Monthly Archives: April 2016

On Students’ Autonomy II

“The object of teaching a child is to enable him to get along without his teacher.”

Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915)

Excerpted from: Howe, Randy, ed. The Quotable Teacher. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2003.

On Students’ Autonomy I

“The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery.”

Mark Van Doren (1894-1973)

Excerpted from: Howe, Randy, ed. The Quotable Teacher. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 2003.

The Weekly Text, April 22, 2016

Next week is my badly needed spring break, so Mark’s Text Terminal will be on sabbatical, enjoying spring weather and light. I’ll return with a fresh Weekly Text on Friday, May 6. For today, here is a glossary of basic poetic terms. One of these days I’m going to write a unit to accompany this support. This learning support is several years old, and it is an example of the kind of cart-before-the-horse planning I used as a novice teacher. I suspect this will be useful for teachers–if nothing else, it can be manipulated to serve your purposes in teaching poetry and poetic from.

Happy Spring! See you again on May 6.

Poverty and Cognition

There are number of charter school chains operating in New York City, and nationally, which vaunt their “no excuses” approach to student discipline. My own admittedly cursory understanding of this behavioral cosmology is that it means what it says: teachers, school administrators–in other words, the authority figures that matter in school–will accept “no excuses” for poor disciplinary or academic performance in school.

Unsurprisingly, this controversial approach to dealing with students has found its way into public schools, and into the collective consciousness and discourse of administrators and teachers. Whatever the merits or demerits of this approach to managing students’ behavior, it militantly ignores the economic, social and emotional realities of students’s lives. Indeed, the quality of students’ interior and social lives is essentially shunted aside in favor of the metrics that standardized tests provide.There is talk now of a test to measure “grit,” which is the new buzzword to describe a student’s resilience. This has tended to strike me as primarily an ideological and bureaucratic fantasy, and ignores psychological realities, among others.

The “no excuses” ideology has lodged itself among educators in what has begun to look like an institutional denial of poverty as a cause of children’s problems in school. Facebook friends of mine who work as educators complain regularly of their superiors’ unwillingness to discuss the role of poverty, in professional development sessions and the like, in our students’ struggles. This is particularly offensive to many teachers, as it–patently–displays an appalling ignorance of the role of poverty in students who struggle in school. I suspect that for many of us, our understanding of this dynamic is common sense, or instinctual.

Happily, and thanks to Sendal Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir and their excellent book Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How it Defines Our Lives, teachers now have ready access to the empirical data they need to support their arguments on poverty’s effect on students’ intellectual lives. Both of these scholars are leaders in their fields. Yet they have written a highly readable, cogent work that presents their important scholarship in plain English.

To make a concise story short for the purposes of this review, Messrs. Mullainathan and Shafir designed a number of basic experiments in cognitive psychology that called upon subjects to consider outcomes and make decisions in circumstances of real or imagined scarcity. What they found, unsurprisingly, is that when people must make decisions in straitened circumstances, they tended to lose several IQ points. In other words, poverty and scarcity hamper clear and effective cognition.

Needless to say, I’d like to see another book from these scholars that explores this further. I don’t know about you, but in the meantime, if I encounter administrators or colleagues who tout the “no excuses” line, I’ll point out that ignorance of this research and its literature is no excuse for not understanding poverty’s effect on our students’ lives.

George S. Kaufman: Dramatist and Master of Human Relations!

Do you have people in your life with poor personal boundaries? Do they approach you and seek to retail what my students have designated (from texting usage, I must assume) “TMI”–too much information? Do these people–even worse–elicit your advice, or, heaven forfend, presume to offer you advice? The legendary dramatist George S. Kaufman dealt with these people, and, as this hilarious anecdote from Jon S. Winokur’s The Portable Curmudgeon (New York: Plume, 1992) shows, Mr. Kaufman didn’t suffer them gladly:

“On the television show This Is Show Business, a youthful Eddie Fisher complained that girls refused to date him because of his age, and he asked Kaufman’s advice. Kaufman replied. ‘Mr. Fisher, on Mount Wilson there is a telescope that can magnify the most distant stars up to twenty-four times the magnification of any previous telescope. This remarkable instrument was unsurpassed in the world of astronomy until the construction of the Mount Palomar telescope, an even more remarkable instrument of magnification. Owing to advances and improvements in optical technology, it is capable of magnifying the stars up to four times the magnification and resolution of the Mount Wilson telescope.

“Mr. Fisher, if you could somehow put the Mount Wilson telescope inside the Mount Palomar telescope, you still wouldn’t be able to detect my interest in your problem.'”



The Weekly Text, April 15, 2016

Occasionally I get carried away developing certain kinds of instructional materials. Last fall, when I developed a large number of homophone worksheets while I was away from work for an extended civic responsibility, was no exception. I completed work on a large batch of these short exercises during that time, most of which were and are thought-provoking vocabulary builders and clarifiers.

However, the five worksheets for clarifying the use of the homophones son and sun don’t really fit that bill for the high schoolers I teach. This pair is too simple even for the struggling readers I teach. In fact, these worksheets impelled me to apologize to my students for insulting their intelligence. If you work in the elementary grades, or teach English language learners, these might be appropriate for your classroom. If you haven’t used these before, you’ll find the Homophone Worksheet Users’s Manual useful.

As always, if you used these, or if you adapted them, I’d be grateful to hear how or why you did that.

Until next week….

If You Are an Educator in New York State….

Over the years I’ve developed the habit of keeping a copy of the New York State Code of Ethics for Teachers–the 5 x 8 card stock copy the state distributes–in my briefcase. I like this simple, elegantly written set of principles and think it is a nice guide for my planning and conduct as a teacher. The document speaks to (dare I say this in this era of open contempt for educators?) the essential nobility of our profession.

My old copy has become frayed, so I typed it up. Here, then, I offer you the New York State Code of Ethics for Teachers as a Microsoft Word typescript.