What Happens In Vegas . . . Shouldn't Stay In Vegas

Our education columnist hopes that the teaching tricks he learned at a conference in Las Vegas work in a real public high school classroom.


            “The goal here is to get kids to think.”

            I was sitting in one of those institutional chairs, one among about 300 English teachers at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

            “Beyond the Five Paragraph Essay (FPE) Formula: Rethinking writing in response to literature,” was the topic. The blurb that I’d read, and which motivated me to get out of bed on Sunday morning for this 8:30 talk, said: “In this session, a teacher educator  … will present research as well as strategies which support students in writing essays that demonstrate thinking, not formula.”

            The lady speaking was a veteran teacher from Oregon. Her straight brown hair was cut neatly just above her collar line. She wore rumpled slacks with a well-worn, plaid vest over a mono-colored blouse. She looked like a teacher.  

            This panel, like most of the other fifteen presentations I attended last weekend, was well organized and to the point.

            It was hard not to be impressed with the listeners as well as the speakers. I knew that most of the teachers sitting with me—a small part of the many thousands of English teachers gathered here--had made sacrifices to get to this convention.

            Most schools have no funds to help defray the $240 registration fee or the hundreds of dollars needed for air transport, food and lodging. Las Vegas ain’t cheap.

            When school districts organize teacher training sessions they are generally sleepy affairs where we sit and listen to an expert read from a slide show. These national conventions are different. There’s energy in the room and it’s clear the people in the seats are there to improve themselves.  

            This thing about getting students to think, it was a mantra that I heard often over the three days I was in Vegas. It never failed to bring a smile to the audience when a presenter voiced such sentiments.

            But I’m the kind of guy who always wants to play the role of contrarian. 

            I knew, that if I went back to my English department meeting in San Leandro and gave this same speech to the other twenty English teachers I’d get a very skeptical reaction.

            The simple reason would be that teaching formulas like FPE exist precisely because the vast majority of students don’t want to think.

            The general public, I know, is unsympathetic to our dilemma. It’s our job to get them educated. Now you are giving us something called the Common Core, which will supposedly force us to get kids thinking. No more straightforward multiple-choice questions, now students will be asked to explain why the right answer it the right answer.

            “Get ‘em to think for a change,” I can hear the taxpayers insisting.

            Then, by chance, I opened up the latest Atlantic Magazine and read about the reaction of many math teachers to the Common Core Standards that we will be using in 2014.

            How do math teachers get around the difficulty of getting their kids to think? They teach them rote formulas called algorithms.

            The mathematics equivalent of the FPE.

            So what do math teachers think?

            “I am teaching the traditional algorithm this year to my third graders,” said one math educator to Atlantic, ”but was told next year with Common Core I will not be allowed to. They should use mental math, and other strategies, to add. Crazy!”

            It will be interesting to see how this is resolved.  I’m fired up to try some new ways to teach writing based on what I heard in Vegas—techniques that will help me ditch the FPE.

            Let the thinking begin.

Read other columns from the Entirely Secondary archive.

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Thomas Clarke November 23, 2012 at 08:34 PM
Jerry, I am surely impressed wih the fact that you drove all the way to Vegas to attend the teacher symposium, paying for the class out of your own pocket, including the transportation, lodging and meals. On the other hand if the San Leandro School District paid for this we now know who is ripping off whom.
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