Thursday, February 19, 2015

AV#117 Denialism

Aug. 11, 2014

The term may be new to us, but the idea is as old as … Scripture.  “To refuse to admit….”  A word—an attitude—to keep in mind, to watch for, in the coming days as the state releases TCAP scores and School Performance results.  An all-too-human flaw.  One we need to acknowledge—and try to overcome.

Perhaps especially if you are named Peter.  The name comes from the Greek, meaning “stone” or “rock.”  But The New Testament’s Peter was not always a rock.   

Matthew 26:72 –  And again he denied with an oath,
“I do not know the man.”

It’s human nature – AND it’s a pseudoscience!!!
Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking Skills is a series of lectures by Dr. Steven Novella of the Yale School of Medicine (The Great Courses). In Lecture #20, “Denialism-Rejecting Science and History,” Novella “introduces you to denialism, a subset of pseudoscience… explore(s) the features and tactics of denialism … shed(s) light on how critical thinking helps you sidestep the more subtle forms of denialism we’re all susceptible to.”

“… we’re all susceptible…”  Part of our very nature as human beings.  Little wonder then that we are susceptible to it, in the world of education.  It’s my theme this month.

The lady doth protest too much, methinks" 

Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, is uncomfortable.  His little play is hitting home.  Too close to the truth.
Page 3: Poetry, Song, Film, Books / War
Page 4: Leadership / Climate Change & Science
Page 5: Death / Football & Concussions 
Pages 5-6 – 2 positive examples:                             
   1) Sports – no whining
   2) Another state confronts the facts
Addendum – Sheridan in denial
When educators say the accountability movement has relied too heavily on assessments that were never intended to be THE CRITERIA of a good school or a good teacher, they have a point. It is when school, district, state, and union leaders devote considerable energy to protesting that the tests and data are unfair, inaccurate, and/or misleading that I see more denial than responsibility.  More avoidance than acknowledgement of the reality about student performance in their school, their district, and our state.

1  to declare untrue <deny an allegation>
2  to refuse to admit or acknowledge :  disavow <deny responsibility>
5  to refuse to accept the existence, truth, or validity of
deny implies a firm refusal to accept as true, to grant or concede, or to acknowledge the existence or claims of <denied the charges>.

It is June 2014. The district’s chief accountability and research officer is giving her local school board an update on the Unified Improvement Plan Implementation, including the district’s accreditation contract with the state. Minutes of the meeting state that she “reviewed an outline of actions if the district continues to be assigned to the accreditation category of either Accredited with Priority Improvement Plan or Accredited with Turnaround Plan in the fall of 2014 and 2015.”  As this district has been Accredited on Priority Improvement three years running—Colorado’s second lowest rating—one assumes any member of this school board is aware of the potential consequences should the recent poor performance continue, especially any member on the board since 2009—FIVE YEARS AGO—when SB 163, the Education Accountability Act, was passed and created a new accountability system.  One assumes each board member has heard before that “the clock is ticking” and that each passing year brings the district closer to state intervention.  One assumes it is not only now, FIVE YEARS AFTER the passage of SB 163, that the district is beginning to feel the heat….

Earlier, at this same school board meeting, a legislative update included a slide noting that—as a result of state cuts in education in recent years (“the negative factor,” I believe it is called)—the district was actually getting $44 million less than it might have expected. 

Still, I am stunned when—following the update on where the district stands “on the accountability clock”—one board member (first elected in 2007, re-elected in 2011, so no excuse, in her case—unlike three members elected last fall—to say SB 163 is all new to her) takes the microphone to express her outrage.  That’s what I hear, anyway. 

The district’s minutes of the meeting are flat, dispassionate. They read: she “commented that the state implemented accreditation ratings at the same time millions of dollars were being cut from K-12 funding.” But according to my notes—I could be wrong, hence I avoid names here—this board member seemed appalled—stunned at the possibility of either state intervention, or a loss of accreditation.

“If this happens while we were given $44 million less…. this would be unconscionable.   We have a right to say this is wrong … they’ve made this as punitive as possible … it’s just amazing to me.”

Unconscionable,” if I understand her correctly, because “they”—the state, would first “take away” $44 million from the district, and then punish it for not being able to meet the expectations “they” impose.
“When you turn over rocks and look at all the squiggly things underneath, you can either put the rock down or you can say, ‘My job is to turn over rocks and look at the squiggly things,’ even if what you see can scare the hell out of you.” 
     Pitney Bowes executive Fred Purdue. From Good to Great, p. 72.
I call this denial.               

If this trait is in fact found in
human nature, educators
should not feel insulted or persecuted when it is noted that we, too, are guilty of it.  Our world is rampant with it.  I’ve been collecting examples of it this past year….  Easy to do, given how ubiquitous a trait this is….


As a reflection of human nature, art frequently reminds us of our tendency to deny.

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.

T.S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton”
Yes, how many times must a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn’t see
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind,
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
Bob Dylan
...still a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.

Paul Simon, “The Boxer”
From Uncle Tom’s Cabin – on making excuses
Dinah was mistress of the whole art and mystery of excuse-making, in all its branches. Indeed, it was an axiom with her that the cook can do no wrong; and a cook in a Southern kitchen finds abundance of heads and shoulders on which to lay off every sin and frailty, so as to maintain her own immaculateness entire.  If any part of the dinner was a failure, there were fifty indisputably good reasons for it; and it was the fault undeniably of fifty other people, whom Dinah berated with unsparing zeal.  (ch. 18)
“the dangers of denial”
Cate Blanchett received the Academy Award for Best Actress in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. “Her miseries, we are made to feel, are the fallout from the corruptions she will not admit to.  She so wanted the good life that she looked the other way, or, more exact, refused to look at all, at the larcenies that made that life possible. She’s a walking advertisement for the dangers of denial.”
We all know that we fool ourselves. Some suggest it is out of necessity. Robert Trivers, an evolutionary biologist, recently published The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life.  He “makes the intriguing argument that deceit is a ‘deep feature’ of life, even of necessity, given genes’ brutal struggle to prevail.”
(New York Times Book Review, 2/16/14, p.28)


The cause and effect of wars is far too complex to reduce to any one flaw.  But just take the two world wars of the 20th century, and we are reminded that leaders were certainly guilty of self-deception.

World War I – This month we recall the “war to end all wars” that began 100 years ago. How unwilling or unable leaders were to see where their actions were taking them—and all of Europe … over a cliff: 

In his book, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, Christopher Clark found that “the protagonists of 1914 were sleepwalkers, watchful but unseeing, haunted by dreams, yet blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring into the world.” (“Still in the grip of the Great War,” The Economist, 3/29/14)

“… Churchill ‘does not try to cheer us up with vain promises.’ Churchill knew his countrymen. When offered the choice to deliver false good news or the hard truth, he served the bad, for Englishmen, he proclaimed, ‘seem to like their food cooked that way.’”  The Last Lion, Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965, p. 263.
World War II – I just finished The Last Lion, vol. 3, the biography of Winston Churchill. (More on Churchill in the next section from Good to Great.) Denial comes to mind when we think of Neville Chamberlain and other British leaders throughout the 1930’s. Churchill spent that decade “in the wilderness,” a “prophet without honor in his own land”— until his warnings about Nazi Germany proved true.  Finally, in May 1940, after Hitler’s tanks rolled into several countries, England turned to Churchill.   

Perhaps “denial” is too strong.  No doubt the horrors of World War I left such an impact that those leading England and France during the 1930’s had every reason to want to believe Hitler’s intent could not be so evil.  Wishful thinking then?  But it comes to the same thing.


Now all the authorities
They just stand around and boast
“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” Bob Dylan

If he were a Denialist—and not the Father of our County—perhaps this is how six-year old George Washington would have answered his dad:
“What tree?  Who me? Hatchet marks? What hatchet! I wasn’t even near that tree this morning!  You think it’s dead? Maybe it just looks dead!”
Numerous books on effective leadership (though aimed especially for business leaders,  relevant, too, I would argue, for a state commissioner of education, superintendents, and principals) stress the importance of truth-telling versus denial,   confronting the reality of the situation—and thereby helping an organization come to grips with the bad news—in order to move forward.

·        Good to Great – from chapter 4, “Confront the Brutal Facts (Yet Never Lose Faith)” 
Jim Collins’ popular book, not surprisingly, points to Churchill. Chapter 4 begins with a quote from this war-time leader who was willing to speak of “blood, sweat, and tears,” and of the grim truth about the challenges facing his country. “There is no worse mistake in public leadership than to hold out false hopes soon to be swept away.”                                        
And later in this chapter, Collins writes:
… Churchill never failed to confront the most brutal facts. He feared that his towering, charismatic personality might deter bad news from reaching him in its starkest form. So, early in the war, he created an entirely separate department outside the normal chain of command, called the Statistical Office, with the principal function of feeding him—continuously updated and completely unfiltered—the most brutal facts of reality. He relied heavily on this special unit throughout the war, repeatedly asking for facts, just the facts. As the Nazi panzers swept across Europe, Churchill went to bed and slept soundly: “I had no need for cheering dreams,” he wrote, “Facts are better than dreams.”   
           ·   The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers
From “The Art of the Struggle,” The Economist’s review of this book by Ben Horowitz, 3/15/2014):
Mr. Horowitz remains upbeat in public as the company loses some big customers and misses shipping dates. Belatedly, he realizes he is only making matters worse because his sunny demeanor discourages workers from being frank about the startup’s problems and hunting for solutions to them.  His financial controller recommends being forthright with investors as well as staff. ‘If you are going to eat shit, don’t nibble,’ he says in a phrase that should be immortalized in corporate finance textbooks.”

I will not wade into the right and wrong on the controversy, but we know the concept of denial—a refusal to accept the evidence—is often heard in debates about climate change.

·        “Welcome to the Age of Denial,” (by Adam Frank, op-ed, New York Times, Aug. 22, 2013)
“Today, however, it is politically effective, and socially acceptable, to deny scientific fact…. Though transparently unscientific, denying evolution has become a litmus test for some conservative politicians, even at the highest levels.” (All bold throughout this essay is mine.)
(Frank is a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester)
·        “Climate ‘denialists’ will be branded as anti-science and their funding sources exposed.” (An article on Tom Steyer’s support for like-minded politicians, “A run for his money,” The Economist , 4/12/14)
·        “They’re saying, ‘How do we know the sea is going to rise 39 inches in 100 years?’ And the truth is, we don’t. But you’ve got to start planning for something.  They’re trying to ignore the problem hoping it will go away.” (Andrew Coburn, associate director of Western Carolina University’s Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, “Climate,” The Denver Post, 6/26/14)


From “How to Say Goodbye,” by Alice Hoffman.  In this moving essay, Hoffman’ sister-in-law, who was dying of brain cancer, asks Alice to visit the Mount Auburn Cemetery on her behalf, as she hoped to be laid to rest there.  (AARP Bulletin, Oct. 2013)

   “I was stunned and my heart sank, I was in denial. If we didn’t discuss her illness, perhaps the worst wouldn’t happen.…”

But Alice goes and returns to the hospital and tells her sister-in-law about the cemetery,

“… about the tulip trees, and the hedges of lilacs, and the blue herons. I showed her photographs of the pond and the weeping willows. What I saw in her expression was relief.
   “There are times when we all run away from the truth, when the facts of life are too painful to endure. We don’t want to know what comes next.  We’re taught to tell our ailing loved ones not to worry, even in the most difficult time, to look on the bright side and hope for the best….
   “A certain amount of denial in times of trauma may ease the way for our loved ones, but making a plan before dire circumstances strike helps us and those we love gain some measure of control over our fates.  The knowledge that our final wishes will be realized can bring us peace, as I know it did my sister-in-law.  She was able to choose what she wanted for herself….”


“League of Denial:  The NFL’s Concussion Crisis,” Frontline documentary, fall 2013.

   “… the documentary turns up evidence of NFL disinformation, spinning and outright lying on the subject of the consequences of the regular violent collisions on the field….
   “Through each scientific finding, the NFL is shown to have reacted with denials, demanding n retractions form scientific papers, discrediting researchers who made the findings public and spending heavily to shut down evidence that football was responsible for the brain damage to players.” (“‘Denial’ tackles football’s failures,” The Denver Post, by Joanne Ostrow, 10/6/2013)


I close on a more positive note: examples of those who “own the results” and do not dispute them.

SPORTS – “the scoreboard doesn’t lie”

2013: Broncos fans couldn’t believe it, but the scoreboard doesn’t lie. The Ravens’ Joe Flacco’s threw a bomb down the right sideline … game tied. Then OT. Final score 35-28.
2014: Bronco fans couldn’t believe it. The game felt over by half-time.  But the scoreboard doesn’t lie. Seattle 43, Denver 8.

In sports players are expected to own the score, not to whine about bad breaks and refs and what ifs.  Yes, there are lucky bounces; a penalty that should/should not have been called; what if so-and-so hadn’t been hurt ….  But it is bad form—we call it lousy sportsmanship—not to swallow hard over a loss and accept the final score.  No whining.

Educators might adopt a similar approach.  Too many, in my view, will find the analogy absurd.  They insist: “—but our scoreboard does lie.”  Well, sure, there are plenty of legitimate questions about the details of the state’s School Performance Framework (such as the percentage for growth over achievement), or the degree to which socio-economic factors are taken into account … We have reason to wonder about the methodology of the state’s new Accountability Act and how one district or school is or is not “on the clock” of year 3 or 4 …. No one would say it’s perfect.

But it reflects poorly on us when the whining becomes a substitute for acknowledging the facts.  

When denial replaces acceptance of what is so clear: that our school or our district is not performing well.

We would do well to be “better sports” about what the scoreboard tells us.  Take our lumps, see what we can learn from the bad news, and determine to get better.

LEADERSHIP IN ANOTHER STATE – “… the data don’t lie.’

I will close with the words from the former head of K-12 education in ANOTHER STATE, reflecting an attitude that denies little—that displays an exemplary honesty about the challenges before us. As you read the following, please guess the name of the state redacted here:

However, doing well isn't good enough. While we in xxxxx appreciate the outstanding performance achieved by our students and educators, we have been sharply focused on the sad story our outstanding averages conceal. We have deep, persistent achievement gaps, larger than in most other states. Even though we are gradually closing these gaps and have raised achievement levels so that our lowest performers now surpass low performers elsewhere, the progress is far too slow. Too many students in xxxxx, in spite of our high averages, are unable to enjoy the advantages of a high-quality education. Caught in that achievement gap are low-income students, English-language learners, students with disabilities, and students of color.

Often touted as the number one state in the country for its public education system, Massachusetts could be guilty of complacency and pride.   To his credit, though, that is exactly not what we hear from the state’s former secretary of education, Paul Reveille, in his Commentary in Education Week, “Seize the Moment to Design Schools That Close Gaps,” June 4, 2013.  No denial of where the state falls short; instead, admitting hard truths.  (Perhaps there’s some truth in the notion that, the healthier we are, the more willing we are to see our failures.)  Reveille went on to speak of the “notable exceptions of individuals and schools defying the odds,” but added:

… We have not been able to scale up their success. The exceptions have not proven a new rule, though some practices have shown promise. The gaps, on average, persist. After 20 years of school reform experience, the data don’t lie.

The Colorado Department of Education has been known to look to Massachusetts as a model before (see our Race to the Top application, where we used Massachusetts NAEP scores as our model). Here is a case where we might do well to adopt Reveille’s honesty.  No exaggerations of how great the progress.  and, when we see no progress at all (yes, stay hopeful), but “Confront the Brutal Facts.”

Another View, a newsletter by Peter Huidekoper, Jr., represents his own opinion and is not intended to represent the view of any organization he is associated with.     Comments are welcome. 303-757-1225 /


Sheridan in denial - (Methinks he doth protest too much)

We saw a telling example last winter of a district fighting the facts when Sheridan asked the Colorado State Board of Education to raise its accreditation rating from Priority Improvement to Improvement.  Astonishing, really, to claim—in spite of some of the data below—that “the district should serve as a model” on improving graduation rates, “that Sheridan continues to lead on these issues.”  Really?
“Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.”
Daniel Patrick Moynihan
It has come to this—a district with Sheridan’s record protesting the idea that the state—how mean! how unfair!—might dare to “suggest district efforts should be focused on improving the graduation rate....”

The state board, wisely, denied Sheridan’s request.

On-time (4-year) graduation rate*

# students
# graduates
Graduation rate
Sheridan High School
SOAR Academy (an Alternative Education Campus)
Sheridan District – TOTAL

Graduation rate

5 metro area districts

Adams 14

From Superintendent Mike Clough’s “Position Statement – Accreditation Appeal,” Feb 13, 2014.

An excerpt from the section under the heading: GRADUATION AND DROPOUT RATES

The state’s rating of Sheridan School District 2 as “Accredited with Priority Improvement Plan” is based upon a technical application of the district’s graduation rate.  The rating is not an accurate portrayal of the district’s success and the ongoing pursuit of further education for all students.
… The district is imploring the State Board of Education to look at the data with a different lens—one that trumpets success for students and does not penalize a small district for successful, longstanding programs that afford students a solid foundation for post-secondary and work-force readiness….

A rating of “Priority Improvement Plan” suggests district efforts should be focused on improving the graduation rate or lowering the dropout rate when, in fact, the district should serve as a model for both.    

In fact,  if we turn to the most recent data available, it is easy to   see that Sheridan continues to lead on these issues, not lag. (

AV#118 - Balance - Part 1 - Let them talk

Balance is my larger theme in the next two newsletters. Let’s make sure we offer Colorado students a well-rounded, rich curriculum—not one narrowed by “what gets tested.”
In AV#118, the topic is classroom discussion.

Let’s hope the next generation will improve on our poor example.  Too often in our “adult world” we shout and hardly listen.  Our classrooms can be a sanctuary from this madness, a safe place where we encourage students to speak and listen well.  This expectation is, after all, central to Colorado’s standards. Even if “not assessed,” this skill, this characteristic, is important.  True?

The Colorado Department of Education’s guide for the (NOTE ALL THREE)
Reading, Writing, and Communicating standards lists four subgroups:
1 - Oral Expression and Listening
2 - Reading for All Purposes       3 - Writing and Composition            4 - Research and Reasoning

-Colorado’s Academic Standards on
    speaking and listening –                       pages 3-4
-Letter to parents of my middle schools students on class discussions –                            pages 5-6
-purpose of schools in America                          p.7
-Orwell: Animal Farm and Benjamin                p. 8
-a healthy democracy – the importance of    better speaking and listening skills               p.9
-For teachers & teacher evaluators                p. 10

Although the Colorado Academic Standards (above) for Language Arts speak of FOUR components, we realize, do we not, that state tests do not measure the first standard?  Not directly anyway.      

I do not find this odd–it is hard to imagine a state-wide test that could measure speaking and listening—but I wish to “speak” about it. After all, SPEAKING is my point here—how critical it is that students have a chance to talk, to be heard during class time, to engage in a thoughtful dialogue with classmates and with the teacher.  Though not assessed by the Reading and Writing portion of CSAP/TCAP over the past 15 years (and I can’t see how the new PARCC assessments will do it any better), it is a clear expectation of a   (con’t on p. 2)
“Even among gifted kids, the understanding of Shakespeare takes a good degree of collaboration and conversation. … When do we sit down, with our play, and analyze the characters, and figure out the author’s intent, and uncode his humor? … Students learn from one another, and that conver-sation is the richness of education—if we’re talking not about schooling but about education.”  - Kristin Kearns Jordan (an Exeter alumna, founder of the Bronx Preparatory Charter School), “School on a Hill: On the design and  redesign of American education,” Harper’s, Fall 2001.

Every classroom at Exeter has a Harkness table, with a class of 12 students and ample opportunity for dialogue. The Harkness table places students at the center of the learning process and encourages them to learn from one another.  For more on “the Harkness philosophy” used by Philips Exeter Academy:

(con’t from p. 1)
good classroom and of a good teacher, and therefore one that needs to be stressed—and measured in some fashion.  Are we doing it? How well? 

“A voice is a human gift …. Powerlessness and silence go together.” Margaret Atwood

You will find no answers here, just questions—and an attempt to put the issue of speaking, listening, and classroom discussion on the table.   First I remind you of (the seldom mentioned) state expectations in this matter–pages 3 and 4. Second, I share the letter I wrote to the parents of my middle school students ten years ago (Parker’s Core Knowledge Charter School)–pages 5 and 6, on the importance of classroom participation (which usually counted as 20% of their grade). Third, I quote Neil Postman on teaching our youth “how to argue,” how to tackle the big questions, as among the most essential skills to foster a healthy democracy.  (An endangered skill—wouldn’t you agree? ) If our schools are designed to prepare first and foremost citizens (not workers-see AV#115), the classroom has a special obligation to help each student learn to take part in the “great American experiment.” Fourth, from Animal Farm, Orwell’s warning on the consequences when citizens do not speak up. Fifth, a reminder of the “echo chamber” many of us live in, making it all the more necessary that we focus on helping our students communicate clearly, listen attentively, and learn how to engage in civil discussions. Finally, a few resources for teachers and evaluators as we try to ensure that we measure student engagement when judging a teacher’s “performance.”  Sadly, teachers still speak of “putting on a good show” when the evaluator visits.  Isn’t it more critical to see that students are engaged, speaking and listening well?
I taught at the Emma Willard School (Troy, N.Y.) in the mid-1980’s.  Yes, smaller classes than in most public schools.  But to foster discussion, we can break up a class of any size into groups of 3-6 students.

Sammie writes: “Today in English class we discussed poems by Emily Dickinson. Poetry is one of the many different types of literature we read in English III. Right now we are focusing on tone and what different things contribute to it. Instead of just talking about the tone, today we split up into groups and were told to create an oral explication in which we describe how each line in the poem contributes to the tone. … By talking in small groups and then sharing with the whole class, one can delve deep into the purpose of the author and the situation of the speaker.”
From “A day in the life of Sammie,”
From Colorado Department of Education

Colorado Academic Standards
Oral Expression and Listening
(general guidelines from six grades – 12, 9, 7, 5, 2, and K)

Concepts and skills master:
Prepared Graduates:
-Collaborate effectively as group members or leaders who listen actively and respectfully pose thoughtful questions, acknowledge the ideas of others, and contribute ideas to further the group’s attainment of an objective
-Demonstrate skill in inferential and evaluative listening
Twelfth Grade
1. Effective speaking in formal and informal settings requires appropriate use of methods and audience awareness                                                                                            
2. Effective collaborative groups accomplish goals

Ninth Grade
1. Oral presentations require effective preparation strategies
2. Listening critically to comprehend a speaker’s message requires mental and physical strategies to direct and maintain attention
A warning – “Who is talking to whom?”
“Speaking and listening—essential preliteracy skills—are also declining. Sitting in any Starbucks, you can easily witness this—parents regularly checking their phones, reviewing messages, texts, etc.; small children sitting quietly in their strollers with iPads. Who is talking to whom? …. I find this ironic as we aggressively roll out the Common Core State Standards, which include significantly increased linguistic demands for all language skills—especially listening and speaking for all grade levels.” Dennis Terdy – 40-year career as teacher, administrator, consultant, Education Week, 6/11/14.
Seventh Grade
1. Formal presentations require preparation and
effective delivery
2. Small and large group discussions rely on active
listening and the effective contributions of all participants

Fifth Grade
1. Effective communication requires speakers to express an opinion, provide information, describe a process, and persuade an audience  
2. Listening strategies are techniques that contribute to understanding different situations and serving different purposes.

At what grade can we begin to foster good discussion?
As early as possible!
Lisa Hansel writes: “we learn how to build knowledge before children can read.” For support, she quotes approvingly from Common Core’s “Standard 10” for grades K-5: “Children in the early grades (particularly K-2) should participate in rich, structured conversations with an adult in response to the written texts that are read aloud, orally comparing and contrasting as well as analyzing and synthesizing….”
Second Grade
1. Discussions contribute and expand on the ideas of self and others
2. New information can be learned and better dialogue created by listening actively

1. Oral communication skills are built within a language-rich environment
2. Communication relies on effective verbal and nonverbal skills
3. Vocal sounds produce words and meaning to create early knowledge of phonemic awareness

From Colorado Department of Education

Grade Level Expectation: Seventh Grade  -  Concepts and skills students master:

2. Small and large group discussions rely on active listening and the effective contributions of all participants

Evidence Outcomes  -  Students Can:
a.  Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade 7 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly. (CCSS: SL.7.1)

i.                      Come to discussions prepared, having read or researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence on the topic, text, or issue to probe and reflect on ideas under discussion. (CCSS: SL.7.1a)
                        iii.  Pose questions that elicit elaboration and respond to others’ questions and comments with relevant observations and ideas that bring the discussion back on topic as needed. (CCSS: SL.7.1c)
iv.  Acknowledge new information expressed by others and, when warranted, modify their own views. (CCSS: SL.7.1d)
b. Analyze the main ideas and supporting details presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, and orally) and explain how the ideas clarify a topic, text, or issue under study. (CCSS: SL.7.2)

c. Delineate a speaker’s argument and specific claims, evaluating the soundness of the reasoning and the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence. (CCSS: SL.7.3)
21st Century Skills and Readiness Competencies - Nature of Reading, Writing, and Communicating

12th grade - Use of skilled communication in group settings creates collaboration and understanding. (p. 26)
10th grade - Skilled communicators can speak to both sides of an issue because they look at topics from      multiple perspectives. (p. 29)
8th grade - Skilled communicators must be open to the ideas of others. (p. 33)
7th grade – 1) Skilled communicators demonstrate a balance between listening and sharing.
     2) Skilled listeners recognize that others have important ideas. (p. 36)

INQUIRY – key to good discussions

Colorado’s Description of Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness
(Adopted by the State Board of Education, June 2009)
Postsecondary and workforce readiness describes the knowledge, skills, and behaviors essential for high school graduates to be prepared to enter college and the workforce and to compete in the global economy. The description assumes students have developed consistent intellectual growth throughout their high school career as a result of academic work that is increasingly challenging, engaging, and coherent. …

How These Skills and Competencies are Embedded in the Revised Standards
Three themes are used to describe these important skills and competencies and are interwoven throughout the standards: inquiry questions; relevance and application; and the nature of each discipline.…

Inquiry Questions – Inquiry is a multifaceted process requiring students to think and pursue under-standing. Inquiry demands that students (a) engage in an active observation and questioning process; (b) investigate to gather evidence; (c) formulate explanations based on evidence; (d) communicate and justify explanations, and; (e) reflect and refine ideas. Inquiry is more than hands-on activities; it requires students to cognitively wrestle with core concepts as they make sense of new ideas.

(Written almost a decade ago…)
TO the parents of 7th grade Language students, and                           8/15/2005
to the parents of our several new 8th grade students                                                      
A note from Mr. Huidekoper on reading, class discussion, and student participation

    Getting as many students as possible involved in classroom discussions is an important goal for our school and for me as a teacher.  The Core Knowledge curriculum guide includes speaking and listening as a central component of the Language goals: students are expected to “participate civilly and productively in group discussions.”  The Language standards for Colorado and for Douglas County[1] emphasize reading and writing skills, but they also make specific reference to classroom discussion.  Language Standard 5 states: “The student demonstrates the ability to communicate orally for a variety of purposes … applies knowledge of situation (e.g. formal presentation, informal discussion), audience and purpose when presenting orally.”  I imagine our school’s commitment to class sizes of no more than 22 is done in part to help nurture such discussions, and to be sure each student has the chance to contribute.
    I have deeply enjoyed many wonderful literature discussions in my classroom these past four years; a few times classes have approached the ideal one looks for in a “Socratic seminar,” where, as I will discuss further on, students are engaged in a thoughtful, earnest, and open-minded look into the text and what it means.  Such classes are a real source of satisfaction; I am so grateful to be in a setting where such discussions are possible.  Nevertheless, I write this in part to explain the approach I often use, as I hope this rationale will help more students become involved in such discussions.  And I write because I have seen some students hold back; at least during the first part of the year, they do not participate as much as they could.  A talk with a parent made me realize an explanatory note might help, in order to clarify the kind of discussions we try to have in Language class.
    I believe we want our middle school students to be actively engaged in thinking about the characters and how and why they change in our stories, plays, and novels, in exploring the various kinds of conflicts these characters experience, and in trying to understand the author’s purpose.  The reading skills of our seventh and eighth graders will be stronger as they look for such elements in the literature.  Students can and should demonstrate this engagement not only in their writing and/or on quizzes and tests, but also in classroom discussions about the stories or plays, and in talking about the literature with others.   
    My guess is many of our students discuss these stories with their family—and THAT IS GREAT.  Our hope, however, is that they will also take part in discussions in class, where their ideas can be articulated and clarified.  It cannot be emphasized enough how much every student who plays a constructive, active role in class discussion helps his or her classmates gain new perspectives on and insights into a story.  As a result, each student’s understanding of the literature becomes stronger.  Sometimes the thoughtful contributions from classmates cause a student to rethink his or her view of a character, of the tone of the work, or of the theme.  It is a pleasure to watch such re-examination take place in the classroom, to see students discover new ways of seeing the story through these discussions.
        For all of this to happen, however, students need to take the risk of offering their insights and sharing their interpretation.  Some are hesitant to do so.  Of course a teacher can be a factor; please know that I ask myself what I am doing that might discourage participation, and know that I try to make all students feel their comments are welcome.  But perhaps the hesitancy comes from the way this approach feels somewhat new, and even uncomfortable, at first. 
    You will note that my emphasis here is on what comes from the class and one’s classmates, not on what I contribute.  This is where some students may find it an adjustment from some classes they have had when they were younger.  In talking about the literature I often try to ask questions and then to invite responses from as many students as possible.  But on hearing Billy or Sarah’s comments, I tend not to say, “That’s right,” or “That’s inaccurate.”  Instead I often nod, noncommittally, and then ask the next person for his or her view.  I hope new students and parents can see the reason for this approach.  I think returning students better understand how it might be an appropriate style to use at this age level (as it will be through much of their literature discussions in high school and college).      The chief benefit in this structure is that students become involved in what Junior Great Books calls “shared inquiry.”  …  Perhaps the most well-known and well-respected organization that has been teaching this strategy to teachers and parents for decades is the Junior Great Books (JGB) Program. I hope that by sharing some of the language and principles of the JGB Program, I can help provide further rationale for this approach with young students. (JGB, in fact, believes this style can work powerfully with elementary grades as well.)

Borrowing key elements from the Junior Great Books Program

    JGB articulates the “Shared Inquiry” approach in this way.  (The following is lifted directly from the JGB web site. See - for more information.)[2] 
        “… The success of shared inquiry depends on a special relationship between the leader and the group.  (Leaders) do not impart information or present (their) own opinions, but guide participants in reaching their own interpretations.  You do this by posing thought-provoking questions and by following up purposefully on what participants say.  In doing so, you help them develop both the flexibility of mind to consider problems from many angles, and the discipline to analyze ideas critically…  In shared inquiry, participants learn to give full consideration to the ideas of others, to weigh the merits of opposing arguments, and to modify their initial opinions as the evidence demands.  They gain experience in communicating complex ideas and in supporting, testing, and expanding their own thoughts.  In this way, the shared inquiry method promotes thoughtful dialogue and open debate, preparing its participants to become able, responsible citizens, as well as enthusiastic, lifelong readers.”  

    I hope this helps explain why student comments, be they brilliant or bizarre, might get the same nod from me, before we turn to listen to someone else. I hope you can appreciate the rationale to this approach.  I believe it can help us foster honest and thoughtful discussions, and help each student meet CKCS goals for oral participation.  I hope your boy or girl will soon feel comfort- able with this approach, and will offer his or her thoughts on a regular basis.  We hope students will see how much more exciting and meaningful the classroom can be when they all know they have an important role to play to communicate their thoughts about the literature.  Put another way, I hope all will know they have a vital role in “pulling their oar” in our journey together.

I am truly excited about the year ahead—and the good discussions we will have! 
Thank you so much for all your help.                                                                   Mr. Huidekoper


Argument – the All-American sport!!!   
From Neil Postman’s The End of Education 

I quoted from Postman extensively in AV#114 – on the purpose of education—and do so again here.  I love one of his suggestions for a more uplifting view of the purpose of schooling, which places argument as central to the American story.  In a state with such feeble social studies standards (AV#76-“Colorado scores an F on our history standards,” 3/5/11), we would do well, I believe, to take note of the way Postman connects our roots as a nation with what we owe our students: a place to engage in thoughtful discussion.
“America was the first nation to be argued into existence.  The Declaration of Independence is an argument, and it was composed as such. Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man is an argument…. All Supreme Court decisions are arguments, some deeply embarrassing ones—for example, the Dred Scott decision, which calls to mind the Lincoln-Douglas debates, our best-known and possibly most skillfully crafted arguments….

“Of course, all the arguments have a theme that is made manifest in a series of questions: What is freedom? What are its limits? What is a human being? What are the obligations of citizenship? What is meant by democracy? And so on…. But which ones are the right answers? We don’t know. There’s the rub, and the beauty and the value of the story. So we argue and experiment and complain, and grieve, and rejoice, and argue some more, without end….  All is fluid and subject to change, to better arguments, to the results of future experiments.

It is telling that a book titled Crucial Conversations - Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High is a best-seller. Authors Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler no doubt address a need Americans feel—to learn how to communicate “in a relationship, in your career, at home” in order to avoid “getting stuck”—and worse.  As skillful as we may now be with fast and witty text messages, we are still in need of face to face dialogue to express our emotions, settle conflicts, and move forward.
“This, it seems to me, is a fine and noble story to offer as a reason for schooling: to provide our youth with the knowledge and will to participate in the great experiment; to teach them how to argue, and to help them discover what questions are worth arguing about; and of course to make sure they know what happens when arguments cease. No one is excluded from the story. Every group has made good arguments, and bad ones. All points of view are admissible. The only thing we have to fear is that someone will insist on putting in an exclamation point when we are not yet finished.” (pages 72-74)

In the chapter “The American Experiment” Postman notes that schools today are “reluctan(t) to include patriotism as a ‘value,’ they reflect a tendency throughout the country, a certain uneasiness about where patriotism might lead. There is certainly more emphasis, these days, on loving one’s self than on loving one’s country, which means, I suppose, that Philip Rieff was prophetic when he wrote about ‘the triumph of the therapeutic.’” 

Postman acknowledges the danger when “love of country is too easily transmogrified into a mindless, xenophobic nationalism….”   But, he goes on to say:

“in steering clear of patriotism, educators miss an opportunity to provide schooling with a profound and transcendent narrative that can educate and inspire students of all ages.  I refer, of course, to the story of America as a great experiment and as a center of continuous argument.

“There are many ways to unveil this story, and good teachers, at every level, can think of several if they believe the story is worthwhile. … as students progress from elementary school to high school to college, the study of the American experiment in freedom of expression must deepen, the arguments considered must increase in complexity, and the documents containing them must be more various….  it should be emphasized that the arguments are not finished; that today they are pursued with the same passion they once were….

“Is it too much to say that the arguments are the energy and the glory of the American experiment? Is it too much to hope that our young might learn to honor the tradition and to be inspired by it?” (pages 131-136)   

(My next newsletter, on CIVIC EDUCATION in Colorado, will connect to Postman’s theme.)

Orwell: Animal Farm and Benjamin
“For George Orwell, politics … started and ended with personal responsibility.” (The Economist, 7/13/02)
Colorado State Standards – History- Civics: Concepts and skills students master:  
                       Compare how various nations define the rights, responsibilities, and roles of citizens.
Inquiry Question: What roles of citizens are the most important?

When I teach Animal Farm, I hear Orwell urging my students (and future citizens) to SPEAK UP!
Benjamin, the donkey, often makes “cynical” remarks.  But he is largely silent.  He seems to mistrust Napoleon, but he won’t say it.  “About the Rebellion and its results he would express no opinion” (47).  He is no Boxer, no blind follower, yet he seems unwilling to use his intelligence.  “Benjamin could read as well as any pig, but never exercised his faculty” (50).  Merely an observer.  “Benjamin was the only animal who did not side with either faction. He refused to believe that food would become more plentiful or that the windmill would save work” (65).  Emphasized again 15 pages later: “Only Benjamin refused to grow enthusiastic about the windmill…” (81), while the other animals become obedient slaves to the new leaders.  Even after the terror—the slaughter of pigs, hens, sheep, “guilty” of crimes against the state— when “they had come to a time when no one dared speak his mind, when fierce, growling dogs roamed everywhere,” Benjamin is asked to read the revised Sixth Commandment (“No animal shall kill another animal without cause”). But he will not.  He “said that he refused to meddle in such matters” (98). 

Benjamin shows concern for Boxer, the ever-trusting horse (“Comrade Napoleon is always right”) laboring overtime for his new master, but when the powerful old plow horse takes a bad fall and is no longer indispensable, a van comes to take him away.  Only now, too late, does Benjamin find his voice.

“… they were astonished to see Benjamin come galloping from the direction of the farm buildings, braying at the top of his voice  It was the first time that they had ever seen Benjamin excited—indeed, it was the first time that anyone had ever seen him gallop. ‘Quick, quick!’ he shouted. ‘Come at once! They’re taking Boxer away!’”

And while the other animals have grown so blind that at first they accept the story that the van is there merely to take Boxer to the animal hospital for treatment, it is the donkey who now cannot stay silent:

“‘Fools! Fools!’ shouted Benjamin, prancing around them and stamping the earth with his small hoofs. ‘Fools! Do you not see what is written on the side of that van?”

And now, at last, he will read:

“‘Alfred Simmonds, Horse Slaughterer and Glue Boiler, Willingdon. Dealer in Hides and Bone-Meal. Kennels Supplied.’ Do you not understand what that means? They are taking Boxer to the knacker’s!’”

Benjamin had always understood.  But he had never spoken up—until it was too late.


With a parable or fable like Animal Farm, a teacher finds it appropriate to speak of a story’s “lesson.” Especially when we read Orwell himself state:

“Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism…. Animal Farm was the first book in which I tried, with full consciousness of what I was doing, to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.”

So it feels right to ask our students what kind of people Benjamin represents, and what is Orwell’s message—on totalitarianism, a citizen’s responsibility, and silence.  And before ending the unit on Animal Farm, it feels right to ask students to respond to this great quote from Canadian poet and author Margaret Atwood:

“A voice is a human gift; it should be cherished and used, to utter human speech, as fully as possible. Powerlessness and silence go together.”

A healthy democracy - and our ability to argue in a way that that is civil and respectful

Many point out the danger of living in our own “echo chamber,” where we avoid hearing different points of view. The Washington Post’s Ruben Navarrette voiced this concern nicely in his column:

“People feel they have enough conflict and confrontation in their lives, and so what they expect from media outlets is a kind of intellectual cave they can crawl into to seek refuge from things they don’t disagree with….

“… joining you in your cave will be some lovely folks who won’t fight, judge, or criticize you for what you believe – because they believe the same things you do. And to pass the time, you can all sit around and make fun of those people outside the cave who think differently. Of course, that won’t be easy because you haven’t taken the time to understand what those people think and why they think it.”
(The Denver Post, “In the media echo chamber, agreeing to agree,” Oct. 14, 2013)

Liz Joyner made a similar point in her commentary, “Civil discourse that doesn’t taste like broccoli”:

“… Bunkered up at home with information sources that serve us as a virtual amen chorus for everything we want to believe, we can’t seem to tolerate the people we used to share town meetings with.

“In The Big Sort: Why Clustering of Like- Minded America is Tearing us Apart, Bill Bishop documents how, in nearly all aspects of life, we’ve become less connected to those who don’t share our views—in the churches we go to, the clubs we join, the neighborhoods we live in. ”

In Joyner’s opinion, this leads to a breakdown in communication—to any kind of polite exchange of different points of view:

“With neighbors no longer engaging across the aisle, there’s little to mitigate the human tendency toward tribalism. Once we’ve demonized each other, the simple act of talking is tantamount to negotiating with evil.”  (The Christian Science Monitor, June 16, 2014)

You ask: OK, but how is this relevant to K-12 education?  Because it calls on schools to be the antidote, to create classrooms that are a sanctuary, a place where students learn to hold civil conversations. To experience anything but an “echo chamber.” To LISTEN to different points of view.   (See the next page for suggestions on how to manage “Difficult Dialogues.”  Believe me, I know how hard this can be!)

Here’s an ideal to look to.  In John Wain’s biography of Samuel Johnson, we learn that “the Club played a central part in his life.” A group of men who met weekly or every other week for years, it gave Johnson

“friends he might talk with rather than merely admirers to talk at… the atmosphere was one of frank and free competition in the exchange of ideas; but there was no throat-cutting. It was a circle of men who liked and trusted each other…. The range of topics discussed, and the knowledge and experience which collectively these men brought to bear on them suggest that they thought of debate and discussion as part of the essential business of their lives. So, of course, does every sensible human being. But most human beings do not live in a social setting which permits of debate and discussion, on any level high enough to extend their minds and add to the stock of their thoughts. Moving about incessantly as we nowadays do, we are nearly always with strangers, and settled, purposeful talk is best conducted among people we know well.”  (Samuel Johnson – John Wain, p. 235)

Perhaps the classroom—from elementary grades through college—can aim to be such a “club” for our students.  We can hope.  Perhaps their generation might learn to speak and listen to each other with greater respect than they see in our example, when they click on the TV and watch us behave like….

Another View, a newsletter by Peter Huidekoper, represents his own opinion and is not intended to represent the view of any organization he is associated with.     Comments are welcome. 303-757-1225 /

Addendum - For teachers and those evaluating teachers
The Colorado Teacher Quality Standards – Standard 1
Element B: Teachers demonstrate knowledge of student literacy development
in reading, writing, speaking and listening.

1.   From the Center for Teaching  - “Difficult Dialogues”

For most teachers, leading classroom discussion on difficult topics is a perennial challenge. Part of the challenge lies in the fact that we never fully know which issues will be “hot buttons” for our students. Conversations can become heated very quickly, and before long, it can feel like the class is careening out of control. This guide seeks to help teachers feel more confident leading difficult dialogues by encouraging reflection on how such discussions connect with larger learning goals, and by providing specific strategies and resources that teachers can use to create more productive conversations in their classrooms.

Have the class establish and agree on ground rules for discussion.  Clarifying expectations about class discussions early on can prevent contentious situations later.  Discussion ground rules might include:
Always use a respectful tone. - No interrupting or yelling. - No name-calling or other character attacks. - Ask questions when you do not understand; do not assume you know what others are thinking. - Try to see the issue from the other person’s perspective before stating your opinion. -  Maintain confidentiality (what is said in the classroom stays in the classroom.

2.   Teaching Literature

Analyze teacher-student discussions. Observe and or record (with the teacher’s permission) one classroom discussion of literature in a high school or college. Make a list of all the questions the teacher asks during the discussion, as well as the sequence of the interactions between teacher and student by labeling the teacher question as a “T” and a student response as an “S.” How would you characterize those questions? To what degree are these questions “open” or “closed?” What was the “uptake” in response to questions—students’ response to the questions? What levels or kinds of interpretations are involved in answering these questions? To whom are the questions addressed? How many students participate in the discussion and how often? Are there instances of a string of “S’s” in which students are interacting with each other? What prompt elicited that string of “S’s?” What does the teacher seem to want students to know or learn from the discussion?

3.   Elberly Center – Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation
From “Discussions” - (Some sections adapted from Davis, 1993; Brookfield and Preskill, 1999)

Discussions can be an excellent strategy for enhancing student motivation, fostering intellectual agility, and encouraging democratic habits. They create opportunities for students to practice and sharpen a number of skills, including the ability to articulate and defend positions, consider different points of view, and enlist and evaluate evidence.
While discussions provide avenues for exploration and discovery, leading a discussion can be anxiety-producing: discussions are, by their nature, unpredictable, and require us as instructors to surrender a certain degree of control over the flow of information. Fortunately, careful planning can help us ensure that discussions are lively without being chaotic and exploratory without losing focus. When planning a discussion, it is helpful to consider not only cognitive, but also social/emotional, and physical factors that can either foster or inhibit the productive exchange of ideas.

[1] I referred here to the Language Arts standards then in place for Colorado and Douglas County schools.

[2] JGB’s 2014 statement on shared inquiry is much the same.