Thinking about the simple things

Simplified parse tree PN = proper noun N = nou...

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I wanted to teach my class of 7th graders the very simple and basic difference between a common and proper noun.  They should already know this, so I considered the lesson largely to be review.

I drew a line down the middle of the board and asked the students to name nouns while I directed my assistants on what side of the line to write the nouns given by the class.  Common nouns went on one side and proper nouns on the other–but I did not tell the class this.  Then we began comparing.

It did not take long for the students to say the names “common” and “proper.”  The two primary things that I heard were that proper nouns have a capital letter, and are more important than common nouns.  Really?

I asked if the “Gators” (a sports team I suspect) are more important than “water.”

“Well, . . . uh, no . . . I don’t know . . . Oh no, Mr. Holler is playing his tricky mind games again.”  (Why do my students think I am playing a tricky mind game when I ask them to think?)

I discovered several things during this class.

1.  Students can enjoy thinking about grammar. Though, I already suspected this.

2. My students concluded that proper nouns are a unique thing within a larger class of common things.  They used the example of the word “restaurant” as a class of common things, and Arby’s, Bo Jangles, etc. as the unique things within the class of restaurants.  Beautiful.

3.  I wondered had they, or any of their teachers, thought this freely about common and proper nouns?  And this revealed something to me that might explain the unspoken prohibition junior high students have sworn an oath to by never capitalizing anything in their writing.

They have never been taught how to write proper nouns because they have never been taught what a proper noun is.  They have only been taught to recognize one on a worksheet or when they read it printed on the page.  Remember, they said, “It has a capital letter.”

How can you write if you do not know the thing you are attempting to write?  Thinking about the simple things will lead our students (even ourselves) toward writing and speaking of greater things.

Don’t be hasty

I read this from the introduction this morning of Everett Dean Martin’s book The Meaning of a Liberal Education, copywritten 1926.

But something of the shoddiness enters into the minds and hearts of men, when shortcuts are sought in matters of mental growth which are essentially processes of slow maturing.  Education requires time.  The only time wasted is that spent trying to save time.  There should be no haste or crowding or cramming.  Mastery of any subject requires years of familiarity with it.  The formal training one receives in an institution is but the introduction.  Most people never get beyond a mere bowing acquaintance with knowledge.

“Education requires time.  The only time wasted is that spent trying to save time. There should be no haste or crowding or cramming.”  As you go to school today to begin class (whether at home or in a classroom), relax.  Attend to the moment.


How do you teach a group of 7th grade students the meaning of “firstfruits” in relation to the resurrection?

At the beginning of each year I like to take my students through a simple overview of the biblical narrative with something I have put together under the title of “God’s Redemptive Story.”

Outlined in this story are 7 clearly defined parts: creation, redemption, kingdom (of Israel–or, Man), Jesus, church (kingdom of Heaven/God), resurrection, and new creation.  You can read any portion of scripture and locate the reading within one of these 7 parts.  It is simply a helpful tool for young students who are now being asked to read and think about scripture anew.

While I was discussing the basic concepts of the resurrection I came upon Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15, “Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.”  I saw numbness settle upon my students with the word “firstfruits.”

And then it hit me.  My colleague had brought in a tomato plant and set it outside our classrooms, and I remembered one red tomato standing out through the leaves.  “Alright, outside,” I said.

In the end, it boiled down to Christ being the one ripe tomato, the “firstfruit,” and the rest of us being a bunch of green tomatoes to follow after in like manner.  Our hope is to ripen into a perfect red tomato. (No, there was absolutely no mentioning of that vegetable cartoon.)

How could you teach that, that clearly, without a garden?

Prejudice the Soil

The essentialist rejects the progressive theory of growth with nothing-fixed-in-advance, a planless education based upon the unselected experiences and needs of the child or even selected by cooperative, shared discussions of pupils and teachers.  Growth cannot be self-directed; it needs direction through a carefully chosen environment to an end or ends in the minds of those who have been entrusted by society with the child’s education.  The problem is not new; it was first posed in modern times by Rousseau and has been the subject of controversy ever since.  It was answered for all time by Coleridge nearly 100 years ago in the following story.  –Isaac Leon Kandel, Prejudice the Garden Toward Roses?, 1939

Kandel then quotes from Coleridge’s Table Talk, July 26, 1830.

Thelwall thought it very unfair to influence a child’s mind by inculcating any opinions before it should have come to years of discretion, and be able to choose for itself.  I showed him my garden, and told him it was my botanical garden. “How so?” said he, “it is covered with weeds.”—“Oh,” I replied, “that is only because it has not yet come to its age of discretion and choice.  The weeds, you see, have taken the liberty to grow, and I thought it unfair in me to prejudice the soil towards roses and strawberries.”

E. D. Hirsch argued that Romanticism took root in American education and has continued to infect it with the kind of naturalism prescribed by Rousseau (The Schools We Need, 1996).  What I continue to appreciate about Coleridge is that he breaks the Romantic mold as it displaces the divine with the human.  The result is, as seen in the above quote, that Coleridge perceived the true nature of education as that which seeks to “exhibit the ends of our moral being.”

Liberal Education

I came across a book in our public library titled The Meaning of a Liberal Education by Everett Dean Martin published in 1926, a seminal period for progressive education. The following is a quote from the chapter “Liberal Education vs. Book Learning.” The last sentence is golden.

People persist in thinking that education comes to a man by virtue of his attendance at some place where it may be “got.”  We frequently hear someone say, “I had so many years of Latin,” or “I took mathematics,” or I did not get much history.”  Formal education, which is book knowledge acquired in a school,–this possession which men measure and grade and standardize,–may or may not be an aid to general culture.  The thing I mean by liberal education is too elusive for the man with the yard stick.  -Everett Dean Martin


How did testing and accountability become the main levers of school reform? How did our elected officials become convinced that measurement and data would fix the schools? Somehow our nation got off track in its efforts to improve education.  What once was the standards movement was replaced by the accountability movement. What once was an effort to improve the quality of education turned into an accounting strategy:  Measure, then punish or reward. No education experience was needed to administer such a program. Anyone who loved data could do it. The strategy produced fear and obedience among educators; it often generated higher test scores. But it had nothing to do with education.  -Diane Ravitch, The Life and Death of the Great American School System

Ravitch continues with a subtle, yet crucial point.

Tests should follow the curriculum. They should be based on the curriculum. They should not replace it or precede it. (emphasis mine)

Oh how I wish our schools would listen to such wisdom.

Once a school begins down the path of being “test-driven,” or governed by the data and numbers, anxiety takes root among parents who then transfer that anxiety to their children.  Unfortunately, the things of greatest importance in education are sacrificed, forgotten, or neglected.  I believe this is evident when observing the order of Ravitch’s last statement.

When tests do not follow the curriculum, but precede it, a new standard dictates the nature of the classroom, by which I mean what is taught and how it is taught.  Who wrote the tests?  What standards are they following, determining, and prescribing? Does their concept of education align with our school?  Probably not.  How could it?  “They” do not even know who “our school” is, let alone the students in my class.

An important order exists within a school that should not be violated. The “test[s] should follow the curriculum” because the curriculum embodies the ideas on which we (any particular school or home) seek to nourish our children.

The curriculum is determined by the ideas we desire to instill, not tests prescribed by strangers.

In addition, the ideas are determined by our mission and vision of education.  If we believe that we must cultivate wisdom and virtue, what ideas will fulfill this task? Those ideas will define the curriculum we use because the curriculum must embody those ideas, and the curriculum in turn will determine the tests we (ought to) administer to our children.

The prescriptive direction flows one way.  We must exercise great caution concerning the tests we administer.  We must exercise great caution in how we interpret these tests, what we communicate to parents, and the reactive measures we institute as a result.

“The strategy produced fear and obedience among educators; it often generated higher test scores. But it had nothing to do with education.”


Michael Polanyi (Personal Knowledge) outlined the stages one goes through to solve a problem.  One begins with Preparation leading to Illumination, and concludes with Verification.  The original study of H. Poincare he is pulling from listed four stages: Preparation – Incubation – Illumination – Verification.

Coleridge begins his essay, The Education of Children, by stating,

In the education of children, love is first to be instilled, and out of love obedience is to be educed. Then impulse and power should be given to the intellect, and the ends of a moral being be exhibited.

The classroom principle both of these proposals hit on is the principle of imitation. Every individual learner (student and teacher) must go through the three stages of imitation: perception, absorbtion, and re-presentation.  In fact, the teacher must work through this process first before she can ever take the student through it.

The goal in education is to embody ideas.  But before an idea can be embodied it must first be seen (perceived), and secondly absorbed so as to in-form the soul.  Only then can the idea take outward form (re-presentation)–then can they be verified and “the ends of a moral being be exhibited.