Wednesday, January 26, 2011


Recently, I was part of a conversation in which a respected high-level educator gave the opinion that standardized tests, had “made better teachers of our teachers.” She was being somewhat ironic, because her context was that she was speaking against No Child Left Behind and its mandated tests. But our setting was such that we were not able to ask her to expound on her opinion, so a number of us were left wondering what she meant.  One of my friends grumbled, “If she means teaching to the test, I know some teachers who would disagree strongly with her.” I, too, am among those who lament the way the current testing emphasis encourages a lockstep, one-size-fits-all approach. (I recently heard a researcher say that schools are teaching civics and government less and less “because they’re not covered in the standardized tests.”) But I wonder if the educator meant something different, more subtle, about testing.

Let me offer a radical proposal: that, properly undertaken, teaching to the test is not a bad idea and actually results in learning.

By teaching to the test, I do not mean a cynical narrowing of focus whereby students are spoon-fed or inappropriately coached with answers, but rather that the subject matter, the teaching methods, and the testing are part of an integrated whole, with the goal of producing learning that lasts.

A test – even a final test – is, at base, a teaching tool. Rather than using the test simply as a bloodless measurement (or as a threat), good teachers, who understand themselves to be allies with their students in the learning quest, incorporate a test as a part of a logical progression that includes thoughtful class presentations, discussion, research, and homework.

One of the most practical and effective ways to use a test as a teaching tool, especially in the upper grades and high school and beyond, is to prepare test questions that serve as a comprehensive review of the material covered, then distribute a study guide developed from those questions (not the answers) and let the students know that this is the exact material from which they will be tested. This is not teaching to the test in the narrow way described above, but a systematic method of basing test preparation on the texts, notes, and research which have been an organic part of the class from the first day. A study guide of 25 questions, 20 of which will be on the test, has a way of concentrating the mind in the review of knowledge.

Another common-sense way to combine teaching and testing for the sake of learning is retesting. If learning the material is the goal, retesting is one of the most effective resources available to a teacher to assist students in reaching that goal. In life it’s called “learning from one’s mistakes.” (Of course if the goal is simply to measure rather than teach, retesting is a waste of time.) A math teacher once told me, with some frustration, that he believes in retesting as a teaching tool, but he doesn’t use it anymore because it takes too much time. This is an understandable frustration, but it also begs the question: If it will help students learn (not just improve their scores), shouldn’t our classes and curricula be designed to make such time available?

These ideas are part of what is sometimes known as teaching for mastery. “Mastery” is what education has always been about. As a matter of vocation, a good teacher wants her students to learn (that is, master) the material. So she will devise teaching (and testing) strategies to make this happen. The goal is the education of students, not just “covering the material.”

Some people instinctively distrust these concepts because of a vague sense that learning should be a sort of Darwinian competition and that any approach that assists a student in achieving real success is somehow not right. Those who do well (usually without much help) continue to rise to the top, those who do poorly continue to sink to the bottom, and the class moves on.

But educators devoted to teaching have always used a mastery approach to make sure that the goal of the lesson is clear and attainable, that the test accurately reflects what is taught, and that a student has some opportunity to enhance learning by reflecting on errors. Responsible teaching and testing is a way for teacher and student to participate in a sort of covenant based on the notion that what is being taught is actually worth learning and not just covering.

Once, in a casual conversation with a medical school dean, I said, “I suppose you use that first year to weed out as many students as you can.” He replied, “We have so much invested in those students we do everything we can to hang on to them.” I stood corrected, and learned an admirable philosophy for any school or teacher, at any level.


Here's a link to a New York Times article on this topic.

This post is adapted from an essay first published as an opinion piece in the Minneapolis Star Tribune

Sunday, January 23, 2011


You know the phenomenon of having a tune stuck in your head, going round and round? I have a version of that, except it’s an idea and not a tune, and it’s been an occasional mental tic in my brain for years. Here’s the idea: “What are those things that we live with that if they didn’t exist, science fiction writers would certainly invent them?”

I think the reason this is a mental game for me is that there’s some subtlety to it. Of course my question, above, could be answered with “anything, or everything:” If we didn’t have… paper towels, or … running water, or… the iPad, science fiction would come up with it. But it’s more subtle than that. It has to do with those things that would give the reader a kind of “gee whiz” response – a sense that these things, if we didn’t know them so casually, would be considered fantastic, or wonderful.

The “mental tic” part is that I wonder to what degree this concept makes sense to anyone else – or would we each come up with such an idiosyncratic list that it would be meaningless to anyone else.

Anyway, here’s my partial list: If These Things Didn’t Exist, Would Science Fiction Writers Invent Them?:

Snow. Ephemeral white stuff falling from the sky and piling up all around us

Sleep. The most powerful of beings are so vulnerable for long periods of time.

Music. Especially classical music. What the heck good is it? How frivolous! Who would ever think of such a thing?

The kiss. I can imagine a reader saying, “You know how we greet each other with a knee in the back? Well, in this book I’m reading, people actually use their lips to…”

Trees. Especially tall trees. It’s like we’re living among botanical dinosaurs and we don’t even notice it.

Friendship. It’s easy to imagine a world in which sentient beings merely co-existed, and all meaning in life was found in the material, the sensual, and the personal. What a fantasy it would be to imagine two of these beings relating to one another and opening life to a new dimension. (Wait a minute... Isn't this the theme of Woody Allen's "Sleeper"?)

So, am I completely bonkers? (At least perhaps I’ve exorcised my tic.) If I’m not, what would be on your list? (And don’t say, “The thermos bottle, because it keeps the hot things hot and the cold things cold, but how does it know?!”)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Our house is modest but interesting. Three stories, half stucco and half cedar shakes. I suppose the architectural style – much as I try to see some trace of arts-and-crafts or mission in it – is basically 1929 four-square: the “prairie box” as opposed to Prairie Style. What gives it a little interest is that, attached to one of those boxy sides – on the first and second floors – are sunrooms, filled with windows and light. The upper one is my study.* I used to feel guilty because I’m kind of a messy-desk person, and I’ve felt that I don’t deserve such a nice room. Now I feel guilty because it sits empty much of the time.

It’s not that I’m “studying” (or reading or writing) less, it’s that I’ve experienced a psychological and spatial shift toward the agora (or -- what would the Greek word for the home gathering place be?). This came about for two coincidental reasons: When I started this blog hobby a couple of years ago, Caryl noted, just a little peevishly, that I was holed up in my study “all the time.” With the merest hint of defensiveness (what could be more important than my blog!), I brought my laptop down into the kitchen. At about the same time, our daughter and son-in-law were staying with us while they were house-hunting, and the kitchen computer became a convenient tool in their quest. And then I got used to having it there. We bought a laptop table at Ikea (“Dave” – Ikea names all its furniture, and that, no kidding, is the name), and I found that my precious thoughts could actually percolate through the buzz and hum of the kitchen. And, I – no surprise – like Caryl’s company. (In our previous house, in Anchorage, we had a large room with our desks facing each other. I liked that, too. )

In a similar vein, a friend says he prefers to write his sermons in the busy milieu of the coffee shop. More and more that also works for me.

The kitchen was okay for me and Dave, but just a bit close to the stove, and I was afraid I was beginning to scuff the floor sliding the wooden kitchen chair back and forth. For months I'd had a kind of feng shui hunch that a certain nook in the living room, tucked into a corner at the base of the stairs, would be perfect. Kind of the best of both worlds: A bit of occasional isolation (we’re in the living room less frequently than the kitchen), yet still situated in the middle of things, family-wise. After considering a $1,400 desk, we settled for one somewhat less expensive at a popular near-by discount store (but no one will ever know).

So here I sit and tap away… “Yes, dear?” …Now… Where was I…?”

I was about to say that, interestingly (and sadly?), in the internet age I have less need to cover my desk with reference books than before, so it is easy to slide the laptop into the drawer fa├žade and – voila! – as guests arrive: an instantly-neat side table in a living room corner. (Of course I still read books, but in the easy chair in the living room. Once again the lonely study sighs with abandonment.)

Why am I going on about this? (Heaven forbid that I would ever start off on a topic with no idea where I’m headed. Heaven forbid!) For three reasons:
  • I wonder, does the art of feng shui – which deals with the relationship between people and objects, and the movement among them -- dictate the placement of a desk in such a way as to optimize one’s sense of well being in relation to the work done at the desk and one’s inter-action with people in the room?
  •  Where, dear reader, do you prefer to do your “work?” And why? (I like the interview show on C-Span where the author being interviewed takes you into his study and shows you around.)
  • What are we going to do with a beautiful unused sunroom lined with windows on three walls, books on the fourth, and filled with light?

    *The poet John Ciardi, in his Saturday Review column, once fretted that his use of the word "study" for his work room might sound a bit pretentious. I wondered, too; but I've gotten used to it. Years ago, an old pastor friend reminded me to refer to my room in the church as my "study" and not my "office," as a reminder of what really is supposed to go on there.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


You bring forth wine to gladden the human heart… (Psalm 104)

A recent piece offers a slide show of “Literary Watering Holes.” I was surprised to discover that Caryl and I have actually been to three of the thirteen pubs, bars, and cafes featured: The Eagle and Child in Oxford, The Spaniard in Hampstead, and The Grand in Oslo. We went to the Eagle and Child (“The Bird and Baby”) for the same reason all tourists do – to have a pint at (or near) the table where Tolkien and Lewis nurtured their friendship and their literary projects. The other two places simply presented themselves as inviting stops near where we were staying. In all three instances, the pubs retained the flavor, ambience, (and patronage) of a “local,” that is, they had an organic connection to their settings and had not been Disneyfied.

The Salon article got me to thinking: Caryl and I have a couple of "locals" (one is literally local – in our town – the other is a place we stop at when we head into the city), and they are, indeed, “watering holes.” In both cases we enter the front door of the establishment to find, to the left, a nicely appointed dining room, and, to the right, what is usually referred to in America as a “bar,” or in the U.K., a “pub.” (I agree that we don’t really have a neighborhood pub phenomenon in this country like that in Britain, but these places are a close approximation.) In both cases, we usually turn to the right, into the pub. We do so not to bend our elbows at the bar (we usually sit in one of the casual booths and order the same thing that we would if we were in the dining room), but because there is a different feeling – a kind of amber-lit community of conversation accompanied by the occasional clinking of glass. It has partly to do with the architecture and the lighting, and much to do with the fact that this is a place of sociability and relaxation -- perhaps the difference between sitting with friends at the dining table at home, or standing around the kitchen (with those same friends) in an atmosphere of comfortable laughter and sparkling eyes.

It’s the atmosphere I’m emphasizing. (Caryl and I do not, in fact, make a practice of turning to our neighbor and saying, “How about those Vikings?”) It’s the quiet buzz of conviviality in the room.

And “buzz” perhaps begs the question. To what degree does the inviting nature of the place have to do with the fact that it’s a bar – a place of beer, wine, and spirits? As a pastor I have always taught that there are two “Christian” approaches to alcohol. One is abstinence, the other is responsible, non-inebriated use. I have also been much involved pastorally in the lives of people afflicted with the disease of alcoholism. (And drunkenness in the local pubs is a huge issue in Britain.) So I find myself just a bit conflicted in writing an ode to a pub; I have never been attracted to the windowless saloons that are found in every town in America (well, except once, ironically, for the great Irish music they were featuring), but there’s something about a pub. What is it? Was the creativity of Tolkien and Lewis nurtured more by their pints of ale than it would have been if they’d met in a coffee shop? And, for that matter, what of the wine of Passover that becomes the fellowship quaff of Communion? A mentor of mine, a highly regarded professor of theology, once said (of the sacrament), “When I think of the generosity of our Lord, I am offended at the thimbleful of wine I receive at Communion.”

Were those first century Eucharistic feasts more like a gathering at “the local” than a pious kneeling at the rail?

And where, dear reader, is your local?


My friend, Anne, in response to this blog, writes, "In Norwich,England, the city in which I grew up, there were 365 pubs, (one for each day of the year) and 52 Churches, one for each week of the year."