Readers talk back
Take a look at some of the response I have received recently from readers on different topics. The first few are about a post I wrote explaining why Swanson Middle School in Arlington, Va., cancelled an assignment that would have required students to debate the pros and cons of the Taliban in Afghanistan. Schools spokeswoman Linda Erdos said that officials, after getting complaints from parents who did not want their children having to debate in favor of the Taliban, decided the students may be too young for the task.
While I understand the sensitivies regarding this topic, I believe it is wrong to state that these 8th graders are not mature enough to handle this type of assignment. As my 8th grade Swanson student said, "Arguing the Taliban’s position does not mean you agree with their side." Apparently some 8th graders understand that this was merely an academic exercise.
The topic is a valid one to discuss in class, but perhaps at a higher level - 11th or 12th grade.Teachers I have worked with often use the debate-style assignment usually with a challenging topic. Few topics, however have the sensitivity of this one, especially in this part of the U.S. where everyone was witness in one way or another to part of the attacks of September 11, 2001.
I doubt the assignment would generate enthusiasm for the Taliban side. In fact, most students from our society would have difficulty in finding anything positive in their philosophy, tactics, disdain for human rights, and unwillingness to find a way to a solution (usually an American value, but not always).
This kind of an exercise has to be well prepared, well managed and would benefit from having observers, e.g., the principal or other administrators. Most important in any "simulation" like this is the debriefing that comes at the end of it.There is much to learn about the motivations of other groups by having to walk in their shoes and see what life is like in their environment.
If there has been any criticism of U.S. foreign policy in the past - including our positions in the U.N. and elsewhere - it has been that we have a poor record in understanding those countries or groups that confront us.This reality is currently vexing the policy development in Afghanistan.
In the 1960s it facilitated decisions that took us on the road to war in Vietnam. An apology from the principal may be in order, but more important is a restatement of the need for those in education to construct activities that enable students to understand the world beyond our shores. We cannot address successfully the vexing problems in the international arena if our view of the world is myopic.
I think the objecting parents should re-examine their opposition. I debated through high school,qualifying for the nationals twice. In fact on year in the state finals my team was up against the team of our archrival school, on which the girl who later became my wife was a debater. Our coach worried that I would play gentleman and let them beat us. She needn’t have worried. The debates were set up, however, so we went around the state debating both sides throughout the season.
This ability to debate both sides was later a great help tome in law school. One day, the professor, who was not known to be stimulating in the classroom, asked a question based on a conundrum in securities law. I think he had been looking forward to taking 15 minutes to convince us ofhis brilliant answer and then turn around to convince us that he’d been wrong.
So he was mildly surprised when I raised my hand and more surprised when I knew the answer. He then asked for a contrary view and was yet more surprised when I raised my hand again. Of course, every good debater knows the contrary view for every position he takes. He has to, if he’s going to be persuasive. Fortunately he did not mark me down for ruining one of his few pedagogical tricks. But Ishould not have cared; it all would have been worth it.
Schools in this country have been weak in teaching rhetoric for over a century. Debate is a fun way to learn what one needs in every day life -- to be able to argue without getting vilifying his opponent or getting mad because he doesn’t agree. Neither aids persuasion. Do you think my wife would have married me if I’d gotten angry with her argument?
I think that the teacher provided the students a real life challenge and if that isn’t what school is intended to do why bother. Students are never too young to think and in some instances there fresh look at an unsolvable "adult" problem could be instructive.
What Linda Erdos says about the maturity level of 8th graders is true. But that is why they are guided by wiser and more mature adults: their teachers. The ability to understand and rationally discuss issues as complex as the conflict in Afghanistan is a skill that requires time and practice to develop. If the students are able to begin doing so now, in a structured and supportive environment, maybe they will do a better job than we have by the time they’re our age.
About a post I wrote on educational jargon:
I saw your call for education jargon and couldn’t resist sending you this story I wrote in 2007. I cover schools for the Capital newspaper in Annapolis, so this story is about the Anne Arundel County school district. Enjoy!
Here’s the way it starts:
Do you know what Accuplacer is? How about a stanine, an eCoach, or a "look-for?" You need to know if want to read the 167-page strategic plan the county Board of Education approved last week. It’s a five-year plan administrators will follow to improve county schools, laying out improvements they want to see and strategies to achieve them.
But it you’re drawing a blank on the vocab, don’t worry - there’s a glossary in the back. Earlier in the fall, board members asked the superintendent’s team to put the strategic plan into plainer language and extract some of the education jargon so that regular folks could read and understand it.
"We need to eliminate the jargon in here," board member Ned Carey said at a meeting in October, referencing the earlier draft.
"It’s gibberish," Michael Leahy, another board member, said at the same meeting. "Putting out a document like this is only going to further alienate people."
On a post I wrote about the Accelerated Reading program:
Chapter 11 in my latest book, "If They Don’t Learn the Way You Teach, Teach the Way They Learn," is devoted entirely to AR. In that chapter I discuss the same concerns you have, as well as some other aspects of the program that I believe are less than optimal.
Specifically: Some teachers insist their students read ONLY AR books for recreational reading; many children read for the points (and the ultimate reward) rather than reading books that interest them; and finally - AR quizzes are primarily recall questions that do not assess inferential or critical thinking skills.
We know that a wide selection of books (which AR offers) and a consistent block of time for recreational reading (also a component of AR) makes a positive difference in how kids read. Research has not shown, however, that tests and points and rewards make a long-term positive difference.
Thanks for your thoughtful commentary on Accelerated Reader. As an elementary educator for 34 years, I too have serious reservations about Accelerated Reader. Those are based in research, anecdotal information, and my own observations of what works best with readers.
My nieces were readers. Both their parents are regular readers. From their earliest beginnings as readers I took them at Christmas time on a little book buying adventure. We collaborated on book choices, they chose quality literature and enjoyed the read.
Then came Accelerated Reader. The first year they were involved in the program the nature of our book buying trip changed. When I suggested a title I thought they would like their response was “NO, that’s on the Accelerated Reader list!”
The context of Accelerated Reader had put a vast quantity of quality literature on my nieces’ “not fun because required” list of books. The books they choose to read for pleasure from then on were books that by definition weren’t on the AR list. An unintended and tragic consequence.
I also hear from a variety of parents and students that students find ways to work the AR system. They have other students take the tests for example. Not as many students are reading those books as is claimed. Kids are gaming the system. AR fails to cash in on one of the most powerful motivators for reading, and diminishes the experiences of literature for students.
Conversation about books is a simple and effective way to involve, enrich, and extend students interaction with literature. Children and young adults are naturally social and building connections through conversations about the books they read is powerful. AR is isolating and takes the act of reading out of its natural meaning rich complex context into a yet another simplified 10 question get it right multiple choice best guessing game. AR is one more example of a set of simplistic quantitative measures claiming to reflect something meaningful about a complex process.
The tragedy is that the means of measuring impoverishes the process.
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| December 21, 2009; 6:30 AM ET
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