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On Bridges Across Troubled Waters


Dear Diane,

To pursue the theme: Words are indeed elusive—I might even dare to claim that we are constantly “constructing” new meanings for old words, while also digging around to recover old meanings. Of course, some aspects of our occasional rants are the result of use of language that borders on misuse, even on occasional abuse—plain lies.

But at the heart of our conversation is our conscious effort to avoid placing each other into neat boxes, thus parodying each other’s ideas, while doing a little rethinking about our own language as we go along. Example. I don’t even understand what E.D. Hirsch Jr. can mean by saying that his “common curriculum” takes up only 50 percent of the time. “The time”? How can we know ahead of time what “the time” allotment needs to be? Like my old story about Darrel’s insistence that rocks were alive that turned a two-day kindergarten curriculum into a year-long study. Nor can I understand our commenter, Mr. Dickey, when he tells us of the delights of teaching from a script. My failure to understand is, Dickey argues, due to the fact that I haven’t tried it. Partly. Also because we may have different ends in mind. I want authentic conversationalists, kids who don’t follow a script; so I figure I have to model it. (Incidentally, I urge readers to read the voices of our commenters—and Diane and my occasional responses to them.)

I just got back from several extended trips—to the Midwest, and then to Philly. Tomorrow I take off for a week in California. It makes it hard to “stay on task.” I may, Diane, thus delay responding to your thoughts about pay for performance. But I think it’s an idea that resonates best to those who don’t dare to imagine that schools can aspire to “great” learning (like taking Darrell's theory seriously), and whose notion of greatness in teaching has been compromised by testing. They have settled for beating the odds on test scores, thus missing the whole point of being a well-educated member of the world.

A few eclectic comments.

(1) As I browse through the program of the New York State Association for the Education of Young Children’s annual conference I note how little it responds to the current assault on early childhood. In contrast, The New York Times highlighted it in a recent Sunday magazine piece, PBS is showing a video produced by Michigan television called “Where Do The Children Play”, and NPR’s Morning Edition addressed the absence of play on Feb 21. So why isn’t play a major concern for AEYC?

(2) Education Week ran a big story (Feb. 20) on research into the value of homework. The headline “reveals” that acceptance of homework is widespread. But perhaps more importantly, the story notes that the kids struggling most found it least useful. Maybe the fact that 40 percent of all parents said it was mostly busywork would have been a more apt headline. The dean of my own university is quoted as saying that better homework is the answer. It would be interesting to think about what the life of a teacher would be like if we gave our students more appropriately tailored assignments, not to mention reading and commenting on them each week. (The arithmetic is pretty easy: in H.S.: 150x5 minutes. And would five minutes per student really be enough to help us design and respond appropriately?) There’s a huge gap between real-life teacher time and how policymakers calculate it.

There’s a connect between (1) and (2) above, I suspect.

It’s when I’m inside schools, or get the chance to talk with people in the field, that my mind starts churning. I miss having my own home base, but there are trade-offs to this new way of life I seem to have settled into. I keep confronting the realities faced in real-life time and policymaker time. The gap between the national education conversation and the inside-the-school conversation is too wide. I’m not arguing, Diane, for there being no gap at all. The retreat I go to annually of the North Dakota Study group is designed, not always perfectly, to enlarge in-school conversations. It’s the absence of two-way bridges across it. (And on which side of the bridge the power lies.)

The three-day Grinnell College “convocation” I spoke at last week was a great example of “bridging”. We listened to speakers from the U.S. Department of Education, Ed Sector, two Midwestern state superintendents, as well as young teachers working in urban schools throughout the Midwest: all trying to deal with the gap between policy and its implementation. We need more of this. (See Deborahmeier.com). Last weekend’s session on ethnography and schooling at the U of Penn wonderfully addressed the topic, too.

Then I noticed that one of my favorite magazines—Commonweal—was into the theme, too. The opening editorial was entitled “Bridge Closed”. It explores issues of censorship within the Catholic Church and its institutions, quoting “bridge closer” Bishop Braxton’s words of 1981: “The moving viewpoint of my different responsibilities has awakened in me the desire to build bridges of meaning across sometimes hostile waters.” It’s as much needed now as it was then, the editors chide. Braxton’s 1981 words are a perfect description of how I feel as I travel around the country. And not just on matters of education. E.J. Dionne Jr. has a piece in the same issue of Commonweal that jarred me into thinking about the history of bridging religious differences, one that progressives must always engage in. (“Faith and Politics”)

So maybe we’re part of a newfangled fad of some sort. (Horrors. You and me part of a fad?)




When you did the year long study of whether rocks were alive or not, did you study anything else? Did you teach your children about colors or art? Did you explore numbers and math? Did teaching literature and math ever hinder your great discussion about what being alive meant?

Much of what we think about what constitutes a kindergarten program is rather traditional, and not necessarily thoughtful. Much of E.D. Hirsch's work has pointed out that we can include sophisticated topics in the early years and children will benefit/enjoy that quality instruction.

The 50% number was not meant to hinder those great discussions that you had, but to acknowledge that teachers only have so much time in the day. And introducing students to quality, complex and meaningful topics/ideas is important, even in kindergarten.

It is absolutely wonderful that Darrell was asking that very perceptive question in kindergarten, but really, should he still have been asking that same question in his senior year in high school?

Erin Johnson

Regarding your comment that "the gap between the national education conversation and the inside-the-school conversation is too wide"

I recently heard Randi Weingarten speak and she made a comparison between teachers and physicians. An economist in the audience stood up afterwards and pointed out that research and practice are much more intertwined in medicine than they are in education. His point is a valid one, but why is this so?

Having experience in both the teaching and policy worlds, I could venture a few guesses -- but I'd like to hear what others have to say about this.


When research is published in a circulation such as the New England Journal of Medicine, for the most part, it's understood that it's accompanied by a relatively high degree of validity. Shenanigans in medical research is not looked upon very favorably, as it could result in a life and death situation.

While social policy research is certainly important, it almost never rises to this level of scrutiny. It's also not uncommon be able to examine research on a topic (e. g. reading instruction in phonics) and find conflicting results from seemingly creditable sources. For years, teachers have been able to visit most any reputable search engine for research de jour, attempting to substantiate whatever they're currently employing in their classroom.

Look at this blog with Diane on the right, Debbie on the left. Many would contend they present a nice balance and often times they clearly do just that. But others, myself included, have often wondered, where is the definitive answer, THE invention of the wheel in education that works for all. Not sure it's out there but I know I'll always be on the lookout for it and will recognize if it ever appears.

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