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Thomas Newkirk

Commentary by Thomas Newkirk, professor emeritus of English at the University of New Hampshire and former director of the New Hampshire Literacy Institutes. These pieces originally appeared in Education Week.

Teachers: Know When to Stop Talking

There is an old saying, “Never miss an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.” It’s good advice for us teachers, I think, because it is well documented that we talk too much. When students do speak, there is often a recitation pattern that goes like this: (1) Teacher asks question; (2) student is recognized by the teacher; (3) student answers; and (4) teacher evaluates the answer of the student. Then on to the next question, the next student. Read the full story here.


Years ago, my family enjoyed playing a “Sesame Street” record in which a king was so grateful when the fire department put out a royal fire that he declared everyone in his kingdom would be a fireman. Of course, problems arose: There was no one to cook his meals because everyone was a fireman. The moral, I suppose, was that we need different professions, something the king eventually realized. But I loved the magical bravado of the king’s just declaring everyone a fireman—and it happened.

We get our fair share of magical thinking in the standards movement, such as the goal that every student in the country would be at the proficient level in reading and math by 2014, even though only about a third of U.S. students were at that level when the No Child Left Behind law was enacted. Proponents tried to make this unrealistic goal sound common-sensical—shouldn’t all kids read at grade level?—when in fact we had never been even close to having this level as the norm, let alone the universal requirement. Those of us who questioned the realism of this standard must surely have appeared as pessimists, spoilsports, or defeatists.

But as any decent weight-reduction counselor knows, few things can be more damaging than unrealistic goals. They set us up for failure.

We are now paying the price of this lack of realism. It corrupted the setting of state standards, with some states redefining proficient downward, often way downward. In my own small state of New Hampshire, which has scored among the top states in reading and math on national assessments, over 60 percent of schools are designated “in need of improvement” under No Child Left Behind. And the machinery of NCLB will only catch more unless radically modified.

The move to “common-core standards” is widely seen as a step forward—with rigorous and uniform standards to be in place in almost all states, so that U.S. students can become career- and college-ready. The College Board (a major “client” of the Educational Testing Service) and ACT Inc. were given roles in drafting the proposals of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, leaving some of us to wonder if there was not a conflict of interest involved. Can we be sure that these organizations, so tied to existing testing instruments, will not benefit financially from developing products that align with the standards they helped create?

But leaving aside concerns about possible conflicts, these standards are one more example of magical thinking: the universalization of “advanced placement.” The framers of the common-core standards have consistently taken a level of proficiency attained by the most accomplished students and made it a general expectation. Like the king on the “Sesame Street” record, they have declared everyone AP.

Let’s look at examples in the area of writing from the draft standards released in March. (The final set of common academic standards was released on June 2.) (“Allies Shift Focus Toward Promoting Standards Adoption”; “Final Version of Core Standards Assuages Some Concerns,” June 9, 2010.) Here is one of the draft core standards for 2nd graders (remember: 7-year-olds, missing teeth, a lingering belief in Santa Claus):

“Write informative and explanatory texts in which they introduce a topic, use facts and definitions to develop points, present similar information together using headers to signal groupings when appropriate, and provide a concluding sentence or section.”

While a few students may be able to accomplish this independently, the standard is wildly beyond the range of most 2nd graders, particularly boys, unless the activity is made into a formula with boxes to be filled in (and I fully expect these boxes are being created in curricular material as I write).

Or take this 12th grade standard for writing about literature:

“Analyze how an author draws on and transforms fictional source material, such as how Shakespeare draws on a story from Ovid, or a later author draws on Shakespeare.”

This sophisticated task of text analysis is daunting for AP literature students, and I would argue more appropriate for college literature classes. Again, it’s wildly unrealistic as a general standard for all 12th grade students, many of whom struggle with the general sense of a Shakespeare play.

Many of the objectives for persuasive writing at this age level describe the work I do with advanced college students—particularly the handling of multiple perspectives on a topic, a very complex skill for young writers. All of which makes me wonder, ungenerously, if those who created these standards have really taught in actual schools, with actual students, and actual teaching loads of over 120 students. I suppose we can declare high school the new college, but saying so does not make it so, or even make it possible.

So I see two possibilities. One would be mass failure, if these standards are actually applied to all students and rigorously tested. Teachers and students would once again be set up for failure.

The other, more likely result is a version of “just kidding.” These complex standards will morph into more modest “real” standards—ones that are tested through modifications to tests like the AP or the SAT writing test, or current state writing tests.

In either case, the core standards as written are utopian fictions, illusory, magical thinking.

—June 2010

Until fairly recently, psychologists accepted the commonsense view that job stress was directly related to the significance of the decisions being made. The top executive jobs, by this logic, were the most stressful because so much was riding on decisions. And the lower-level positions—the clerks, custodial workers, and receptionists—were less stressful because decisions had less impact. There was less to worry about. All this made a kind of sense.

But it was exactly wrong.

A longitudinal study of male civil servants in Great Britain, now referred to as the Whitehall Study, began to change this thinking 40 years ago. Researchers were surprised to find that mortality rates, as well as a range of stressrelated illnesses, were inversely related to job status. Top managers were less likely than lower-status employees to suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease—and they lived longer. The result was puzzling to the researchers, since none of the employees was desperately poor, all were by definition employed, all had access to health care. One possible explanation was that lower-status employees were more likely to smoke, or to have less-healthy diets, but the results held even when these factors were taken into account.

So what explained the result? The researchers concluded that, contrary to popular wisdom, the lowerstatus workers experienced more stress precisely because they had less control over their work. In other words, those who could make significant decisions probably had a sense of their own agency and control, and this prerogative to act actually made their jobs less stressful than those of workers who largely followed the direction of others.

The Whitehall results are consistent with animal studies that deal with stress and control. Animals suffer when they are in stressful environments and have no way to affect those environments. This powerlessness affects their autoimmune systems and leads to a range of health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart trouble, and ulcers, to name only a few. There is even some evidence that in animals that sense they can affect their environment, the body may release a Valium-like chemical that helps increase resilience, much like the sense of well-being we all get when we decide to really tackle a problem.

In the current rush to make educational decisions based on science, this evidence is significant. I realize that to speak of the psychological health of teachers—their happiness, their sense of being creative and in control of their work—might seem self-indulgent (or irrelevant) to many top-down reformers. The focus should be on student learning, they would say. But realistically, don’t we all hope to be taught and cared for by professionals who are happy in their work? Do any of us want the frustrated, hurried doctor who is on the HMO stopwatch, or worse, the angry dentist?

The closer you are to ground level in U.S. schools, the more you become aware of the deprofessionalizing power of complex educational systems and programs. Often, especially in moreaffluent districts, these systems pile up on one another, creating an indigestible, incompatible mess: Christmas-tree schools, with lots of ornaments. Programs for the responsive classroom, comprehension strategies, guided reading, direct instruction, leveled book, differentiated instruction, focused correction, and writing workshop jostle for teachers’ attention, all claiming to be aligned with state systems of evaluation (and all, of course, “research-based”).

A key word in the advertising copy for these systems is “easy.” Check it out. There is the regular promise that by minutely directing instruction, these systems will relieve the teacher of the stress of planning and decisionmaking and create great results. Worried about how to introduce a particular lesson? Here’s a script for you. As one area teacher complained: “Sometimes I think a monkey could do my work.” But, as we have seen, even monkeys become depressed when they lose the belief that they can affect their environment.

It is a Faustian bargain. When teachers lose control of decisionmaking—when they prepare students for tests they have no role in designing (and often no belief in), when they must abandon units they love because there is no longer time, when they must follow the plans designed by others, when they are locked in systems of instruction and evaluation they don’t create or even choose—they will not be relieved of stress. Their jobs are not made easier, they are made harder and more stressful. While some find a way to resist, others acquiesce, though they feel, as one teacher put it, that “the joy is being drained out of teaching.”

It will surely be argued that I am too optimistic here, that only a small percentage of teachers can or will take on this more creative work. That there is not time in a school day. Not enough support. It is too haphazard and unsystematic. Too slow. That it is only realistic to rely on ready-made materials, rubrics, lesson plans, and scripts that will bring focus and consistency to instruction. That teachers appreciate the way various programs lift the burden of decisionmaking. That instruction in subjects like reading and math is just too complex, the frameworks of assessment too elaborate, for teachers to master.

I will only point out the incredible irony of this position—that some reformers insist on high standards for students, while they have such a low estimation of teachers.

—October 2009

There's an old Roman insult that goes like this: "He can't read or swim." The presumption is that just about anyone who applied himself (or herself) could learn these skills. Indeed, many countries with high literacy rates, such as Japan, are successful in teaching children to read without all the angst and sense of crisis so common in the United States.

Here, our crisis mentality has led to the curious elevation of "reading science" as the savior that will lead us from a reliance on tradition, habit, experience, and impression to a truly solid foundation. The 2000 report of the National Reading Panel is seen by many reformers as a bold first step that will place reading instruction on a scientific basis. Virtually any educational product related to the subject now claims to be “research based,” no matter how tenuous the connection.

The reading panel's report has elicited a steady drumbeat of criticism over the years, both for what it chose to examine and what it chose to ignore. But even many of its harshest critics seem to accept the general principle that reading science has the potential to adjudicate among different practices and identify "what works." It’s just that the National Reading Panel did a bad, unwisely selective job.

This top-down model of research is, of course, the century-old dream of industrial management ushered in by Frederick Winslow Taylor, who promoted the belief that a class of researchers (and not the workers themselves) could determine the most efficient way to manage the activity of labor. In this way, we could achieve a science of labor, of reading, of living.

I would like to take a more radical position and argue that there is a fundamental problem with this use of research—and the name for this problem is reductionism. We can begin with the term "variable." The bias of this “gold standard” experimental research is to view teaching practices as a set of variables; some promote the learning of reading, some may not. Some practices may just be in the curriculum because they have always been there. The researcher promises to give causative weight to variables, so that educational practice might focus on "what works."

In its review, the reading panel identified a handful of variables, or individual practices, that seemed to be effective: instruction that focused on vocabulary, fluency, phonemic awareness, phonics, and comprehension. It’s an odd list—fluency and vocabulary instruction, but not independent reading. Nothing about writing. More significantly, it is an incomplete set of parts that does not add up to a coherent cultural practice.

In many ways, the flaws in reading science are the same flaws that Michael Pollan points out about nutrition science in his book In Defense of Food. The watershed moment for Pollan was the shift from "food" to "nutrients" that began in the 1920s (with the discovery of "vitamins") and gained full force in the 1970s when food began to be viewed as a delivery system for carbohydrates, proteins, fiber, and other newly emphasized elements. Foods were essentially the sum of the nutrient parts. And, he writes, "Since nutrients, as compared with foods, are invisible and therefore slightly mysterious, it falls to the scientists ... to explain the hidden reality of foods to us."

Eating was thus mystified. It was no longer a cultural practice, built of tradition, conviviality, and pleasure. Furthermore, since nutrients (and not food) were the central concern, these nutrients could be extracted or manufactured to "fortify" a vast array of processed products that were no longer "food," but "edible food-like substances."

If all of these changes made us healthier, Pollan’s argument would seem mere sentimentality. But they haven't, and part of the reason comes from the naive belief that these extracted or manufactured nutrients act the same way in isolation as they do in the actual practice of eating food—that a pill containing a nutrient found in carrots has the same benefit as eating that nutrient in a carrot. A nutrient is a nutrient. But the carrot itself is part of a system in which a range nutrients interact, and the nutrients of the carrot interact with other foods being eaten— an extraordinarily complex and poorly understood system of metabolism.

The analogy to current reading instruction is telling. Reading has been mystified so that teachers (many of whom have been successful for years) are asked to be dependent on researchers who can tease out the key variables (or nutrients) in instruction. Accumulated teacher experience is devalued as impressionistic when compared to the results of hard science. Reading programs are delivery systems for these variables, and children typically spend more time with "reading-like" activities than they do with reading.

It is common for one reading selection in some basal readers to have as many as 50 pages of supporting activity in the teacher’s manual. And for millions of children across the country, "fluency" translates into the speedreading of nonsense words, which seems the data of choice in many schools. But there is gold in them hills: Like processed foods, processed reading allows for a hugely profitable range of workbooks, tests, and consumable materials. Schools don’t develop reading programs—they buy them. Actual books, if available at all, make up a small part of this expenditure.

Those who argue for a cultural, or in Michael Pollan's terms, an ecological, approach to reading—one in which literacy is a meaningful, invested activity—are seen as hopeless romantics. But who’s being impractical here? Real food, real reading. Something to consider.

—March 2009

To the Editor: In his Nov. 2, 2005, letter to the editor concerning my Commentary, ("‘Brain Research’— A Call for Skepticism," Oct. 12, 2005), Ronald Fitzgerald terms my argument “superficial,” “unfair,” and “destructively reactionary.” Yet he fails to engage the argument I have made.

“Brain Research”—a Call for Skepticism

"Brain research” is everywhere these days. Teachers are bombarded with claims about “brain-based learning” at conferences, where they are regularly invited to view photo imaging of cerebral blood flow. Gender differences in learning are explained by variations in the cortical activity of boys and girls. And typically this research, or so proponents claim, can lead to clear implications for teaching. It often seems a short step from blood-flow studies to single-sex schools.

In reality, all of this happens at a considerable remove from actual research in neuropsychology or the chemistry of the brain. We rarely see references to journals such as Brain and Language, which carry such articles as “Rapid Serial Naming: Relationships Between Different Stimuli and Neuropsychological Factors.” More likely, teachers get a popularization of a popularization.

One reason for caution is obvious. The human brain is the most highly evolved life form we know of. And reading and writing are dazzlingly complex learning activities. The fields that study the brain’s role in these activities are among the most sophisticated and complex areas of science. One would think this alone would call for some humility on the part of educators, some awareness of our own limitations, some appreciation for the intricacy of the field itself. How likely is it that we, as amateurs, can dabble in this work, understand it, and extract unambiguous guidelines for teaching?

Another reason for caution is the sorry history of such efforts—a story told by the late Stephen Jay Gould in The Mismeasure of Man. Craniologists in the 19th century regularly used brain measurements to justify racial and sexual discrimination. In 1879, for example, Gustave Le Bon noted that the brains of many women were closer to the size of gorillas’ than to developed male brains. This size difference helped explain—at least to Le Bon— why women “represent the most inferior forms of human evolution and that they are closer to children and savages than to an adult, civilized man.” Cranial differences were also used to justify the superiority of northern European immigrants over those from southern Europe—and, of course, the differences between whites and African-Americans.

I don’t want to suggest that the current use of brain research is motivated by the same racial or misogynist motives. Yet in it we still find the assumption of a clear, direct, causal link between brain anatomy on the one hand, and learning behaviors and academic achievement on the other. The picture painted is a deterministic one: Anatomy is indeed destiny.

As a case in point, I would like to look at some claims made by Michael Gurian and Kathy Stevens, the authors of The Minds of Boys, in the November 2004 issue of Educational Leadership. They attempt to show that gender differences in the classroom are caused by physiological differences in the brain. Here, for example, is how the authors explain girls’ superiority in listening, visual and auditory memory, and descriptive writing:

“Girls have, in general, stronger neural connectors in their temporal lobes than boys have. These connectors lead to more sensually detailed memory storage, better listening skills, and better discrimination among the various tones of voice. This leads, among other things, to greater use of detail in writing assignments.”

This would seem to be a scientific claim, when in fact it is simply speculation on a cause. We have Fact A (stronger neural connectors) and Fact B (greater use of detail), and we are asked to accept that A causes B. But there could be any number of causes for this lack of detail in boys’ writing: indifference, lack of writing practice, lack of reading experience, preference for fast-paced narratives. A truly scientific claim would have to rule out— or at least weigh—these other variables.

The operating principle behind these claims usually comes down to “size matters.” Bigger is invariably better. If a bigger area of the brain is activated, the performance is invariably better. For example, Gurian and Stevens claim that the female brain, which experiences 15 percent greater blood flow to central areas, drives itself toward stimulants like reading and writing, while boys resist “the monotony of words.”

Like many other educators, I believe that the problem for boys is not blood flow, but the kind of reading they are asked to do, or the lack of male models for reading. Blood flow does not seem to be nearly the problem for upper-middle-class white boys that it is for poor black ones. In fact, this very stereotype—that reading is unnatural for boys—may play into underachievement. \Clearly, there are biological differences that matter. Boys, as a group, are slower off the mark in literacy, and schools must work to keep them feeling successful in these early years. Many learning disabilities surely have some neurological base. And the educational innovations urged by advocates of brain research often make perfect sense. Boys (and many girls) need more activity and movement, more chance to manipulate objects. But I don’t think we need brain studies to accept this—just a good rereading of Rousseau and Dewey. Or better, our own observations.

Citing “brain research” can perhaps give presenters the veneer of science; it can make us feel we are in contact with something solid. But I suspect it only makes us look foolish in the eyes of actual scientists. At worst, it overstates differences and looks for causes in all the wrong places.

—October, 2005

The focus should be on showing what writing does, not on itemizing the 'traits' it has.

We don't hear much about pleasure in this era of reform. The focus is on research-based instruction, on standards, rubrics, and prompts, and on the supposedly increasing literacy demands of the Information Age—all of which are discussed in the feverish language of cultural crisis.

These are all worthy topics, to be sure. But I want to explore something more basic, and, I'll contend, more practical. Why write in the first place? Why do writers stick with an activity that to the outsider seems so slow and isolating? I want to say something about the gratifications of writing, not the delayed gratifications—a good college, a good job, a good score—but the immediate gratifications of writing itself. This is a practical concern because we all regularly avoid tasks that do not give us some form of pleasure, no matter how beneficial they might be for the future. Duty and reason, "what's good for us," will only take us so far. Just look at how Americans eat—or exercise.

I have made a study of the big spring cleanups in my hometown. This is the one time a year when we can take out big items— furniture, old washing machines, steamer trunks, and more. We all cruise the neighborhood looking at each other's discards, half of which are gone by the time the trucks come. Every spring, I see any number of stationary bicycles, looking virtually new, purchased undoubtedly by someone who wanted to begin an exercising program but failed to keep it up. My theory is that these stationary bikes are picked up by other people interested in beginning to exercise—those who will the next spring put them out on the curb. I have this vision of hundreds, perhaps thousands of circulating stationary bikes.

Why, given the clear health benefits of exercise, do people fail to keep it up? Two reasons, I suspect. They find exercise too boring and too isolating. For a while they try to keep to a routine out of a sense of duty, and then, blaming their lack of willpower, they give it up.

Our instruction in writing can run into the same resistance. We can make great claims for the future utility of writing, but if we make it a dutiful act of delayed gratification, devoid of immediate pleasure, students will not write voluntarily, and they will not really engage with the work we require. And because they do not develop these voluntary habits, they won't develop the fluency, the vocabulary, and the intuitions about texts that writers must possess.

Resistant writers find literacy isolating and antisocial. Indeed, when interviewed, many of them claim that avid writers are only compensating for their lack of social skills. One way of countering this perception is to make writing much more of a social activity, where students can see the effect of their writing on readers—on peers, community members, and family members. But I want to stress that I am talking about readers and not rubrics, about conveying the human experience of being affected by writing. The focus should be on showing what writing does, not on itemizing the "traits" it has.

But what about the gratification of writing itself? Here the resistant writer is oppressed by the slowness and laboriousness of writing, particularly in comparison with talk. Experienced writers describe a very different kind of experience. They "listen to the text"—look for "the informing line" as if the very text they were writing was directing its production—they speak of an attitude of receptivity, of digression, of the writing taking on a new direction, when a single word calls up a new and surprising association or memory. Writers live for these moments.

Annie Dillard speaks of the experience of "unmerited grace" when the writing seems to come as a gift. Even inexperienced writers, as they write sequel after sequel of their space adventures, can have this experience of the openness and inexhaustibility of language. There's a part in the movie "The Never-Ending Story" when the young protagonist asks how many stories he could wish for. He gets the wise answer, "As many as you want."

So how might we begin to make these experiences available to students?

Resist teaching formulas. In his recent book The Testing Trap, George Hillocks shows how the standards movement has led to formulaic five-paragraph writing. We have educational consultants making thousands a day showing how to teach the "hamburger" composition for state tests. These tight forms perpetuate the untruth that what one has to say is less important than fitting a preset structure that no one in the real world uses anyway.
Help students develop an ease with writing. Good writing is rarely slow, laborious writing. Only by writing quickly do we outrace the censor, move beyond original intention, and capture some of that effortlessness that we experience in good conversation. Students need to understand the inverse economy of writing—the more you write, the more you have to write. The more you spend, the more you have.
Teachers of writing need this insider's view of writing. We need to build into teacher education experiences where teachers themselves can encounter the same pleasures, those gifts of grace that Annie Dillard talks about. It cannot consist solely of learning strategies or methods. Without these experiences of engagement, writing teachers are outsiders to the craft they teach.

The good news here is that the standards movement and changes in testing have refocused attention on writing. But it is only good news if we keep in mind the reasons we write in the first place—and why we stay with it.

This essay is adapted from his talk to the 2002 College Board Forum.

—February, 2003

Near the beginning of the film "Dead Poets Society," the English teacher played by Robin Williams forces his students to read aloud from the absurd preface to their anthology. Works of literature, the preface states, can be evaluated by graphing two qualities: importance and execution. Midway through the reading, Mr. Williams' character tells his students to rip out the offending pages. Art can never be so mechanically reduced.

This movie's warning is relevant today because we are now in the middle of a resurgence of mechanical instruction in writing. Driven by state testing, teachers are being pulled toward prompt-andrubric teaching that bypasses the human act of composing and the human gesture of response.

Proponents of rubrics will claim that they are simply trying to be clear about criteria that are too often tacit and unexplained. By using rubrics, the argument goes, we are giving students more precise and analytic reasons for the evaluations they receive. By placing these criteria in the clear light of day, students will come to see evaluations as less subjective, less what the teacher "likes."

If this were truly the case, who could disagree? The crux of the issue is this: Do rubrics clarify the process of sensitive response? Or do they distort, obscure, or mystify that response? And to answer that question, we need to think carefully about what we do when we read student work (when we are at our best)—and what we want from an evaluator.

Personally, I have never been able to use rubrics that establish predetermined weighting systems. I always cheat. I work backwards, determining the impression or sense I had of the writing, a unitary evaluative reaction. Then I jimmy the categories so that they fit my general reaction, hoping to escape detection. In other words, I am not thinking of multiple criteria (organization, detail, mechanics) as I read, parceling out my attention.

As I read, I feel myself in a magnetized field. I am drawn to—or released from—the text I am reading. Initially, this response is more physical than cognitive or analytic; when the text is working I feel more alert, and a good line or image propels me forward. At other times, I feel slack, unmagnetized, as if nothing is drawing me in, drawing me on. This lack of attraction may come from too little detail (or too much), from a lack of direction, absence of personality or voice, from dialogue that doesn't reveal character, but the immediate sensation is physical. The student's text has let me go.

Rather than reveal processes like the one I have described, rubrics conceal or mystify them. They fail to reveal the narrative, moment-by-moment process of evaluation. Their formal and categorical ratings belie—or worse, short-circuit— the work of the reader. Terms like "organization" fail to clarify (or even locate) the disruption in the reader's sense of continuity. Rubrics fail to provide a demonstration of the reading process that can later be internalized by the writer.

The very authoritative language and format of rubrics, their pretense to objectivity, hides the human act of reading. The key qualities of good writing (organization, detail, a central problem) are represented as something the writing has—rather than something the writing does.

All of this, of course, assumes that the purpose of rubrics is to convey response. More often, however, they are used to enforce uniformity of evaluation—as a preparation to test-taking. A striking example appeared in the February 2000 issue of Educational Leadership, describing the way kindergartners were prepped for a drawing test. I will quote from the article so that I might not be accused of exaggeration.

After the teacher explained what elements of the drawing were needed to get a score of 4, she said, "Notice that this drawing shows the ground colored green and brown. There are also a tree, the sky, some clouds, and the sun." She then showed a picture earning a 3, in which the tree, clouds, and sun were not as clearly defined. After this explanation, she asked each student to create "artwork that met the requirement of the level-4 drawing" and rate the artwork of a partner. Children spent the rest of class time "improving their drawings until all the student pictures either met the level-4 rubric or went up at least one level."

This is not preparation—it is capitulation. This developmentally inappropriate task is presented not as educational malpractice, but as a "success" for standards-based instruction. Which only goes to prove the education writer Alfie Kohn's point: that the standards movement is going to make satire obsolete.

—September, 2000