is perhaps illustrative. Lear is looking at the helpless victims of a storm and recognizing that he is partly responsible for their plight. “O! I have ta’en/ Too little care of this.” And if we can be moved by his words, it’s only fair to ask: moved to what? If we can be moved to tears, we can be moved to action. Because what moves us in that line is our recognition of the things in the world that we ourselves have ta’en too little care of. Like, for example, the helpless victims of a storm, and our responsibility to them.

We venerate Shakespeare for his wisdom about the human condition. Some go so far as to say that he teaches us what it means to be human. But how does this understanding manifest itself in our society if not in the decisions we make as public policy? How do we define ourselves? How do we treat each other? How can we meet our most fundamental human needs? How do we deal with the unexpected? What are our priorities? What is our responsibility to one another? How we answer these questions for ourselves determines how we make the big decisions about the kind of society we want to be and the kind of world we want to live in. These decisions are swayed by policy, policy is swayed by elections, and elections are swayed by public opinion. Can Shakespeare be a voice in that discussion?

I talk about Shakespeare. I talk about politics. I welcome you to the conversation.

Some Context

Sunday, September 23rd, 2012

Taking quotes out of context is a peculiar breed of dishonesty. It carries a sense of credibility, as the person actually said the words, but that only makes the lie more powerful when the meaning isn’t preserved. Lately, we’ve seen a number of instances of a particularly virulent strain of the practice, one in which the out-of-context quote conveniently fits an existing narrative about the speaker. The liar is comforted that his lie is meant to convey a deeper truth.

For example, a while back, Mitt Romney offered the statement “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.” Now, anyone watching the original speech in context understood that he was talking about his preference to retain the ability to change health insurance companies. But because the left had already characterized him as someone who had built his fortune destroying jobs, it became very easy to shorten the quote to “I like being able to fire people,” or simply “I like… to fire people.” It doesn’t really feel like lying if we believe it to be an accurate portrayal of how he really feels deep down, right?

So when Barack Obama uttered the now-famous sentence “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that,” Republicans didn’t care that he was referring to roads and bridges. They knew that he really believed in his heart that business owners didn’t deserve credit for their own success, so taking him out of context seemed to be fair game. In a way, it felt even more honest than leaving the quote in context. They went so far as to base their entire convention around the misleading reference, shouting back at their fictionalized idea of the president’s intentions with righteous fervor. By the end of the convention, the imaginary Barack Obama seemed so real that Clint Eastwood even tried to have a conversation with it.

Now, a video has surfaced which has raised some questions about what Mitt Romney meant when he said that it’s not his job to worry about the 47% of Americans that don’t pay federal income taxes:

Well, there are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. There are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement and government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what.

I mean, the president starts off with 48, 49 … I mean, he starts off with a huge number. These are people who pay no income tax; 47 percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. He’ll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich. I mean, that’s what they sell every four years.

And so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives. What I have to do is convince the 5 to 10 percent in the center, that are independents, that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon, in some cases, emotion, whether they like the guy or not, what he looks like.

He was talking about his job as a candidate, not as a future president. So a response of “Well, Barack Obama is president to ALL of the people” is an unfair non-sequitur. All he’s saying is that it would be a waste of his time to court the votes of the non-taxpayer, because to do so would require getting them to vote against their own entitlements, thus taking responsibility and caring for their lives.

In fact, a President Romney would indeed convince the 47% to take personal responsibility and care for their lives by helpfully removing the safety net, their dependence on which has caused them so much detriment. You’re welcome. Added to which, we are to believe that a Romney presidency will lead to an immediate American Renaissance in military strength, traditional family values, and economic prosperity for all Americans rich and poor alike. The statement just doesn’t make any sense, from Romney’s point of view, if he’s talking about himself as president.

Now, I have to admit that there’s a part of me that is a bit amused by Romney’s complaint that he’s being taken out of context. Sorry, Mitt. You built that.

But I actually think it’s important to look at what he said in context, because that in itself is disturbing enough without having to distort it. And yes, the 47% does include soldiers and seniors, but I am willing to give Governor Romney the benefit of the doubt and say that he probably wasn’t talking about them. I want to focus on what he really meant, not what we want him to have meant.

If you look at what he is saying and who he is saying it to, you can see that he is painting a very broad picture of people who pay no federal income taxes as lazy freeloaders – not just the people who receive government aid, but also people who simply pay no taxes because they don’t earn enough to tax. That would be the poor, many of whom do harder work every day than Mitt Romney or I could even imagine. Now, these people never asked for a government handout; they just benefit from a tax code that doesn’t take food off of their table. Like everyone else, they’ll pay the lowest rate possible and certainly won’t volunteer to pay more. If anyone can appreciate that, it should be Mitt Romney.

When a man who owns a car elevator bemoans at a $50,000-a-plate dinner how the working class believes that they are entitled to food, we really have to consider what that means for us as a nation. Marie Antoinette, at least, offered cake.