The Fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars

Last Friday I had occasion to visit Peachtree Publishers in Atlanta and meet their president Margaret Quinlin.  She gave me a copy of their newest big publication, Fault Lines in the Constitution: the framers, their fights, and the flaws that affect us today, by Cynthia Levinson and Sanford Levinson.  It is a triumph and this is a rave review.

The book is aimed at the middle reader, but as far as I’m concerned every sentient being in this country[1] should read it and discuss it everywhere.  The authors are thorough, honest, and more than a little skeptical about the solidity of our governing document.  They have reason to be.

A little background: back in 1987, at the bicentennial of the Constitutional Convention, the Newnan-Coweta Historical Society asked the Newnan Community Theatre Company to come up with some kind of presentation/performance for them that addressed this epochal moment in our history.  It fell to me as artistic director at the time to devise the entertainment.

That summer, at GHP, I read the complete The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, compiled and edited by Max Farrand.  Even though the delegates worked in absolute secrecy and the recording secretary burned all deliberations, James Madison kept copious notes (which he edited selectively later in life).  To this document, Farrand added all other diaries/letters/correspondence that he could find, and the result is a fascinating read.  Those men argued over everything: every word, every comma, every idea.

The point is that the Constitution we ended up with was by no means foreordained.  In fact, the eventual performance piece NCTC came up with asked the audience members (seated in groups relative to the size of the thirteen colonies) to decide the nature of the Executive, and both nights they dumped our current arrangement in favor of a single executive elected for a single term of six years.  Expecting a worshipful experience of a perfect document, they were surprised and delighted to be shown there was more to it.

Fault Lines covers this concept of argument and compromise brilliantly.  Each chapter follows the same outline:

  1. Introductory story of some recent foofaraw which illustrates a problem springing from the Constitution as written
  2. “Meanwhile, back in 1787…”, in which the debate over the problem is discussed and the reasons given for the final decision
  3. “So what’s the big problem?”, which details why the compromise has unraveled or caused problems, often because of vagueness in wording or the founders’ astonishing lack of prescience for 200 years in the future
  4. “There are other ways”, outlining how the states and other countries deal with the issue (spoiler alert: there are other ways)
  5. “The story continues” with the authors looping back around to the introductory story and giving us the upshot

The final section is the most agitating, in every sense of the word.  The authors grade the Constitution and how well it has delivered on the promises in the Preamble.  (It gets an overall C+.)  Then the authors, responding to James Madison’s comment that “it is incumbent on their successors to improve and perpetuate it,” list some very uncomfortable ways we might go about doing that:

  1. Change Senate rules (i.e., get rid of the filibuster)
  2. Pass new laws (mostly about the structure of representation)
  3. Develop work-arounds to the Electoral College
  4. Amend the Constitution, with a long laundry list of items derived from the discussions in the rest of the book

Finally, the authors have a one-on-one debate as to the wisdom of going full Leeroy Jenkins with a Constitutional Convention to upset the entire apple cart.  It’s enough to keep you up at night, which at this point in our history is saying something.  (I should say that the book is very current, referencing the current administration and some of its actions.  The section on the 25th Amendment is particularly pointed and reflects some of my own writing, here and here.)

So, teachers, want a resource to celebrate our annual MANDATED CONSTITUTION DAY LESSONS COMRADE[2] on Sep 17?  Requisition a classroom set of this bombshell and watch the children’s minds crack open.  And probably their parents’ heads explode.

—————

[1] I am aware this does not include everyone in this country.

[2] I’m actually in favor of requiring the study of the Constitution, just probably not in the way that the über-patriots who have mandated it intended.

A rant: AP US History

The conservative mind is a curious thing, divided against itself in so many ways.  On the one hand, you have the “business interests” portion of the mind insisting that the schools must—absolutely must—graduate students who are incredible critical thinkers and problem solvers.  On the other hand, you have the “god, guns, and gays” mindset that recoils at any suggestion that the ground on which they stand might not be as solid as they’d like to believe.

This conservative schizophrenia is now playing out in the Gwinnett County School System as the usual suspects pick up the screeching about the Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) curriculum, which was revised in part to challenge our top students to think critically about historical data.  But Noooooooooo! scream the howler monkeys, It’s all radical liberal communist propaganda my country tis of thee american exceptionalism no exceptions! 

::sigh::

Here’s the problem.  There are two ways to frame education.  One is that it’s a process of learning how to learn, of making sure the student is prepared to face the modern world with the proper skills and attitudes to be a productive member of our democratic society.

The other, alas, regards education as a set of facts and figures to be learned. And tested on.

I will now pause while you decide which framework is the one to which the GGG conservative mindset clings.

The problem is that the proponents of each framework will never agree on curriculum.  They can’t; they don’t even see the goals as the same.  One side envisions the best students as regurgitators of facts, essential facts, while the other sees them as problem-solvers who are able to evaluate data and propose solutions based on them.

Here’s why the GGG conservatives are wrong—and they are wrong—about the APUSH curriculum.  Their cry that important stuff has been left out of the curricullum is misguided, mainly because it’s not so much the factoids as the mythic filter of those factoids that concerns them.  “We’re teaching them that the U.S. has been wrong.”

Well, yes, we are because we were.  These students, the top of the top, have already gotten the mythos in the previous years of their education, assuming their school system hasn’t shortchanged history in order to slam the students with MATH AND SCIENCE WHY WOULD THEY EVEN DO THAT EVEN?

These students already know that the U.S. is the bestest ever.  By the time they enter APUSH, headed to college, they need to start examining more nuanced views of our history.  What have we done right?  What have we done wrong?  Where have we learned, and where have we not learned?  It’s questions like these that keep the policy makers in Washington up at night, and it’s a good thing, too.  As H.L. Mencken (PBUH) said, “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”  We don’t want people in our government who are so sure of the facts that they can’t see significant alternatives.  Yes, I’m looking at you, Republicans.   Dickheads.

Here’s why the GGG mindset about facts—just the facts, ma’am—is not only wrong, but stupid.  Once you’ve decided that the curriculum is just going to be a Gradgrindian slog through all the essential facts, then you have to fight it out over which facts are essential enough to be slogged through.  In the Atlanta Journal-Constitution article which prompted this post, the reporter slyly ended the article with a quote from a former Gwinnett teacher who is a lead howler monkey:

…Urbach, the former Gwinnett teacher, stuck to his claims about what not’s taught in the district.

“Over 200 years worth of European history is not taught,” he said.  “I taught the course for six years, and we never made it to the 1970s.  Only one, maybe two days teaching on the Holocaust.”

Such is the totality of the GGG’s un-self-awareness that Mr. Urbach cannot see what he’s just said: if all you teach is the facts, you cannot possibly teach all of them.  I used to tell teachers all the time, if you make my son love history so much that he will continue to learn about it the rest of his life, I don’t give a crap whether you cover Jacksonian democracy or not.  (Indeed, his APUSH history teacher was a Gradgrind of the worst kind, and not incoincidentally I think, was a conservative who brooked no discussion or opposition to the literally thousands of “facts” she required them to memorize.)

There is no solution.   The howler monkeys will never shut the hell up, while their own corporate masters bemoan the fact that there’s no one they can hire because schools are not giving them the problem-solvers they need.  No solution.

At least not until those FEMA camps get built.

A Chomskian post from the past

I was trolling through files on my hard drive, wondering what some of them were, when I came across a word processing document that impressed me. I was working on my specialist degree, five or so years ago now, and I think it was the piddling psychology class they make you take to give the psychology professors something to do. It was like the last class I had on my agenda, and like me, most of the students were old enough to be the professor’s parent. We were mostly amused by his efforts.

Anyway, there was some online discussion as part of the class, and this one was on Chomsky and others of that ilk. I had gone away for the whole week (could it have been that historical trip to the mountains that Thanksgiving?), and when I got back, I was bothered by the turn the conversation had taken. Most of the participants had taken “grammar” to mean “rules of speech,” and it took a pretty prescriptive turn. Silly.

This was my response, and I think it still reads well:

I notice there is some confusion in our discussion of Chomsky over the nature of grammar. “Grammar” is not that set of rules set up by the dominant power structure to govern our language, nor is it a set of exercises out of Warriner’s. Grammar, as Chomsky means it, is innate, that is, born with us, and it includes our ability to recognize and create sentences that no one has ever heard before nor ever will again. It is not literacy and it is not writing.

The comparison of transformational grammar to math [in the textbook] is interesting, since one of the biggest problems non-mathematicians have with symbolic logic is the idea that an argument/syllogism can be true even if the statements which make it up are false. To wit:

  • All women have three heads.
  • George W. Bush is a woman.
  • Therefore, George W. Bush has three heads.

The structure is perfectly valid, perfectly true, despite the fact that the premises are outrageous fabrications. This is grammar. The most famous example from Chomsky is the sentence, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” immediately recognizable as a correct sentence even though it makes no sense. In contrast, “Dog the his ate brown under food tree the” is not a sentence in any language. Innate transformational grammar is what allows any child in our schools to a) recognize those words in that order as gibberish; and b) rearrange those words into a real sentence. If literacy is removed from the equation, any child in the school can perform that task without any instruction from us.

A thought experiment: take the “dog” sentence, and consider how you would present those words on cards to a non-reading child and ask him to put them in some grammatical order. If you decided to start simple and then ask the child to add the remaining words one at a time, you’d probably begin with “dog the ate food his.” How did you know that? That’s Chomskian grammar. The kicker is that eventually you come up against “under.” Even a moment’s thought is enough to show you that you can’t hand the child just the word “under” and expect him to proceed. You would have to give him “tree under the” and ask him to put all three words in, which he would proceed to do after rearranging them into a prepositional phrase. Finally, the word “brown” can go in any of three places, but only in those three places. That is transformational grammar.

Our concerns over “street” grammar and “standard” grammar are misplaced in this discussion. Standard grammar is one of the tools used by the dominant power structure to cement its influence, and anyone who intends to live profitably within that power structure needs to know how to speak and write it. Indeed, one of our duties as educators is to provide students the opportunity to avail themselves of that knowledge. However, bemoaning the decline or absence of that structure in our students is trivial. One might just as well compare the writings of Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln with those of our current political leadership and conclude that we were suffering from a precipitous decay in the public arena.

So, how would I use Chomsky’s theories in my media center? If I were coaching a student in his reading, I would (and do) rest comfortably in the knowledge that the child is capable of recognizing the sentence on the page, whether or not he is currently capable of translating those squiggly black marks under the illustration. The words on the page are not arranged randomly, but in a pattern that is born in the child’s brain and already expanded by his experience in the world so far. This is a hopeful, and helpful, hook: whether or not the child says, “Bobby be’s riding his bike” in his daily life, he will not be puzzled by the sentence, “Bobby rides his bike” on the page. Whether we then correct the child’s daily speech is a political choice, and with Chomsky, it’s all political anyway.

Literacy

I was appointed to be a member of the State Literacy Task Force. We are charged with developing a proposal for a long-term plan to improve literacy across the board in Georgia.

Our first task, which we’re already behind on, is to define literacy.

I am not being flippant when I suggest as a definition the ability to find and use information. Yes, it’s totally colored by my day job as a media specialist, but think about it. If we charged schools and communities to make sure their students and citizens could find and use information, then we don’t have to get into reading and technology and blah blah blah. Do what it takes to make it happen.

In chatting about this with Kevin on Saturday morning, I allowed as how, despite what you might think, I was not interested in including padding like “self-enrichment” in the definition, because that’s not something the state has any control over, or vested interest in, if I were to turn all Antonin Scalia on us.

Then Kevin said something that I though was very important and I wrote it down immediately to steal: “Sort of like a Maslow’s hierarchy for literacy?”

Bingo!

So whattaya say, dear readers? Help me develop said hierarchy, and we shall be as gods.

Wonderful Car (Day 235/365)

Yes, I finally got work done. I listened through Blake’s Wonderful Car Delivers Us Wonderfully Well and made a few tweaks. Pretty subtle, but they were necessary. I think it sounds marginally better.

In other work, I dug out my personality profile from when I was a student at GHP in 1970. I find that it is the Cattell 16PF Profile. We were given this test, and then called in by the counselor (Eddie Najjar, a theatre person actually, and kin to the Mansours here in Newnan) to discuss it. He would show us our score on each item, and then we got to choose which of the synonyms on that end of the scale we thought described us.

Looking at it now, I’m a little surprised to see that I was in the average range for Self-Assured. Geez, I was an insufferable little thing. I must have cheated on the test.

Anyway, I dug it out because I’m going to use its scales to give my little bloggers a handle on describing characters from their books. If they can see some contrasting personality traits, they can latch on to one or two to hang their writing on.

Turtles all the way down

I was going to write about King Lear today, and I may yet, later. But in the meantime, eyes must be rolled and lips pursed over the state board of education in Kansas, hosting a little show trial for creationists before they vote to allow Genesis to become part of the state’s science curriculum.

But no, I hear them say, they’re not creationists. Oh, no, they’re proponents of intelligent design. G*d didn’t create the world… but it couldn’t have happened without him. Her. Them.

Honey, please. I am not about to get into arguments pro/con on this blog, because the whole thing is preposterous. But two comments made by the creationists testifying before the Kansas board bear examination.

One is the whole “teach the controversy” shibboleth. Charles Thaxton, creationist chemist and author of a book that says so, said, “There is no science without criticism.” He and his cohorts are described as arguing that Darwinism has become a dangerous dogma, and they are simply open-minded.

Fooey. Anyone who believes that Darwinism isn’t constantly examined and challenged by scientists of all stripes needs to vote Republican. All science is constantly critiqued. That’s what experiments are for. That’s what peer-reviewed journals are for. Biologists and their compeers have been bickering about the details of the evolutionary process since before Darwin sailed on the Beagle.

But suggesting that science should include ideas that cannot be tested is not open-minded, it is lame-brained.

Witness the other statement, by another chemist, one William S. Harris. He and his fellow travelers had been dazzling the Board with the complexities of RNA and all that jazz. “You can infer design just by examining something, without knowing anything about where it came from,” he said. Referring to the scene in The Gods Must Be Crazy in which the Bushmen marvel at a Coca-Cola bottle thrown from a plane, he said, “I don’t know who did it, I don’t know how it was done, I don’t know why it was done, I don’t have to know any of that to know that it was designed.”

Well. That was not exactly the Bushmen’s response, was it, Dr. Harris? If they had thought like that, they wouldn’t have assumed it was from the gods, would they? They would have realized it was a man-made object, albeit one from a society whose technology they could not fathom.

No, the Bushmen did not infer design. They inferred divine intervention, and that’s exactly what the intelligent designists want us to infer as well, despite their disingenuous pose.

Not only that, but while the complexities of life on this planet may cause some of us to infer an intelligence behind it all, they do not necessarily imply that at all.

One day an incident occurred in my elementary media center that put this in perspective for me. I was working at my table on my spiffy PowerBook laptop, using my graphics tablet pen as a mouse, when one of our special education students stopped by to watch in wonder as I worked. Finally she asked, “Mr. Lyles, is your computer magic?” I gently explained that although it looked like magic, it was just a very complicated machine, and demonstrated the tablet for her.

These people fall in the same category: it’s too complicated for us to explain, so it must be the work of powers beyond our comprehension. It is a lazy, intellectually dishonest way of looking at the world.

Turtles, all the way down.

A moratorium

I hereby propose a moratorium on the word important in any GPS enduring understanding or essential question.

Today I attended a very good session for third grade teachers on “unpacking” a standard. When it got down to writing essential questions, it was amazing at the number of EQs that contained the word important. What got me to thinking about the issue was an EQ that my team wrote on the writing standard. We proposed, “Why is writing so hard?”, the idea being that we would tap into the students’ dislike/fear of writing and springboard into the various solutions as suggested by the elements of that standard.

The crowd reaction at first was one of excitement, but then it was suggested that the EQ was too “negative,” and the next thing we knew, the EQ had been amended to “Why is writing important?”

Well.

If the purpose of an essential question is to provoke discussion and exploration, and it is, then why in the name of all that’s engaging would we shy away from a provocative question like “Why is writing so hard?” and replace it with some teacher-talk like “Why is writing important?” There isn’t a kid on this planet who doesn’t see right through the “important” BS: it’s just a trap to enforce the student’s compliance with the teacher’s view of things. It is humbug of the most offensive sort.

I completely understand that not every teacher would want to lead off with such an in-your-face EQ, but honey, please. Most of the EQs were simply lesson plans in disguise. Do you really want to dig into whether “following the rules of grammar helps you understand written and oral communication?” ::yawn::

So we could have rewritten the question, “Are there ways to make writing easier for me?”, or “What can I do to make my writing better?”, or any other question that actually sounds like it might be asked by a student, preferably a question that produces some interest in seeing it answered.

Therefore, teachers, a new commandment: Thou shalt not write essential questions that merely embed thine unfiltered instructional agenda without any attempt to understand how a student in thy care might actually think.

Because that’s important.

GPS training

Yesterday, I got to go to a session presented by dedicated fellow professionals here in Coweta County, the purpose of which was to nudge our teachers one more step into getting ready for the GPS.

First, let me say that the information was spot on, very important stuff, and that our presenters were sharp and prepared.

Second, let me say why I think it was not enough.

The purpose of the session was simply to introduce the vocabulary of the new curriculum: performance standard, essential question, enduring understandings, task, elements, etc., etc., etc. This all fell squarely into our View #1 of learning, taxon memory, in which the brain is confronted with what appears to be random, non-contextualized information, and it very appropriately resists learning it.

So here we had a very large room of dedicated teachers, most of whom I wager have been dreaming of a curriculum like the one we’re getting, and yet most of whom I’d wager again left that room still without the basic vocabulary of that new curriculum. Again, not the fault of our presenters.

What would I do differently, if my wand still worked?

  • Smaller groups. Plenty of discussion and sharing. It’s too easy for 100 people to abdicate responsibility for the information when there are 150 people in the room.
  • Examples of implementation at every step. Sure, there’s ELA2R1, but what will it look like when I have to do it with students?
  • Recognition of concerns, rooting out of misconceptions, confirming understanding, you know, the very things we’re supposed to do with students

Sure, easy enough for me to say, but my wand doesn’t work and there’s not enough funding or staffing to do it this way. Ah well.

And I will say this: Backwards design begins at home. Yo, State Department of Education, before we can design instruction that will fulfill these standards, before we can do our performance task, we have to know what the assessment is going to be! I can have all kinds of evidence of understanding on the part of our third graders about the travails of Frederick Douglass and the dynamics of slavery, but what is the CRCT going to ask about?

Page 1 problem

Here’s the problem that crops up immediately in our study of Frederick Douglass: “Frederick Douglass was born a slave.” And what, to a 21st century third grader, does that mean? If our average 8-year-old doesn’t understand what slavery is, the whole point of choosing Douglass as part of our third-grade curriculum is lost.

Here’s a quick experiment:

The Three Kindreds of the Eldar were the Vanyar, the Noldor and the Teleri. All of the Vanyar and Noldor went to Aman. Many of the Teleri also journeyed to Valinor, but twice a host of this people turned away from the Journey in Middle-earth; these two kindreds are called Amanyar, the Eldar not of Aman. The first of these were the Nandor, who turned aside east of the Misty Mountains, and travelled down the River Anduin. The second, the Sindar, tarried in Beleriand seeking their lord, Elwë Singollo.

Got it? Unless you are a Silmarillion scholar (we prefer that term over “Tolkien freak”), you’d find it very difficult to begin any kind of activity based on the knowledge implicit in this one paragraph. For example: Draw a chart showing how the Vanyar, Noldor, Teleri, and Sindar are related. Name the most prominent Eldar of each people. Easy enough, unless you have no clue about the Noldor and the mess they got themselves and Middle-Earth into at the end of the First Age. (Bet you had no idea that Galadriel was an unrepentant rebel, and that’s why she’s still hanging around Lothlorien when Frodo shows up.)

So, let’s look at our Douglass book and how we need to think about getting the kids into it. Page one starts with his birth, his birthname, and the fact that he and his mother were slaves. He was “born a slave.”

Page two tells us that Douglass lived with his grandmother twelve miles away from the plantation. He saw his mother four or five times before she died when he was seven.

Page three: when he was six, his grandmother took him to the “big house” and left him, where he began his life of servitude.

Page four: we learn that slaves were beaten. When Douglass’s “own aunt Hester was tied to a hook and whipped,” he ran into a closet and hid.

There’s our first day of reading. What key context do we need to provide to students so that they can even suggest the obstacles Douglass had to overcome in his life?

Page 1

Having selected David A. Adler’s Picture book of Frederick Douglass as our base text, I photocopied the pages and put them into a notebook. I’ve gone through every page, selecting vocabulary words; creating comprension questions; proposing activities for advanced/gifteed students.

On page one, we’re given his birthplace, his birthname (Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey), and the facts that he and his mother were slaves, while his father was an unknown white man, perhaps his owner, Captain Aaron Anthony.

Comprehension questions:

  • Why did he change his name?
  • What does “his first owner” mean?
  • Why doesn’t the book tell us his birthday?

Our lesson plan calls for the class to keep a chart of characters in our narrative, most of whom are mentioned only once. This page has Harriet Bailey, his mother; and Capt. Anthony, his first owner.

Activities:

  • Start the timeline with Douglass’s birth in 1818.
  • Show Maryland on the regional map. (Students have a regional map, a U.S. map, and a world map.)
  • Use an atlas to find where Talbot County is in Maryland, and show it on the map.
  • Use a chart showing the dates of the states’ admission to the Union and color in the states that were states in 1818.

We immediately have a problem, which I’ll talk about tomorrow.