Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Thinking Through

“We are here today to honor teachers and mentors… who are upholding their responsibility not just to the young people who they teach but to our country by inspiring and educating a new generation in math and science. But we're also here because this responsibility can't be theirs alone. All of us have a role to play in building an education system that is worthy of our children and ready to help us seize the opportunities and meet the challenges of the 21st century.

“And under the outstanding leadership of Arne Duncan, we've launched a $4 billion Race to the Top fund, one of the largest investments in education reform in history. Through the Race to the Top, states are competing for funding—and producing the most innovative programs in science and math will be an advantage in this competition, as will allowing scientists and statisticians and engineers to more easily become teachers. We want states and school districts to start being more creative about how they can attract more science and math teachers.”

President Barack Obama
January 6, 2010

I applaud President Obama’s focus on math and science, and I think a national debate over how we teach our children will take center stage in our discussions now that health care reform has passed, but he is shortsighted. The education siren song of the last twenty years has been “the education of the whole child.” In the relentless pursuit of an educated mind, we can never leave out reading, writing and critical thinking.

We need students who have been educated in languages, history, literature, art, culture, the sciences, math, public oratory, political science, geography, world cultures and religions, philosophy, and sociology. And that is simply the beginning.

To become a scientist or mathematician, one needs basic skills: computation, problem solving, ability to form a hypothesis, scientific methodology, and most important, the skills of reading and writing. Without the last two, the whole enterprise grinds to a halt.

Through the skills of reading and writing, we can enhance thinking—both critical and analytical—and foster problem solving, strategic planning, and organizational procedures. Everything is connected.

I had reason to think deeply about this over the last week as I considered a crisis in my own courses. In the English classroom, we are constantly trying to balance the curriculum between grammar and writing skills, and reading and vocabulary development. Some years, the work swings toward literature—broad, intense reading of all genres—and other years, we shift focus to writing—grammar, syntax, diction and rhetoric. I can never seem to find the happy medium, the sweet spot of a perfect curriculum.

This year, I have packed in more reading in my classes. But over the last week, I have felt discontented, even a vague sense of panic. My students are not getting enough grammar, specifically. They have written a lot—at least one major piece of writing every week. We draft and use the writing process. We do both timed, in class essays, and papers outside of class involving research and drafting.

But what has disturbed my sleep lately are the continuing mistakes I flag on nearly every piece of writing: subject-verb agreement, pronoun-antecedent agreement, verb tense misuse, and errors in spelling, punctuation, and sentence structure. I cover the papers in notes and comments, yet there is a disconnect between those notes and the student writer. I realized that many times the students are unfamiliar with the grammatical concept behind the error, therefore they are powerless to rectify the situation.

So I have gone back to a strategy that I have used in the past: taking mistakes from the papers, compiling them anonymously on a handout, and having students correct the errors and rewrite the sentences. When they see what is wrong—and inevitably, they recognize the mistake because it sounds incorrect—I can tell them what the technical name of the error is, and they get it. “Oh, that’s subject-verb agreement?” they say. Now we have a common vocabulary to identify problems in writing.

The downside to this is that the increased class time we take to do this moves us away from the intense reading that I have planned. We fall behind in literature as we do a better job of understanding problems in writing. Yet, when I stuck to the reading schedule, students were not improving their writing.

The conclusion is clear, and President Obama, school boards and districts, administrations and teachers should focus in on this: in all subjects, in all disciplines, we need to go back to basics. A solid education is not about new theories, data management, technology, and buzzwords. Technology, especially, is important in the classroom, but it is a tool to teach, a method of lesson delivery. The bedrock is a challenging curriculum with good, basic teaching utilizing every minute of the day in a clear, focused, intense lesson. We need to drill, teach, re-teach, and set high standards for our students. The classroom needs to be a place of discipline and order, with procedures and objectives that are rooted in what is best for the students’ learning. Unfortunately, many teachers coming out of education schools do not know basic classroom management skills like discipline and lesson structure, but they know all the theories taught to them by professors who far too often have not been in the elementary or high school classroom for very long themselves. Theories are great, but practical, basic strategies for teaching are better. How can we graduate teaching candidates who know Constructivist theory, but cannot control a class and maintain a productive, learning environment in the classroom?

Students and parents share some responsibility as well. Patience, determination, intensity, motivation, diligence—a student must have these qualities to succeed. He or she cannot wait for someone to do the learning for them. They must value what they are doing in the classroom, and therein lies the cultural connection. We in America must show more respect for teachers and learning. Parents need to support their kids, but work with teachers instead of looking for ways to excuse their children’s behavior and lack of progress.

Yes, we need a better education program: in math, science, literature, writing, history, languages, debate, art, and everything else. Most definitely, we need to focus on the critical skill of analytical thinking. Far too many students simply accept things on a superficial level. Our culture—television, movies, advertisements, politics, art, and society—teaches students to stick with the superficial instead of critically thinking and diving below the obvious. We need teachers who can counter this superficiality, diagnose a student’s deficiencies, and formulate a solid, basic plan to address weaknesses.

We need, quite simply, a revolution in education, and if President Obama thinks that reformation involves only math and science, he is not thinking things through.

And thinking in education is everything.


  1. Hi Mr. Martin,

    This is a great post! You make a lot of great points about where our education in this country needs to head, the support teachers need, and how a teacher should approach the instruction that occurs in the classroom. I am a sixth grade teacher on the east coast. In my district sixth grade was recently moved back to the elementary level, to save money (ha, ha). Therefore, I teach all content areas based on a very rigorous curriculum. My approach has been a very structured, well organized, community based setting. A setting where the students are expected to be part of the team, have a job,are held to high standards, and are expected to think about the questions they have. I do not answer my students' questions, I force them to answer them themselves. I do this by asking them a question in response to theirs. I would love for you to check out my blog,

    Ms. Brown

  2. I think you're right--grammar has gotten a bad "rap," but it offers the incredible advantage of giving teachers and students a common vocabulary and reference for looking at writing.

    Speaking of writing, today starts National Poetry Month! Enjoy.

  3. Thank you both for commenting.

    Ms. Brown, I checked out your site and found your posts interesting and enlightening. So I added your blog to my favorites on The Teacher's View. I look forward to continue to read about life in a Rhode Island classroom.

    Shelley, thank you for reminding me about National Poetry Month. I should have my license to teach revoked for forgetting. In celebration, I reread "Terence, this is stupid stuff," by Houseman. Why that poem? I love the title. In fact, I think I will spend April Fool's Day reading all my favorite humorous poems again. Seems like a fit way to begin spring break.

    Take care both of you, and stay dry in Rhode Island. (We have been hearing about flooding out your way.)


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