A calling ...

"We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims."

"Make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous cooperation without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone."

- Buckminster Fuller

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

National Writer's Block

Courtesy of Center for Exceptional Smart Briefs, here's a link to an article about the poor performance of students with disabilities on a national writing test.

Professor Roger Slakey, one of my English professors at Georgetown University, used to say that sloppy writing is a reflection of sloppy thinking. I was in a 7th grade English class recently, where I witnessed sloppy thinking firsthand. Instead of clearly responding to a question, for example, "Johnny bought the Parrot because he was lonely, the majority of group reading responses went something like this, "Because, he was lonely." Somehow, the concept of always including a subject and important details in a sentence never sunk in during the primary and upper elementary grades with many of these students.

While coaching my son Joe over the summer with his summer reading project, The Alchemist, I was appalled at the low level of many of Joe's responses. Fortunately, I was there to ask penetrating questions that forced Joe to elaborate and think about what was missing from his sentences. Fortunately, I knew that Joe has always been a classic under performer, someone with far more ability than he often demonstrated. I've seen enough flashes to know better.

Why are students performing poorly on writing assessments? Following Slakey's logic, sloppy writing is a reflection of sloppy thinking. Considering Dan Pink's recent observations about the core human needs that have been overlooked in Motivation 2.0, -- Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose -- perhaps the pervasiveness of sloppy thinking reflects a pervasive lack of motivation among an entire generation of students. For young people like my son Joe, who much prefers Minecraft to his studies or even to baseball, education has been sold as a pathway to "good jobs," as opposed to being naturally good.

For those who can write, the power of the pen is the ultimate form of autonomy: with my blog, I am my own boss. Even though my blog generates zero cash, I get to share my observations with very few restraints. For most students, on the other hand, writing is boring, and the quality of thinking is often not carefully evaluated beyond lower level remembering or understanding responses. Forget about the upper levels of Bloom!

Dan Pink observes that mastery is difficult. Having studied the violin under Ellis Chasins, a 30 + year concert master of the Arlington symphony, I experienced the benefits of practicing scales and doing bowing exercises at a very young age. Natural talent led to a rapid ascent, but it could not get me past middle school, when practicing and doing boring drills became a chore. I made a series of incredibly poor decisions, and squandered a promising musical career. At 49, I am left to wonder what might have been. Dan Pink cites the same 10,000 hours to become a master at anything number I have seen in numerous writings on neuroscience. Writing in school has become a little too closed-ended to allow students the freedom to develop the skills to respond creatively, which may be at the root of the poor writing performance seen in recent testing. Here's a thought: maybe if students actually wrote more, with higher level questions with which to wrestle, students might get better at writing, provided teachers were actually holding students accountable to 6-trait writing rubrics, instead of low level multiple choice writing assessments.

For Dan Pink, the third leg generally missing from Motivation 2.0 is purpose. Teaching to the test is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Zig Ziegler once described people with low motivation as "flea trainers." He said that if you put fleas in a jar and close the top, the fleas will become accustomed to jumping a little lower than the height of the jar; when you unscrew the top, the fleas will have conditioned themselves to not be able to achieve their maximum potential. When I think of purpose, I think of my mom sitting in a library inside an internment camp at Topaz or Tule Lake reading the entire library. I think of my grandfather, an orphan living on a small island in Yamaguchi prefecture, who earned money at age 9 by writing letters for people who couldn't read. When I think of purpose, I think of a 4th grader, who floored me with a passage she wrote about being carried across a river by her father, who cried every day before her SOL, because her father was about to be deported, then earned a perfect score. When I think of purpose, I think about promise that my mom made to me that if I became serious, I could go to Georgetown University with free tuition. With just a pen, a powerful writer can change the world. A good writing teacher can make a difference. That is why I continue to put up with the abuse that comes with trying to become established as a teacher.