Keeping it unreal

A student completing nightly worksheets assumes there is a greater purpose. Not so an old teacher like me.

My 8th-grade son delivered his usual stack of homework this week. Two assignments drew my ire, but for different reasons. The first worksheet was focused on participle phrases, an obscure grammatical feature. I would argue that you don’t need to know what a participle phrase is to be a good writer. I would argue that you don’t need to know what a participle phrase is to be an efficient reader. I would argue that because I began this blog with a participle phrase and you didn’t know it.

I wrote more than 1,000 feature stories, magazine pieces, new stories, and columns during my 17-year career in journalism. I have co-authored two books. I have written scores of blogs, hundreds of reports and proposals, and tens of thousands of emails. They are all performance assessments. I have had to communicate effectively to a specific audience and adhere to standards (journalistic, business, grammatical, etc.). But I didn’t need to be able to identify and label a participle phrase in order to be successful.

I found the second assignment even more befuddling. In fact, I found it to be dishonest.

Christian, my 13-year-old son, has a design eye. He can code, write video-game software, render drawings, and produce appealing pieces of art using chalk, charcoal, pastels, and oils. He decided long ago that he would become a graphic designer and chose a Bay Area design school as his preferred destination for higher education.

He came home this week with a writing prompt that asked him to produce a persuasive essay. The topic: Write a piece that convinces the reader why my son should receive a scholarship to a prestigious summer art camp.

I was excited by this assignment. Every summer we send Christian to a computer design academy at a local college. The thought of sending him to a second camp, focused exclusively on art, would be a gift that deepened his skills and furthered his interest.

Christian and I sat together after dinner to create a concept map for his persuasive essay. We came up with a catchy introduction, three solid and highly detailed reasons he should be chosen, and a memorable summary paragraph. As Christian pulled out my laptop and started typing, he turned to me and said, “Dad, I don’t know why you are so excited by this assignment. It’s not real.”

I was confused. “What do you mean it’s not real?” I asked. “You’re a perfect candidate for the camp and this is a good essay.”

“This assignment is not real,” he repeated. “There is no camp and there is no scholarship.”

I was appalled. I didn’t know what upset me more: The fact that he calmly accepted an assignment that appeared to be a blatant manipulation of his passion or the fact that this assignment was emblematic of the inauthentic “performance assessments” we ask students to complete.

The participle phrase worksheet is a minor offense. Kids are used to adults wasting their time in class and at home. But the essay prompt? That is a felony.

Follow me on Twitter: @davidBIE


Blowing bubbles

It’s a Monday night. As usual, I open Timothy’s homework folder and read the photocopied note from his teacher that explains where the class stands on the teaching calendar. The note mostly includes information about math concepts and spelling words. I remove the staple from the sheaf of worksheets and divide them into daily assignments that seem manageable to both Timothy and me. Mondays are dedicated to math.

Timothy and his classmates have been assigned three worksheets that focus on number families and require simple addition and subtraction tasks. Timothy is well trained. He begins by putting his name and last initial atop the page and then a large number 14 encased in a circle. I’m used to this requirement but still stymied by its purpose. In a class of 20 students the teacher needs a number to identify the students in her room? I would think by now that the teacher would be able to identify student work merely by glancing at the penmanship.

I doodle while Timothy completes the front side of the worksheet. I pay attention as he reaches the bottom of the page, reads the directions, makes a mental calculation and then bubbles in his answer. He is in first grade and he bubbles in answers. The bottom of every math worksheet he completes has been graphically designed to mimic a standardized test form. Timothy spends more time neatly coloring the bubble than he did on the calculation that produced the answer.

“How do you know how to do that?” I ask.

“Mrs. Garcia taught me.”

“What do you mean she taught you?”

“We practice doing our bubbles in class. Everybody in the class practices until they get it right.”

“Get what right?”

“The bubbles. Doing the bubbles right, dad. When you were a kid, did you practice bubbles?”

Well, as a matter of fact, I did. I practiced blowing bubbles with gum and I practiced blowing bubbles with little plastic wands.

If curriculum indeed shapes the worldview of students and colors their self-perception, what are the effects of lockstep curriculum on my child? My son is 6 and he knows there is one right way to do things and that there is one correct answer, an answer that is most easily identified by neatly filling a bubble. At school, my son is being taught that knowledge is codified and that it must be received. At school, he is being taught that knowledge can be summarized at the end of a book or chapter. That’s not the way I read a book unless I’m in school. That’s not the way we read a book together while we sit in our big comfortable bed. I don’t ask him comprehension questions. If Timothy wants to discuss the story, the pictures or the meaning of a word or concept, we do. If he wants to leave the book on the floor and then play video games, or watch a little television, or play one of a score of board games with his brother and me, we do.

This is a battle I’m quickly losing. One of the leveled readers I bought, a collection of Clifford stories published by Scholastic, contains six books. Each book is followed by comprehension questions about the story and then a narrative-sequencing problem. I never ask Timothy to even look at this section but that doesn’t stop him from eagerly tackling the questions on his own. Sometimes he wants to do the quiz before he’s read the story. He has learned that knowledge cannot reside in peace. It must be tested. Immediately.

At school Timothy works alone on tasks in short, predetermined time frames in which a bell signals the end of a work period. His teacher tells him that in school he and his classmates must work fast. Speed is of the essence. She tells him that he can take his time at home. If Timothy finishes his work early, which he most often does, he is told to help classmates that are slower. Collaboration consists of getting others up to speed. This process surely models factory work, and like factory work, earns ill will for the fastest workers. Will Timothy receive a bonus for his increased productivity? Of course. He will be asked to do more work and given one or two gummy bears. This sounds like employment in the former workers’ paradise known as the Soviet Union. I want my son to be knowledge capitalist. I haven’t taken an absolutist approach to rewards the way Kohn has because I’m a big fan of frequent flyer miles, but I want my son to be given free time when he finishes his worksheets. Then, perhaps, he can engage with his learning. And practice making bubbles – the good kind.

You can follow me on Twitter at davidBIE

Inside the lines

Before dinner, Timothy, my 6-year-old, decided to play school with Christian, who is four. The significance of this episode only can be understood if you know the boys’ personalities. Timothy resembles his mother in more than appearance. He likes rules. In fact, he feels uncomfortable if rules aren’t announced and then religiously adhered to. He expects punishment to be meted out for violations. He thrives on order in a way I find incomprehensible. Six weeks into first grade he has internalized his teachers’ system of rules, which he explains to me with relish on our rides home every afternoon. He enjoys the fact that she assigns class jobs. He proudly announces to us each time his name appears on the job list

A job is a job to Timothy, who as yet sees no social status attached to particular tasks. When he is assigned the job of line “caboose,” he fulfills his duty with alacrity. Most mornings we are the first to arrive in his class’ assigned spot on the playground. When Timothy is caboose he carefully estimates the length of the line and then places his backpack and lunchbox at the end then runs off to play. He returns to the line from time to time to adjust the position of his possessions to account for the arrival of classmates and the space they consume. When the teacher arrives to escort everyone inside, Timothy gently positions the other kids so they are in front of him and he indeed can be the caboose. He is visibly upset if anyone tries to stand behind him in the line.

I’m mystified by his actions. I’m mystified by the need for a caboose. In fact, I’m mystified by the need for a line. I routinely earned the ire of my sixth-grade teaching peers when they saw my class walk from our end of the campus to the cafeteria, where all assemblies and performances were held. The other nine teachers would order their students to line up outside their classroom door, often in two rows, one each for boys and girls. The behavior problems would usually be placed at the front of the line where the teacher could exert proximity control. Meanwhile, my students would meander in singles, pairs, triads or small groups to the cafeteria. Amiable chatter would dominate the trip. As long as they got there in a reasonable amount of time with no major detours I was happy. I spent no time controlling their behavior and never asked them to walk silently. My peers would expend vast amounts of energy trying to keep their lines orderly and quiet. The teachers would look in anger at me while their children looked in envy at my students.

Christian seems to have inherited my tolerance for disorder. By the time he was three I stopped asking him what happened during his day at preschool because he would either lie or deny. Timothy, on the other hand, quite calmly gives a lengthy recitation of the school day’s activity. Christian evinces a total disregard for rules, perhaps even more complete than my own. His multitudinous aunts have warned us that we will spend the next 13 years of our life in the principal’s office trying to justify our son’s behavior. That will be fun for me and not so much fun for the principal.

With those personality profiles in hand, envision the two boys playing school in our family room as I sit about 15 feet away at the kitchen table trying desperately not to alter the dynamic. Timothy moves two small chairs to the boys’ play table and tells Christian that they are going to play school. Christian, contrary to his usual style, readily agrees. Timothy tells Christian to sit down and be quiet. Christian obeys.

I’m greatly disturbed that Timothy has condensed the school experience to sitting quietly while an older person provides direct instruction that is followed without objection or interrogation. At home he actively questions the source of our knowledge when my wife or I make a factual statement. This is a tactic that I’ve encouraged from the day he could speak. He’s only been in school for a little more than a year and he’s already internalized the primary behavioral objectives of a monolithic institution.

I’m even more disturbed that Christian, my rebel, so willingly accedes to behavior that is antithetical to his nature. Christian has never even been in a K-12 classroom yet he already knows a drill alien to the helter-skelter, non-academic world of his preschool. I salve my conscience with the belief that Christian is merely demonstrating hero worship for his older brother.

I chewed on this scene. As a teacher I certainly want students to follow my classroom rules. As a parent there is no doubt that my children will obey me or any other reasonable adult they know. But which comes first, the rules or the obedience? I never called my 11th grade classes to order. Is that because they had internalized the institution’s rules or because they knew they didn’t need to settle down until I provided overt or covert signals that it was time to snap to attention?

The play school scene has hung with me for weeks. It’s made me question the universal appeal of a less directed approach to education. The students who did well in my classroom moved comfortably in a world of open-ended knowledge where the teacher was their co-pilot, occasionally a navigator, in learning. But not all students thrive in a loosely structured inquiry-based classroom. I told parents and students exactly that when they decided to leave the Project Based Learning high school where I taught for four years. Some kids need more structure. But did I believe what I was saying?

How can I promote a model of education that doesn’t meet the needs of all children, especially my own? Or, is this a prime example of the need for educational choice? Let’s hope so.

Follow me on Twitter: @davidBIE

Controlling the narrative

Can you think of a profession that does a worse job of controlling a narrative than education?

There are 3.1 million teachers in our K-12 schools. About 35 percent of them teach English/Languages Arts. If there were a group that should know something about a narrative, this would be it.

The Common Core, love it or hate, is a prime example of this problem.

My sister-in-law recently moved her family to a new town. This also meant a move from private to public school. Lisa scheduled an introductory meeting with her son’s fourth-grade teacher. She left the school 10 minutes later in a panic

She wasn’t worried about her kids getting beat up or making friends. She was worried about curriculum. This is how our phone call began:

“Do you know anything about the Common Core?” she asked. “The new school is using that theory.”

Let’s take a moment to unpack that comment.

Why doesn’t my college-educated sister-in-law have a clue about the Common Core? Theory? Is that how it was described to her? Shouldn’t the teacher (and her school) have a handout or an elevator speech to describe the Common Core and allay parents’ fear? How is Lisa going to walk back from her deep lack of understanding and help her children be successful in the school?

Four hours later, as I sat through the parent orientation at the public high school I want my eighth-grade son to attend, another dose of narrative anarchy.

A Q&A with school leadership followed the tour and student and parent testimonials. The Common Core was the dominant topic.

“Do you follow the Common Core? Why do you do the Common Core – can’t you do something else? Do they do the Common Core in middle school? Do the other high schools in town do the Common Core? How do you teach it? Is it going to be on the test?”

The National PTA offers a Common Core toolkit. The Girl Scouts offer merit badges aligned to the Common Core. Parenting Magazine offers Common Core tips for parents. This is about as mainstream as messaging can get, and yet the narrative goes awry.

Educators must gain control of the narratives that dominate our professional lives. There are a whole lot of English teachers out there who could help.

You can follow me on Twitter: @davidBIE

I got Malawi

I’m absolutely befuddled by the curricular “choices” offered to students.

My youngest son just finished his 18-page state report on Illinois. Why Illinois? Because his teacher assigned it to him. Last year he did a country report on Ivory Coast. Why Ivory Coast? Because his teacher assigned it to him.

My oldest son, a sophomore taking AP biology, is building a 3D-model of a cell and its morphological elements. So are 125 other classmates. Het was allowed to choose the material to render his model. He chose candy.

Despite what my wife says, my boys are not special. At least when it comes to the “choices” teachers grant them.

My favorite story about what the Buck Institute for Education calls student Voice and Choice comes from my instructional coaching days.

Several years ago I provided a series of Project Based Learning workshops to the staff of a working class middle-school near Seattle. Per policy and good practice, the workshops are supplemented by a series of onsite instructional coaching visits.

I gave the teachers an on-line needs assessment prior to the first coaching visit then analyzed the data to look for key concerns. I shared this data with the principal, who approved my agenda for the visit.

I checked in then headed to the principal’s office for a short meet and greet. The principal welcomed me, gushed over the quality of the initial workshop, and thanked me for the advanced planning. Then the principal asked me to deviate from the agreed-upon plan because he had concerns about Martin, a seventh grade teacher. I had scheduled a formative observation of Martin as part of this coaching visit so I decided to extend my time in his classroom.

Martin had worked diligently on creating a standards-aligned “project,” which was focused on the kingdoms of pre-colonial Africa.

I chatted briefly with Martin before taking a spot in the back. Martin began with a lesson on African geography then released the students to work. I immediately began to navigate the room, quietly observing the students work. Per prior agreement, I initiated conversations with several students.

One boy sat sullen and withdrawn, listlessly pushing his pencil across a nearly blank piece of paper. I asked the boy if he could explain what he was working on. The boy said he was working on his project, a country report on Malawi. The words “country report” raised an immediate alarm but I pressed on. I asked the boy why he had chosen Malawi.

The boy told me that he really didn’t pick Malawi. Martin, his teacher, had put a list of student names on the board in the order of their GPA, highest to lowest. The students with the highest GPA got to “choose” the country for their report first, and on down the line. The boy, who had one of the lowest GPA’s in the class, got Malawi.


If our standards require students to know something about the kingdoms of pre-colonial Africa can we at least allow students (ideally, in groups) to choose a topic of interest to them: music, dance, poetry, culture, sports, technology, food, clothing, etc? They have to do the same readings and develop the same research skills to learn the content, but they would do so with energy and focus.

Why not require student teams to do a three-minute sales pitch for a topic they want? You want to do a presentation on clothing/fashion in Gomma? Convince me that you should have that topic. I know the sales pitch strategy works because I used it for 10 years in my middle and high school classrooms. And it’s fun. Wait – that’s a forbidden word. It’s engaging.

Let’s put some voice and choice back in the classroom. There’s only so much Malawi and Illinois our kids can take.


You can follow me on Twitter: @davidBIE

Stacked against him

My 13-year-old son, Christian, is typical of many middle school boys. He does his homework every afternoon at the kitchen table, calling out for assistance as needed from mom, dad or older brother. But something mysterious happens the following morning. As likely as not, the homework doesn’t get turned in.

The worksheets – always worksheets – that manage to get turned in and graded are returned home on Friday and saved in a big box at the foot of my bed. A big box. I decided to weigh the stack of worksheets. That act brought to mind the following piece I wrote for an unpublished series of essays.


My wife is a deeply sentimental woman. This trait manifests itself in various ways. She works hard to maintain an inordinately large network of close friends scattered near and far along the West Coast. Her office in a large Bay Area hospital is a shrine to our family. It includes scores of photos and artwork, a digital slide show of our children, and knickknacks collected from the many vacations we’ve taken. At home, my wife is a saver, not a collector. She saves things that have emotional significance to her. That very broad category would include our kids’ schoolwork.

My wife is not a neat person. She truly intends to organize the things she saves, but they invariably end in piles. These piles accumulate in various spots in our large home and stay there until my German-Scottish-Irish ancestry can take it no more. I leap into action, gather piles into larger piles, shove them into boxes, label the boxes and then transport them to our storage locker where they can rest undisturbed, out of my sight.

I went into one of my periodic organizational frenzies in the early fall of 2005. It was a stressful time for me. I was worried about the educational consulting business I was starting. I was worried about the finances of my 84-year-old mother as we burned through her assets in an attempt to qualify for Medi-Cal. I was worried about losing interest in my second and final year of course work for a PhD in education. Most importantly, I was worried about my 6-year-old son, Timothy, who was starting first grade in a school district beset by financial, performance and pedagogical difficulties. The California Department of Education had in fact taken it over the year before. Improvement seemed decades away. Solvency was a pipe dream.

On an unseasonably warm morning I came across a pile of completed worksheets on my wife’s bedroom dresser. It was my son’s homework from first grade. My wife had told me that she wanted to save all of my son’s work, but I didn’t believe her until that moment. I went downstairs and found another pile on the seldom-used dining room table. I looked around the kitchen and found a huge pile of work atop the refrigerator. I put them together. The stack was nine inches high. I carried it to the bathroom and put it on the scale. It weighed 6 pounds.

My son had just completed the 200th day of his education in an American public school. We celebrated his 100th day by giving him 100 pennies and 100 books. I celebrated his 200th day by thumbing through 6 pounds of worksheets.

There are 800 students in my son’s K-5 school, which, according to test scores, retention rates, suspensions and the usual lifeless data by which we judge schools, is the best in our district. Each of these kids will spend more than a 1,000 days in the elementary grades before moving on to middle school. If they produce 3 pounds of worksheets per 100 days, the school will be responsible for the creation 12 tons of worksheets. That’s one school. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 4.8 million kids in California elementary schools.

We’re going to need more trees.

You can follow me on Twitter at @davidBIE