February 2017 archive

Descriptivism Prevails

I was prepping for class today, and this Huffington Post article just tickled me. It explains that Merriam Webster’s Twitter account featured a brush-up with a stickler for traditional pronoun usage:

The dictionary’s temporary social account manager then explained that they were using the singular they, and that the dictionary adheres to descriptivism. “We follow language, language doesn’t follow us,” they tweeted. 

“Language rules are all that separate us from the animals,” Smarick then said, via a social media platform on the internet, a technological feat that wrests upon thousands of years’ worth of progressively advanced scientific discovery.

This was not just a win for grammatical descriptivism (an approach to grammar that embraces all linguistic communities as valid, acknowledging the power relations embedded in evaluations like “correct” and “proper” English). It was also a win for scathing irony.

Hyperbole 2017

Joseph Green announcing the winner of Virginia’s largest youth poetry slam, Hyperbole 2017

If there’s anybody here who doesn’t believe young people have something valid to say about serious issues confronting our world, you gon’ learn today! – Joseph Green, poet, educator, and co-organizer of the Hyperbole

Five students and I spent nine and a half hours experiencing, writing, performing, and discussing poetry last Saturday at the Hyperbole (cleverly pronounced Hyper Bowl – as in “Super Bowl”).

Loudoun School’s poetry club – representing grades 7 through 12

My students could have done anything with their Saturday, but they chose to use poetry to connect with young people from D.C., Maryland, and Virginia whom they likely wouldn’t have met otherwise.

They mingled during ice breakers, supported each other in the preliminary slam round, participated in two hours of workshops, celebrated music and poetry at an open mic, and watched the ten finalists (plus performers from Ushindi) on the big stage.


In the morning, students mingled with kids from other schools during an ice breaker.

It was cool to see my students overcome the inevitable awkwardness of meeting new people.

The bravery and brilliance of my two students who decided to compete are simply legendary; they each had lines that knocked the breath out of my chest (and I saw the audience respond the same way).

Hannah, 7th grade, performing “How to Write a Poem in Six Steps (a guide by an inexperienced and unqualified writer)

Tessa performs her poem, “For the Boy Who Killed Himself in December”

Tessa and I attended last year’s Hyperbole alone, and she vowed she would build up our poetry club and bring more students this year. The fact that five kids from different grades, genders, and backgrounds came with us to Hyperbole 2017 is a testament to Tessa’s inclusive, compelling leadership. Each week, she chooses prompts, leads exercises, and moderates workshops to help her peers craft their poetic voices. She’s willing to put herself out there first, and to make mistakes in public, to give the rest of us the courage to follow suit. And at Hyperbole, she gets to meet likeminded risk-takers from across the DC, Maryland and Virginia area.

My experience at the Hyperbole drove home Joseph Green’s point about the urgency of listening generously to the voices of our young people. I re-learned what I knew as a kid: teens are paying attention to the words and deeds of their elders; they care about justice and beauty and human dignity. They are willing to envision a better world — and able to articulate those visions powerfully through language and performance.

I am so proud of the kindness, openness, brilliance, boldness, and beauty these students shared with the world and one another.

The back of the Hyperbole 2017 program

What happens to kids’ reasoning when we teach it explicitly?

Deep Sran and his middle school students discuss how to word their search queries, how to evaluate domain names, and what to look for when assessing a website’s credibility.

Are people generally capable of making sound decisions about complex problems? Given the onslaught of “fake news,” misinformation, and conspiracy theories, and given our tendency to isolate ourselves from people with different values and experiences from ours, how do we know when our decisions are right?

Cognitive research scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber suggest there is some hope. In their otherwise rather pessimistic study of reasoning’s argumentative function in human life, they note that if we work at it, we can become better reasoners:

Individuals may develop some limited ability to distance themselves from their own opinion, to consider alternatives and thereby become more objective. Presumably this is what the 10% or so of people who pass the standard Wason selection task do. But this is an acquired skill and involves exercising some imperfect control over a natural disposition that spontaneously pulls in a different direction.

My fellow faculty member and school founder Deep Sran is trying to do just that for students in his new Informal Reasoning course. The course is an opportunity for middle and high school students to practice the kind of thinking required to effectively process new information they encounter in daily life — as they listen to the news or surf the web, for example. Informal Reasoning forms part of Loudoun School’s broader mission to educate responsible and empowered citizens.

Today I sat in on the middle school section of his class, and I’m persuaded that giving kids time to “think about their thinking” with modeling and feedback can significantly improve student reasoning. I’m currently considering ways to connect what I saw today with what I’m doing in Writing Lab. 

His lesson began with the question, “Should we restrict soda consumption for minors?” This question lends itself to flawed and self-interested reasoning because it’s:

  • controversial and polarizing
  • likely to matter to students personally
  • dependent on specialized knowledge from esoteric sources

Students recorded their thinking on a handout designed to take them through each step of an effective reasoning process, from “first reaction” to “introspection” to “research/verification” to “decision” ( as in, do you know enough to make one?) to a metacognitive question (“is there anything getting in the way of you going where the facts lead?”). The handout makes clear one of the assumptions of the course: we are better thinkers when we can honestly explain why we believe what we believe — and we’re even better thinkers when we can accurately evaluate whether those reasons supporting our beliefs are valid ones.

“Introspection” stood out to me as a particular departure from typical middle school instruction. Deep asked students to articulate what information, values, assumptions, or analysis supports their first reaction. The responses kids shared aloud were more candid and precise than one might expect:

  • Cavan (8th grade) noted that his personal experiences support his bias against the restriction. “I enjoy sugar, which influences me.”
  • Hannah (7th grade) shared that a documentary she’d watched in school helped form her opinion.
  • Eric (8th grade) said that conversations with his mom, a holistic nutrition consultant, had shaped his ideas about sugar.

The bulk of instructional time was devoted to a whole-class exercise in finding and evaluating sources. Though I’ve seen parts of this done in high school English classes or school library tutorials, this lesson was distinctive in several ways, and taken together, these elements are what made it successful:

  • Students led the process: they shared their searches, sources, and thoughts. Their ideas structured the class discussion, which led to some unexpected revelations (a source Deep wouldn’t have assumed to be reliable because of its sketchy URL ended up proving useful when students analyzed its content and transparent approach to citation).
  • The exercise began with how to word the search query and how to sift through search results. This is an often-overlooked stage of the research process.
  • The overhead projector, typically a signal that the lesson will require passive and quiet students, was instead a site of collaboration and student activity. Deep would call on a student, ask her what search query she used, and go through the entire process using the projector. We all followed along, commenting, evaluating, and reflecting throughout the process. There’s something really exciting and empowering about a student’s being able to control what is shown on the projector.
  • Since the lesson was process-based (“how do we find reliable sources to answer this question?”), the students thought out loud alongside the teacher. Modeling and reflection were natural outgrowths of this approach – kids benefitted from hearing Deep think aloud about source quality.
  • Feedback was immediate because the exercise combined written and oral participation and involved a small group of kids.
  • Clear guidelines emerged organically from the process. Students recorded these guidelines to apply in subsequent assessments. A list like this might go ignored if it were distributed in a handout, but because these tips emerged unexpectedly from real-time student comments, the recommendations likely “stuck” more:
    • “.edu” “.gov” and “.org” are better than “.com” (but this generalization isn’t always true)
    • Is the source transparent (about who is writing it, what sources they’ve used, etc.)?
    • Find out about the author of the site or article (is s/he an expert in a relevant field?)
    • Click on any links to sources included in the article (News media articles citing other news media articles should be viewed skeptically)
    • Articles that cite scholarly research are more credible, but check at least the abstract of the research to make sure it’s being used accurately
    • Beware sites that have lots of ads
    • Look at the badges at the bottom of the page (501c3 and Better Business Bureau are signs of credibility)
  • Students were required to reflect during the last five minutes of the period. Deep asked them to share their one-sentence take-away.
  • Also, Deep is hilarious. This isn’t really a reproducible element of his instructional design, but it really helped student engagement that he had a playful, teasing back-and-forth with kids throughout the period. I need to up my game.

Deep summarized the purpose of the lesson toward the end of the period by describing a process he hopes students will get in the habit of following as they reason:

We tend to come to a question like this with initial reactions. The next step, which few people do, is to see if you’re right. Then there’s a third step even fewer people do – I did the initial research, is it any good? And a fourth step — should I make a decision yet, or do I need to find out more? You can do all of this for your closely held positions: Why do I think that? I need to research that. Should I still think that?

These are the kinds of questions that make our thinking more rigorous and reliable. I hope that practicing this process makes kids more likely to apply it outside the classroom. Our future ultimately depends upon their ability to do so.