Writing Rules! Advice From The New York Times on Writing Well

Writing Rules! Advice From The New York Times on Writing Well

The New York Times has recently published a few features that we consider gifts to English teachers everywhere, including a summer “How To” section of the Sunday Book Review, and a new series, called “Draft,” on the art of writing, which features essays by grammarians, historians, linguists, journalists, novelists and others.

Below, we collect some “rules” we’ve derived from these features and from other pieces on the Times site, along with links and related activities we hope writers at any stage will find fun or useful — or both.

Before you go, please note Rule 10, in which we ask for your writing advice.

Rule 1: Listen to the Voice Inside Your Head

In a post for Draft, Verilyn Klinkenborg notes that he is often asked what his “writing process” is. “My answer is simple: I think patiently, trying out sentences in my head,” he writes.

He advises student writers to do the same, in contrast to school-writing, in which students are “asked repeatedly to write papers that are inherently insincere exercises in rearranging things they’ve read or been told.” (Or, we have to add, are school exercises masquerading as sincere personal essays, such as the one spoofed in this Onion classic.)

Mr. Klinkenborg advises, “Before you learn to write well, to trust yourself as a writer, you will have to learn to be patient in the presence of your own thoughts.”

You almost surely have a voice inside your head. At present, it’s an untrained voice. It natters along quite happily, constructing delayed ripostes and hypothetical conversations. Why not give it something useful to do? Memorize some poetry or prose, nothing too arcane. A rhythmic kind of writing works best, something that sounds almost spoken. Then play those passages over and over again in your memory.

Try Mr. Klinkenborg’s suggestions and see what happens. And if you’d like to record the voice in your head, or some of the sentences you begin to experiment with, try keeping a journal. The Personal Tech section of The Times reports this week that you can now do that via phone apps, without the “inconvenience of paper.”

Rule 2: Learn From the Masters

A classic Times series, “Writers on Writing,” asked contemporary writers from André Aciman to Hilma Wolitzer to talk about their work.

Glean insight from authors like Jamaica Kinkaid on why she writes; Allegra Goodman on calming the inner critic; and Carl Hiaasen on scrounging for material in newspaper headlines.

What are your favorite bits of advice? Copy them out for future inspiration.

Rule 3: Read Like Writers

To learn “How to Write Great,” immerse yourself in great literature, which, according to writer Roger Rosenblatt, can be anything from “Harold and the Purple Crayon” (“the lessons of the ‘Odyssey,’ minus the sex”) to “The Great Gatsby” (“Jay Gatsby, who stood straight and sober in the drunken Twenties, and who, nutty as his yearnings may have been, really was great”).

What books do you admire most? Why? As Mr. Rosenblatt does in this essay, you might try writing a paragraph describing what you find important and enduring about a book or author, whether your choice is an official classic on everyone’s list or an overlooked gem you think others should read.

Rule 4: Review the Rules

In his hilarious “How To Write,” Colson Whitehead plays with shopworn advice that will be familiar to many student-writers. For instance:

Rule No. 1: Show and Tell. Most people say, “Show, don’t tell,” but I stand by Show and Tell, because when writers put their work out into the world, they’re like kids bringing their broken unicorns and chewed-up teddy bears into class in the sad hope that someone else will love them as much as they do. “And what do you have for us today, Marcy?” “A penetrating psychological study of a young med student who receives disturbing news from a former lover.” “How marvelous! Timmy, what are you holding there?” “It’s a Calvinoesque romp through an unnamed metropolis much like New York, narrated by an armadillo.” “Such imagination!” Show and Tell, followed by a good nap.

Before you read the rest of Mr. Whitehead’s rules, you might brainstorm, alone or in a group, your own “Rules for Writing” — derived from what you’ve learned in school, from “real” writers, from your own experience, or from anywhere else. When you’re finished, consider:

  • Is there a difference between the rules you’ve learned in school and those you’ve learned about writing on your own?
  • Which rules seem most sound to you?
  • Do we need rules for writing?

Then, read the rest of Mr. Whitehead’s essay, and compare the two lists. What did you learn about writing from his piece that you didn’t know before?

Or, use his list as a model, and create a list of rules that spoof the advice on, or the clichés about, a topic you know well.

Rule 5: Study Sentences

In “My Life’s Sentences,” Jhumpa Lahiri writes:

In college, I used to underline sentences that struck me, that made me look up from the page. They were not necessarily the same sentences the professors pointed out, which would turn up for further explication on an exam. I noted them for their clarity, their rhythm, their beauty and their enchantment. For surely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time. To conjure a place, a person, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions. To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.

Sentences matter. In fact, Constance Hale notes that sentences can even act as miniature narrativesAs Hale does, you might collect your own examples of great sentences that are mini-narratives.

Ms. Hale also explores the “Sentences of the Masters” to demonstrate the different effects of short and long sentences:

Gabriel García Márquez writes unhurried sentences that almost defy parsing. William Faulkner wrote a nearly 1,300-word sentence that ended up in Guinness World Records, but he used the five words “My mother is a fish” as a complete chapter of a book. Joan Didion can stop us short with simple truths, and she can take us on strolls down labyrinthine corridors.

Look for examples of interesting sentence structure and sentence variety in a work you are studying or reading, then write your own “copy-change” versions, in which you borrow another author’s structure and use it to create your own piece.

You might also consider excerpts from children’s book to review sound literary devices and explore the music that sentences make.

Rule 6: Write With Non-Zombie Nouns and Verbs

Delve into Strunk and White’s fourth style reminder “Write with nouns and verbs” by reading about what Karen Sword calls “Zombie Nouns”:

Nouns formed from other parts of speech are called nominalizations. Academics love them; so do lawyers, bureaucrats and business writers. I call them “zombie nouns” because they cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings.

Fight those nasty zombie nouns with vivacious verbs.

And to consider tricky questions like “Do verbs have to be in the active voice?” and “When is the passive voice useful?” use the rules and examples inthis post by Constance Hale.

Rule 7: Punctuate That Thought

In a post on exclamation points, Ben Yagoda writes

Habitual e-mailers, texters and posters convey quite precise nuances through punctuation, which is after all one of the points of punctuation. A friend’s 12-year-old daughter once said that in her view, a single exclamation point is fine, as is three, but never two. My friend asked her where this rule came from and the girl said, “Nowhere. It’s just something you learn.”

Look through e-mails and texts you’ve sent for examples of “precise nuances” you’ve conveyed through punctuation. What “rules,” like the exclamation-point rule cited above, do you think govern the use of punctuation in forms of communication like texts and I.M.’s?

How might an older generation less fluent in these methods get the unwritten rules wrong? (Teachers: sites like When Parents Text might be useful here, but please consider whether it is appropriate for your students first.)

Here are some punctuation marks to consider:

Exclamation points

Use Mr. Yagoda’s post to examine and appreciate the role of the exclamation point in a sentence, then track exclamation points you see in “the wild”— in texts, e-mail, advertising, literature, or anywhere else. How do audience and purpose help determine when and why an exclamation point might be necessary or desirable?


Mr. Yagoda’s post also alludes to the use of the period in the Obama “Forward.” Slogan and what it suggests. What, exactly, does that period tell readers? What about the period the band Fun. has in its name?


Semicolons mystify many. In Semicolons: A Love Story Ben Dolnick recalls

When I was a teenager, newly fixated on becoming a writer, I came across a piece of advice from Kurt Vonnegut that affected me like an ice cube down the back of my shirt. “Do not use semicolons,” he said. “They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

While Vonnegut’s admonition may be harsh, Mr. Dolnick offers a good primer to using semicolons sparingly and eloquently, helping them understand the comma-period hybrid as writers and readers, which is useful, as one never knows where one might pop up.


Correct comma placement matters. Just ask Grandma:
Let’s eat, Grandma!
Let’s eat Grandma!

Use the Draft post “Fanfare for the Comma Man” as a jumping off point to examine comma use in a book you are currently reading. Copy sentences which include commas and use them to deduce the rules for proper comma use.

Then, turn to this post to check the accuracy of the comma rules you’ve come up with and check that your writers are following the rules.

Rule 8: Nobody’s Perfect

Yes, Times writers and editors do make mistakes and the in-house feature “After Deadline,” which the public can view, too, takes them to task by highlighting and correcting errors in grammar, usage and style that appear in print.

Use this blog to understand grammatical points, like subject verb agreement. Then, become a better editor of your own work by taking the After Deadline Quiz.

Rule 9: Fail

Learn from your mistakes and failures, a topic Augusten Burroughs tackles in 
“How to Write How-To”

… to pass along the knowledge of how to succeed, first you must know how to fail. A great deal, if possible. This is essential because it’s far more common (and easier) to make mistakes than to enjoy success. Being aware of potential points of derailment helps to better and more accurately navigate your readers past your own missteps so they can succeed where perhaps you first failed quite miserably.

Value mistakes, and the successes that grow from them, by keeping a portfolio of your work, including revisions and editing exercises. You might even reflect in writing on how your writing has progressed, or create atimeline of your development as a writer to see, laid out chronologically, how you’ve grown from as a writer over time.

Rule 10: Fill in the Blank

What would you add? Why? We invite you to tell us below.

Common Core E.L.A. Anchor Standards, 6-12

1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
4. Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.
5. Analyze the structure of texts, including how specific sentences, paragraphs and larger parts of the text (for example, a section, chapter, scene or stanza) relate to each other and the whole.
6. Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
10. Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

4. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization and style are appropriate to task, purpose and audience.
5. Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting or trying a new approach.
10. Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes and audiences.

Speaking and Listening
1. Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively and orally.

1. Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
2. Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization, punctuation and spelling when writing.
3. Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.


In Defense of Public Education

In Defense of Public Education

by Michael Rusin

Though the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune has run article after article excoriating the Chicago Teacher’s Union, none have piqued my disdain quite like its Tuesday, September 11th editorial entitled, “Don’t Cave, Mr. Mayor.” That editorial is, to my knowledge, the first from a major Chicago media outlet to call for the destruction of a teacher’s union through the privatization of education.

If I ignore the contradictory argument in the article that the strike is not really about money, yet the teachers should just accept a deal because the district is offering a raise, I can agree with them that this strike is about the future of Chicago. We just have a different notion of what that future should look like.

For the Tribune, that ideal future seems to be a privatized education system, wherein public schools no longer exist. The Tribune is very explicit in its belief that the solution to the educational issues of Chicago is the destruction of the Chicago Teachers Union. The problem is that they never explain why this will actually improve student education.

The Tribune article asserts that Chicago has been a laboratory for school reform and yet fails to mention what effective reform looks like. I can only assume that it is referring to the Renaissance 2010 project, which closed over a hundred neighborhood schools and replaced them with charter schools or other, more independently functioning, schools. Yet the Tribune article never get into the details of whether or not these reforms were actually beneficial to students. So, were they?

Chicago Catalyst reported that students at Chicago charter schools (which are publicly funded schools that are run by private corporate entities) scored at the same level as students across the district. This would mean that even with all their built-in advantages such as less accountability to CPS institutional bureaucracy, a higher percentage of “involved” parents, the ability to kick out students for discipline infractions, and the ability to accept lower percentages of special needs students, charter schools are performing at about the same level as the schools they replaced. Stanford researchers have also found that the vast majority of charter schools perform at the same level or worse than similar public schools. If charters do not improve student performance, why exactly should we turn all CPS schools into charters?

If teacher unions are the problem with education, why aren’t there outcries to create charter schools throughout Chicago’s North Shore and other suburban neighborhoods? It’s because people in those neighborhoods realize that the public education model with unionized employees, when properly supported, is effective. In fact, research suggests that the presence of teacher unions improves student test scores. Students in the 10 “right to work” states in the United States tend to score much lower the national median on NAEP tests. Teacher unions are not the problem with education: they can be, should be, and are part of the solution.

So why should Chicagoans refuse to accept a future where charter schools replace public schools? There are a variety of reasons, ranging from problems with accountability, to the ramifications of a corporate takeover of a public institution. However, I feel the most important reason, and the one that will do the most harm to the students, is that the charter school model will destroy the profession of teaching.

Teachers widely agree that with each additional year of classroom experience, they improve their practice. All teachers must begin their careers at some point, but the bedrock of our educational system must be the presence of good, experienced, teachers. Teacher experience matters: it matters to the teachers themselves, it matters to the stability of schools and it matters to the success of students.

With that in mind, the vast majority of charter schoolteachers and operators are good people. They are trying to create schools and classrooms that effectively educate students, and they believe in what they are doing — just as unionized public teachers do. But their good intentions cannot compensate for the problems of teacher retention in the charter school system. Charter school operators admit that retaining good teacher talent is essential to building a good school. The problem is that charter schools are unable to do this effectively. Teachers at charter schools are 130 percent more likely to leave their job than those at traditional public schools.

Traditional public schools are able to retain teachers by offering a comfortable middle class salary, benefits, and a pension. Teachers get into the profession out of a love for teaching– not to get rich. The stability of the public school system allows highly educated, highly skilled, and experienced professionals to continue to pursue advanced education and professional development that brings innovation and resources to their schools and their classrooms. Furthermore, it allows teachers to feel fairly compensated for the hard work that they do.

Unfortunately, charter schools do not offer that same stability. Charter schools often push teachers to work even longer hours than traditional public schools in equally tough conditions, but cap their salaries at a lower rate than comparable public schools. They also (in almost all cases) deny their workers the right to unionize to demand better salary and benefits. Is it any surprise that charter schoolteachers are four times more likely to leave their job than unionized public school teachers?

The Tribune’s vision of the future of Chicago, of a charter school system that is unable to retain its teachers, will be detrimental to the education of the students in Chicago. Teaching as a life-long profession will become a thing of the past. The charter school system would cycle through new and energetic teachers in a few years, and then replace them with the next batch of inexperienced teachers. This never-ending cycle would likely cut costs and prevent future teacher strikes, but it would also greatly reduce the number of good teachers — those that have furthered their education and development in the profession, and those who have the real world experience in the classroom to put their education and development into masterful practice. If we all agree that good teaching is essential in education, then can’t we also agree that a system that pushes out good, experienced teachers — and makes it almost impossible for new teachers to have the ability and incentive to develop their profession– is bad for students?

So you might ask: if many charter schools have a higher percentage of inexperienced teachers, and perform at a comparable level to traditional public schools, why does experienced teaching matter? If charter schools replace all of our traditional public schools, the advantages that charter schools currently hold would be gone. Charters would be forced to accept and teach all students, no matter their discipline, special education, or parental involvement issues. In this world, with a revolving door of inexperienced teachers ill-equipped to handle those issues, Chicago would see its student test scores decrease, and a decline in the overall educational experience of its students.

Instead of that vision for Chicago, I hope for a future with strong neighborhood schools where teachers work together with CPS to create safe environments and strong learning communities. I hope for a future Chicago where students learn in classrooms that have small class sizes (which research suggests is beneficial to student learning) and sufficient technology (computer labs, libraries, and climate-controlled environments). I hope for a future Chicago where principals evaluate teachers using a fair, objective, and multi-faceted system, not one that is largely based on student standardized tests (which have been found to be unreliable and invalid at measuring teacher performance). I encourage Chicagoans to share my vision of the future, and to speak out against those that seek to privatize our public education system.

So You Want to Get Into Teaching?

So You Want to Get Into Teaching?

by Randy Miller

So you want to be a teacher? Great, so now what do you do? Are you ready for the classroom? Are you ready to meet the demands of your administration? Are you ready to deal with the politics of the position of a teacher? Schools are not what they use to be, nor are they what you expect them to be. The same goes for the teaching profession.

Teachers are assumed to be people who have it easy: they work five to six hours a day, they have weekends and summers off, they get two paid vacations during the school year (Christmas and Spring/Easter break), and they get great medical benefits and a great pension package. That is not the entire truth. With the strategic changes in education, many teachers now work seven to nine hours a day in accordance to schools with extended days schedules for extended learning. Many school districts have trimmed that two week paid vacation to one week, eliminating Spring/Easter break. For some teachers throughout the country, the changing politics of education has seen public policy reform regarding teacher tenure, shared health-care costs and in the pension and retirement system. Teaching isn’t exactly how it was before in yesteryear; yet to be discussed are the various changing factors that impact your ability to teach i.e. parental engagement or lack thereof, student population, administrative turnover and etcetera.

In addition, it can be argued that teachers work even harder once they leave the school building. Lesson plans and actual lessons are put together most times in the comfort of the teacher’s home. While lesson plans are not the most complex of task, writing according to a district mandated procedure can be a bit tedious. Writing and preparing actual classroom lessons are often times the most time consuming and stressful of task for the teacher. Like a coach who works game-by-game to develop a great game plan which is based on the team that they have and the upcoming challenge that lay ahead, teachers struggle with the same assignment. As a teacher, your “team” is your fellow teachers across all grade levels and content areas within your school. Your students ARE NOT the challenge or the opponent. The various circumstances of your students are one of the challenges as well as meeting district and state benchmarks in the form of proficiency scores on standardized test. Another critical challenge that you must game plan for is the human element.

On paper, job titles and student designations and categories are laid out and neatly put together to at the very least give the illusion of organization and structure. But the business of education does not function as an easily constructed equation. Educators deal with a myriad of variables and many of them are doubled or tripled with exponents. People account for the variables we find throughout the education apparatus as well as outside the school building and teachers have to game plan for everything. However, education is as much of a vocation as it is a business. Your passion for the job of educating students must fuel everything that you do. If this “job” isn’t something you consider a vocation, you should reconsider teaching. Teaching is more than delivering instruction and knowing your content area. Teaching and education in general, is about the people — the same can be said of every occupation. Parents look to educators to prepare their students for the world that awaits them and they look to teachers to cultivate their children to be productive, responsible and inquisitive young men and women. Students look to educators and more specifically, they look to teachers to teach them things that they didn’t know and quite honestly to make learning fun — as it should be. In some cases, students look to teachers to provide them with the support they may or may not be receiving at home. Administrators look to teachers as the frontline warriors in the battlefield of educating students in our current dispensation. As a teacher, your job is an important and vital one. Many people depend on teachers. The job is unsung, stressful, time-consuming, draining and exhausting, yet it is indeed one of the most fulfilling, rewarding and empowering careers out there where you can empower individuals and literally improve lives — all by educating kids.
In life and in education, you reap what you sow: sow much and you will reap much yet if you sow little, you will get very little back.

Welcome to the profession.

Running Schools Like a Business Is a Crazy Idea

Running Schools Like a Business Is a Crazy Idea

by Glen Lineberry

I’ve been learning which posts are likely to bring comments, and which are never heard from again.

A lot of the comments have been helpful and on-point, which I greatly appreciate, because the whole point of this blog is to start some conversations about how we can better serve students, how we can be better educators, and how we can gain some support for the things we know are needed.

But almost every post also brings the “we should run schools like a business” comments.

And that’s just nuts.

These guys — and they seem always to be guys — inevitably mention the “bottom line,” and that comparison is crazy for several reasons.

First, what businesses do y’all have in mind? Lehman Brothers? Bernie Madoff’s funds? GM before the bailout? Do we really want the folks at the top of a school or district to risk the whole enterprise on ill-informed bets, or on actively ignored institutional entropy? I don’t think so.

Second, what kind of business? Not an extractive business. Not a mining company or oil corporation that externalizes its costs by leaving a damaged environment for someone else to clean up. Nor a venture capital firm [Bain, anyone?] that cuts operating budgets to the bone, knowing that they’ll be long cashed out before the chickens come home to roost. Certainly not a Microsoft or Samsung or Flip Video, that might make needed products and sell them at a reasonable price, but that never get better than “just good enough,” that never pushes the envelope. We can’t pattern schools after any of these models.

Third, what do real businesses mean by the “bottom line?” Most businesses are small, one or a handful of employees, owned by the founder or their families. What’s their bottom line? Sure, they want to make a profit, and must in order to keep the doors open, but is that what they’re really about? The bar I like to go to, because they’re nice and have a great kitchen, has to clear a profit, but the owners are focused on the kind of place it is, where you can get drunk and shoot pool, or take your kid in for a burger. Our neighborhood dry cleaner is family owned, and the lady running the place used to be a high-school student working in her dad’s shop, and she still calls me “Mr.” because she was about sixteen when I first started going there.

These businesses understand that the “bottom line” is more than the cash left in the drawer at the end of the month; it’s the relationships that have been built and the fact that they know your kids and you know theirs.

That’s the bottom line we have in education. We teach the kids of people we know, and those kids then work in the local businesses and, if you stay in the game long enough, you teach their kids down the road. Former students are the ones who say hello to you at the football game, or church or Wal-Mart; they may even end up teaching your kids.

But let’s get past the idea that “running a school like a business” would somehow solve all our problems, because: More businesses fail than make it, and that’s no batting average to emulate with our schools. When a business fails, its creditors are hurt and its customers inconvenienced, but a failing school can ruin lives.

What is the dollar value you put on the improvement in a child’s life from a good education? Or the price of a bad one? Do you really think a standardized test or one-day inspection tells you what the bottom line is? Really?

Running a business like a business isn’t even always the answer,
and it’s sure not the solution for our schools.

Five myths about teachers unions

Five myths about teachers unions

By Andrew J. Rotherham and Jane Hannaway

The Chicago teachers strike, which tentatively ended Friday, thrust teachers unions into the national spotlight this past week. In Chicago and around the country, some see unions as saving public education and others as driving it into the ground. But the reality of how teachers unions operate is more complicated than the rhetoric about them.

1. Teachers unions are to blame for low test scores and high dropout rates.

Where the unions matter most in the education debate is in their influence on how teachers are supervised and evaluated, who is granted tenure, and who is dismissed. These have all been flash points in Chicago.

There is abundant evidence that school districts don’t do enough to retain the best teachers or weed out the low performers. For instance, a 2009 report by the New Teacher Project found that 94 percent of teachers in Chicago received “superior” or “excellent” ratings, and just four in 1,000 were rated “unsatisfactory.” Considering the poor performance of Chicago’s schools, there’s no way nearly all of its teachers are superlative. Clearly, the evaluation system is broken.

And while teachers unions share some culpability for our education problems, so do school administrators, school boards, elected officials, communities and parents. Besides, those teacher contracts and state laws people complain about were agreed to by someone in addition to the unions — namely administrators and politicians. There is plenty of blame to go around.

2. Teachers unions are similar to private-sector unions.

Like unions representing autoworkers or flight attendants, teachers unions focus on workplace issues. They engage in collective bargaining with management for wages, benefits and other conditions of employment.

But teachers unions are different from private-sector unions in some fundamental ways. For starters, in the private sector, companies can go bankrupt. This generally creates a check on unions’ demands at the negotiating table because neither side wants an employer to downsize or go out of business. Public schools don’t go out of business. Officials involved in the Chicago negotiations said the union’s early demands for salary increases of more than 30 percent were impossible for the cash-strapped city.

In the private sector, there are genuinely two sides negotiating contracts. But teachers unions and other public-sector unions often exert power on both sides of the bargaining table. They exercise political pressure by supporting candidates financially, with coveted endorsements or by calling voters. Because school board elections are often held separately from other elections and have low turnout, teachers’ unions often dominate them. Autoworkers don’t get to pick the board of directors of the car company; but teachers, in effect, can.

3. Teachers unions support only liberal Democrats.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, from 1989 to 2012 the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers donated more than $79 million to congressional and presidential candidates. That largesse, which doesn’t include additional millions spent on lobbying and on state and local races, places them among the biggest-spending special interest groups in the country.

While most of the money has gone to Democrats, like any interest group teachers unions will work with whomever can help them advance their agenda. In the past decade the National Education Association worked with pro-states’-rights Republicans to try to undo the No Child Left Behind Act. The association’s Pennsylvania affiliate has given $40,000 to the Republican state legislator who famously remarked that the state’s controversial voter ID law would help Mitt Romney win there in November.

And as Joy Resmovits reported in the Huffington Post this month, teachers unions in several states are supporting candidates and organizations who oppose same-sex marriage or abortion rights and call homosexuality a sin — as long as they agree with the unions’ positions on education policy.

4. Teachers unions fight any kind of reform.

Stanford University political scientist Terry Moe says getting teachers unions to embrace reform is like asking a cat to bark, because unions are fundamentally about protecting their members and can’t be counted on to improve schools. Yet there are some examples of labor and management working together to bring about change in education.

In Pittsburgh seven years ago, a teachers union leader and the city’s superintendent began to work together to involve educators in decisions about closing schools and revamping the teacher-evaluation system. And in New Haven, Conn., in 2009, the teachers union and the city agreed on a new evaluation system that includes students’ test scores as well as classroom observations. Last year, 34 teachers lost their jobs based on the new system.

Today, with a new union leader and a new superintendent, reform is slowing in Pittsburgh. And in New Haven, many observers believe it was the threat of unilateral action by the mayor that got the union to make a deal. Regardless, under the right circumstances, even superintendents who have locked horns with their unions say they can be partners to effect reform.

5. What’s good for teachers is good for students.

Union leaders like to say this. It’s an appealing sentiment, and it’s sometimes true. When the teachers unions protect education spending in state budgets, that’s good for students. But there are times when students’ and teachers’ interests diverge.

Consider some of the big sticking points in the Chicago teachers strike: One major issue was what to do with teachers displaced by layoffs as a result of declining student enrollment. According to sources involved in the negotiations, the union wanted to keep teachers who could not find a new teaching position on the school district’s payroll indefinitely. A similar policy has cost New York City more than $100 million in pay to teachers who are not teaching. That sort of job security is obviously good for adults, but using scarce education dollars to pay hundreds of people who are not working is clearly not good for students.

Teacher contracts are loaded with such inefficient provisions. In a 2007 analysis for the think tank Education Sector Marguerite Roza estimated that provisions that are popular with unions but have a weak or nonexistent relationship with student learning, such as arbitrary limits on class size and automatic pay raises, consume almost 20 percent of an average school district’s budget — more than $77 billion in nationwide education spending annually.

So as we’ve seen in Chicago, what’s good for teachers is only sometimes good for students.

Malaysia holds seminars to help teachers spot ‘gay children’

Malaysia holds seminars to help teachers spot ‘gay children’

Light-coloured clothes and large handbags for boys listed as signs,
as government forges ahead with anti-gay agenda

The Malaysian government has begun holding seminars aiming to help teachers and parents spot signs of homosexuality in children, underscoring a rise in religious conservatism in the country.

So far, the Teachers Foundation of Malaysia has organised 10 seminars across the country. Attendance at the last event on Wednesday reached 1,500 people, a spokesman for the organisation said.

“It is a multi-religious and multicultural [event], after all, all religions are basically against that type of behaviour,” said the official.

The federal government said in March that it is working to curb the “problem” of homosexuality, especially among Muslims who make up over 60% of Malaysia’s population of 29 million people.

According to a handout issued at a recent seminar, signs of homosexuality in boys may include preferences for tight, light-coloured clothes and large handbags, local media reported.

For girls, the details were less clear. Girls with lesbian tendencies have no affection for men and like to hang out and sleep in the company of women, the reports said.

Malaysia frowns on oral and gay sex, describing them as against the order of nature. Under civil law, ‘offenders’, both male and female, can be jailed for up to 20 years, caned or fined.

Actual prosecutions are rare, although former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim has twice been tried for sodomy, in cases he called political conspiracies. He spent six years in jail, but the courts have since cleared him on appeal or dropped charges for lack of evidence.

Official intolerance of gay people has been on the rise. Last year, despite widespread criticism, the east coast state of Terengganu set up a camp for “effeminate” boys to show them how to become men.

The latest seminar for the teachers and parents was run by deputy education minister Puad Zarkashi, his office confirmed.

Zarkashi wasn’t immediately available for comment but national news agency Bernama quoted him as saying that being able to identify the signs will help contain the spread of the unhealthy lifestyle among the young, especially students.

“Youths are easily influenced by websites and blogs relating to LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] groups,” he was quoted as saying.

“This can also spread among their friends. We are worried that this happens during schooling time.”

guardian.co.uk © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited

Advice on Lighting Fires

Advice on Lighting Fires

by Robert Strong

A few summers ago the keynote speaker at a conference on curriculum issues in the liberal arts quoted Irish poet William Butler Yeats, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” It’s a good quote; I wrote it down.

The keynote speaker went on to say that college instruction should not be dribbling out drops of knowledge that students are expected to collect in a pail and carry around with them for the next four years; it should be about gathering kindling, encouraging students to take risks, letting them play with matches, and hoping that for some of them the materials at hand burst into flame and become life-long intellectual interests. This won’t happen to every student in every class; it won’t necessarily happen when students expect it to, or when professors do. But if it happens occasionally, it makes a liberal education worthwhile.

When the day of conferencing was over I went back to my hotel room and Googled the quote. All kinds of web pages popped up. It’s a very popular quotation. Some of the links took me to commencement addresses. One link was to a book titled something like What To Say If You Have to Give a Commencement Address.

Another link caught my eye. It was a blog entry from someone who asked: Does anyone out there know the source for the quote from Yeats about education and starting fires? The blogger had been looking for a source, but couldn’t find one. There were a number of responses. One was from a Classics scholar who suggested the quote was a paraphrase of Plutarch who once wrote “The mind is not a vessel to be filled…” Another came from a self-proclaimed Yeats expert who said the quote had no source because Yeats never said or wrote it.

That made me curious. I consulted the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Lots of entries about education; plenty of citations to Yeats. No pail, no fire. Bartlett’s Famous Quotations, same result. I went to Google Book and make a list of all the scanned volumes that contained the quote. There were lots, but when I clicked on some of them I couldn’t find a footnote with any information about where the quote had come from.

When I got back to my campus, I was still curious. I asked a colleague in the English department if he had ever heard of the Yeats quote. The answer was “No, and it doesn’t even sound like Yeats.” I went to the library where we have a multi-volume set of The Collected Works of William Butler Yeats and looked up education in the index. No pail, no fire. On a nearby shelf I found The Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats. That set also has an index with listings for education, but — you guessed it — no pail, no fire.

I began to think that the blogger I had found in my first Google search was right and the quote was a fraud. Maybe someone thought of something clever to say about education and then assumed that it would get more attention if it was attributed to someone famous. Yeats was dead; he wouldn’t mind.

Of course, my own conclusion that the quote is misattributed to Yeats could also be wrong. Proving a negative is nearly impossible.

If and when I address a convocation or a commencement, I plan to use the quote and follow it with my own account of its problematic attribution. Then I can offer some words of advice — advice that is becoming ever more important when information is so readily available and seems so authoritative:

• Don’t believe everything you hear from someone speaking at a podium.

• Don’t believe everything you read in books.

• Always be suspicious of information you find on the internet.

• Never hesitate to do your own research about something that strikes your fancy.

• Take some joy in finding things out for yourself even if what you find is complicated and incomplete.

• Pursue the truth wherever it takes you. And don’t be afraid to challenge prominent people and published sources if you find evidence that they might be wrong.

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” A famous poet may not have said it. I may not know who did say it. But it is true.

At all levels of education, what we as teachers hope for our students is that they’ll get out their matches, that they’ll look for the issues, ideas, authors, experiments, projects and problems they find exciting. We do want them to keep lighting fires.

Robert Strong is interim provost and William Lyne Wilson Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee University. These remarks are adapted from a talk he gave to the Class of 2016 during its orientation this month.

The Teacher’s Great Challenge: Staying Neutral with Students during a Contentious Election

The Teacher’s Great Challenge: Staying Neutral
with Students during a Contentious Election

by Larry Strauss

At least once a year, one of my students asks me if I’m a Republican.

I am not. In fact, I have never voted for a Republican in any election, though I have considered it at times — and so I might be offended by that student’s assumption — namely, that because I am a man and because I am what they consider white and because I am what they consider old and because that is who people associate with that party and the conservative agenda.

But I am not offended.

I am flattered — and should be — because their bogus assumption is a compliment — it means that in teaching them I have succeeded in shielding them from my political opinions and biases.
It is probably foolish of me to believe that I’ve entirely concealed my beliefs from them — or from anyone else.

But I insist on making the effort — and urge other educators to do the same.

It is election time again and as many of us use the moment in the teaching of government, political science, rhetoric, and history I hope we all remember what it means to be a teacher.

This year’s campaign seems destined to be a divisive and emotional one — when, in recent history, has a presidential election not been?

And it is not always easy to keep those emotions in check in the classroom. But it is our job.

And so, for example, the students in my class will analyze the stump speeches of both major candidates along with those of some lesser known candidates and when we evaluate the claims and support and utilize factcheck.org to study the art of political deception, we will do so for everyone. We will pick apart the rhetorical strategies of every candidate, use criticalvoter.com to reveal the linguistic tricks of their trade and understand how words can change the world — or be used to maintain the status quo.

I have had colleagues over the years who do not believe in pedagogical neutrality when it comes to politics.

They believe that their versions of social justice and righteousness are so right and so essential to the future of humanity that their mission is to persuade students to believe with them rather than trust the next generation by teaching them to think for themselves.

Though I often agree with their views on the world I disagree with their views about our role as teachers.

I am not indifferent to the struggle for justice and the future of humanity.

I just don’t believe that encouraging students to echo our opinions is ever beneficial. It is arrogant and it is short-sighted.

The only long-term hope for all of us is that the next generation and the one after that can navigate their world, make sense out of it, understand it in the context of the past and the future, seek the truth, see the truths, and tell the truth. Their own — not ours.

Back to School: Aspiring to Be a Well-Rounded Thinker

Back to School: Aspiring to Be a Well-Rounded Thinker

by Nick Kolakowski

Thanks to our considerable brainpower and opposable thumbs, human beings are generalists when it comes to surviving on planet Earth. Toss us in any new environment, and we have an unnerving habit of staying alive. We can eat nearly anything, provided you cook it long enough.

Contrast that with a specialist species, such as the panda, that prefer a certain kind of habitat and one or two kinds of food. Generalist species endure situations that would place their specialist brethren on the extinct list. Drop a human being into the Arctic Circle with a knife and a little survival knowledge, and a few months later they might return from the snowy wilderness with a moderate case of frostbite and a crude bearskin coat. Leave a koala bear near the North Pole, and the poor beast will be stiff as a hockey puck by dawn.

In a similar way, a well-rounded thinker can survive and prosper where a specialist thinker might not. The master chemist with commercial truck-driving skills and an extensive knowledge of Elizabethan poetry serves a purpose in three very different types of situations, whereas a plain ol’ chemist is useful in just one. Keep that in mind whether you’re heading back to school or just looking to expand your knowledge base.

Putting This Theory Into Practice

I don’t mean to suggest that specializing in a particular subject somehow puts you at a disadvantage to those who take the generalist approach. We all inevitably focus on what interests us or, in many cases, what proves the most lucrative. But keeping an open mind to new things often leads to greater variety in life. If nothing else, generalists who dabble in many subjects rarely find themselves bored, which is a fate worse than death for many intellectuals.

And who knows? One day you might find yourself in a situation that demands extensive multidisciplinary knowledge, like having to drive a truck loaded with nitroglycerin while reciting old English sonnets into the radio. (Your refusal to settle on a college major until senior year will have finally paid off.) Until then, you can indulge in multiple lines of inquiry for the sheer pleasure of intellectual pursuit.

In grade school, your instructors try to balance you in exactly this way: a dash of physics, some phys-ed, a wee bit of “ethics” in a failed attempt to prevent you from giving authority figures the finger, a few semesters of art, and years of mathematics, language, chemistry, and literature. If you paid attention and did your homework, you probably reached your generalist peak at the tender age of 17, equally capable of counting atoms and quoting a few lines of T.S. Eliot. My biology teacher made us learn the names of every bone in the human body. Nowadays, I have trouble remembering the name of the subway stop closest to my house. It’s an unending task, keeping your knowledge base alive.

The Inevitable Footnote…

Some professions and branches of knowledge require so much study, they swallow the time needed to dive deep into other subjects. A computer programmer who spends a decade learning their craft, followed by more years building the world’s first auction Website devoted solely to celebrities’ used chewing gum, never had the spare months to learn another language, for example, or the history of Japan’s Edo era. This is excusable — provided they use the resulting millions in stock options to head back to school.

Let Teachers Run the School

Let Teachers Run the School

by Glen Lineberry

When I was in school, admittedly a good long while ago, teachers mostly ran the school.

The principal ran the building, but teachers held the reins in the classrooms and in the curriculum. Teachers decided what we were ready to learn, what to teach us, and how to make sure we stayed on track for SATs, scholarships and college success.

And they did a pretty good job.

Our teachers were motivated — positively by love of teaching and a commitment to their students; goaded by the knowledge that parents were paying attention, and that success was important to the community.

Why did this change?

A combination of factors led to the shift of power in education.
✔ The rise of the education colleges created a new power base in the field, one populated by professionals with advanced degrees.
✔ A Nation at Risk began, and No Child Left Behind advanced, the process of nationwide standards and testing.
✔ Increased state and federal control of school funding forced districts to comply.

Line these things up — a committed bureaucracy, a mandatory program to follow, the power of the purse — and you see that teachers never had a chance.

But perhaps there’s hope.

My school is beginning to move to a shared leadership model, with teachers taking a larger role in designing and implementing policy. This is not just window dressing — we are being asked to work on issues like the shift to core standards teacher evaluation and pay, even budgets.

Our principal and master teacher are genuinely committed to this process. Everyone understands that real decision-making still rests in their hands, but our voices are being heard, our issues are being addressed, and policies are developing in ways that benefit faculty, students and the school.

Administration wins, too, with good ideas flowing upward and increased faculty buy-in to our ongoing school improvement program.

It’s not perfect. We teachers have to learn how to participate more effectively in policymaking, how to operate within the system. Administrators have to learn how to say more than “no” when we send up something that doesn’t work; real explanations improve faculty morale, and improve the quality of the next proposal.

It’ll be a slow process, but losing control happened gradually, too.