“Do you want to play pretense with me?” Hmmm… that’s an odd question. Perhaps a malapropism? Any child can play pretend, but a pretense requires some higher-order thinking. According to the dictionary that comes up when I google pretense, a pretense is an attempt to make something that is not the case appear true. It also says that a pretense is a claim, especially a false or ambitious one.
Since February 1st, I have conducted 39 tours for roughly 60 student candidates for attendance at Lawton Academy this next academic year. Every day, I am amazed to listen to the pretenses being sold to these students and parents under the guise of education. Here are the three most oft-repeated pretenses I’ve heard and my answer to each claim.
1) Students do not need spelling. There are doctors out there who do not spell correctly.
Not any doctor I’d go to! After twenty-eight years of schooling, if spelling is still a problem, that person will not be handling my health! The problem with this theory is that spelling teaches sounds, not letters. Students learn spelling because it makes them better readers. They become better spellers in the process, but that’s just an added benefit.
Spelling is important in the writing. Some who advocate not teaching spelling have said to me, “They have spell checkers and auto correct.” Those tools only work if the speller gets close enough for the auto correct to guess the intended word. My favorite cautionary tale is about a middle school student I had who was writing a scary story for my composition class. His story was supposed to be about enemy ninjas. When he typed it, though, the spell checker alerted him that he had spelled enemy incorrectly. He chose the first word it offered him. I about died when reading the story as I came upon his choice: enema ninjas. Now that’s a whole new level of scary! I would be scared to death if someone snuck up on me and did that!!
One teacher even told one of my parents that her daughter would not need to know how to spell because she would have a secretary. I asked, “What if your daughter is the secretary?”
These are all insufficient pretenses for ditching a spelling program.
2) Students do not need to learn cursive writing … or even penmanship, for that matter. They will type everything in the future.
No, they won’t. Banks still require a hand-written signature to open a bank account, and they will not accept a printed one. Advanced Placement tests still require over two hours of essays (with no break), written in pen. If one were to write in manuscript, his carpel tunnel would be flaring by the end.
According to Dr. David Sortino, a psychologist and the current director of Educational Strategies, “cursive handwriting stimulates brain synapses and synchronicity between the left and right hemispheres, something absent from printing, keyboarding or typing” (“Brain Research and Cursive Writing”).
The elementary students in our school write stories and essays that get sent up to my middle and high school students to edit twice a month. Recently we’ve added some new students, and my secondary kids have been appalled at the handwriting. I tell them to do the best they can to read it because some of these kids have not even been shown how to hold their pencils correctly. We will teach them, but it will take time.
About five years ago, Pam Mueller and Daniel Oppenheimer did several studies on the different outcomes for students typing lecture notes compared to those hand writing them (May). What they found is that those who typed the lecture tended to type every single word the professor said… kind of like a stenographer, only they don’t use shorthand. Because handwriting is slower, the students are forced to listen more carefully so that they can summarize the information, and the consequence is that they learn the material more effectively.
The same ideas hold true with young learners. I was recently trying to help a frustrated mother understand why, after a year of preschool and half a year of kindergarten in her son’s school, he still did not know his letters. The whole time we had been touring, the five-year-old kept asking me where the “pads” were. I asked him how often he used the iPads in his class, and his answer was basically “all the time.” It was very easy for me, then, to explain why her son did not know his letters. A typed “a” feels just like a typed “b” because all the keys feel exactly the same. If he wrote them, he would know them.
Think about it: how often do we actually use that little note we jot down to remind us? Unless it’s a long list, most of us don’t even reference it again because we can envision ourselves writing it. I see this with the “cheat sheets” I used to allow for hard cumulative tests. I would give the students each an index card and tell them they had ten minutes to write any notes from their studies that they wanted to on one side of the card, and I would instruct them to turn the card in with the test. Over and over, students would tell me that they didn’t end up needing the card. Writing it again had made it stick in their heads.
Yet, I will look back at the typed DYI steps or an itinerary sent to me or the such a hundred or more times. The words don’t stay with me because I haven’t written them. My own typed lists don’t fare much better.
One of the saddest things about not teaching kids to read cursive is that most won’t even try to read it. I get students all the time who have not been taught cursive. I try to point out that only a few letters are really that different, but many insist they just cannot read it. I make them take a course. They do not have the option to just give up.
Many of the documents that were written in the beginnings of our nation are in cursive… including the Constitution. If we cannot read that document, we are susceptible to others telling us contents that are not really there. Isn’t this what gave the Taliban such control? They lied to people about what was in the Koran, and because the people could not read it (at no fault of their own – years of war had left much of the country with no schooling), they believed the lies.
If we cannot read the Constitution, how will we know that someone in authority is not just making stuff up? I will know. I can read cursive. If that doesn’t provide enough motivation, I just tell kids to learn it so later they can write notes about their employees or customers, and none of them will be able to read it!
3) Accelerated Reader is a great way to motivate kids to read books.
Accelerated Reader was never intended to be used by literature teachers. It was designed for librarians to be able to quickly assess whether students truly read a book or not. The questions are knowledge-level, and most intelligent kids have learned how to fool the system. Students new to my school laugh about how they could get enough answers right just looking at the back jacket and the cover pictures to earn the points necessary to get the great prizes. Reading teachers: AR is a lazy substitution for reading in the classroom, but it is an excellent tool for librarians. Leave it for where it was intended.
4) Silence is golden.
One of my favorite parts of our tours of our campus is the part where I tell the kids that our school is not a quiet school. Oh sure, we’re quiet when the teacher is instructing. But we’re noisy when we’re working projects… or coming or going to different classes … or coming in or going out for one of our three recesses. The interviewee’s eyes light up and a great big smile crosses his face. Three recesses?! Yep. I tell them that we have gifted kids, and gifted kids like to process what they just learned with their friends. So, we give them breaks to discuss the cool experiment they just did in science or what they learned about sarcophasguses in history.
Teachers are not quiet. I often tell kids who talk a lot that they will one day be a teacher because we teachers can say, “Shh! I’m talking” and have all the attention just to us! Next time you find yourself in a school, walk past the teacher’s lounge at lunch. I guarantee you it’s not quiet in there!
So, what pretenses about Lawton Academy to we perpetuate? We try not to do any. Once we’ve made a claim and it is found to be false, we go back and make sure everyone we ever told knows that we were wrong! Maybe that’s a co-dependency issue! I think it’s just we don’t want people to think we baited-n-switched. When we get a teacher who uses too many worksheets, the claim that Lawton Academy is a hands-on learning environment looks like a pretense. We do our best to help that teacher see the need for hands-on instruction, even going so far as to get subs for ours and stand by their sides to instruct as we go.
My point is this: if the claim seems illogical, it’s probably a pretense. If the claim goes against your gut, check it out to make sure it’s not a pretense. Just because someone in authority says it in a teacher voice doesn’t make it true.
“Brain Research and Cursive Writing.” Dr. David Sortino,
May, Cindi. “A Learning Secret: Don't Take Notes with a Laptop.” Scientific American, 3 June