Friday, November 17, 2017


I’ve never been much of a basketball player. In spite of this--or more likely, because of this--I have a profound admiration for talented basketball players. A skilled player knows precisely where to be on the court, and when. They can think ten steps ahead and see a clear path to the basket even when an inexperienced spectator like me cannot. When they pass the ball, they know where to pass it without needing to stop and look around first. To my eyes, this almost looks like magic, but the technical term is court sense. Players with court sense may have been particularly quick or coordinated to begin with, but they have also put in countless hours of practice over the course of years, often starting with pick-up games when they were children. As they played, mastering the basics, learning the rules of the game, and improving their form, they also developed an awareness of the court and the players on it that has essentially become instinctive.

While writing and reading may seem incomparable to the game of basketball, I believe that word sense exists in much the same way that court sense does. Writers with word sense express complex ideas in a way that illuminates rather than obscures. Their diction dances and their sentences sing. Their paragraphs pulse with dynamism, every word, every clause, every sentence purposefully developing the main idea. They know precisely when to pause, when to pivot, when to drive forward. And then, like players on defense, readers with word sense pick up on nuance and subtleties to determine exactly where the author is going. They quickly ascertain the author’s purpose and detect the strategies the author will use to achieve that purpose. They spot the relationship between the words and phrases on the page and know when the author is pausing, pivoting or driving the point forward. They keep up a constant inner dialogue with the author, agreeing, disagreeing, questioning, critiquing.
Here we come to the crux of the matter: just as court sense is not built overnight, neither is word sense. Basketball players develop court sense through years of practice, shooting hoops with friends, learning the rules of the game, watching professional players, mastering the basics before trying more complex maneuvers and plays. Court sense is not a formulaic sum of all of these elements, but rather the organic byproduct of years dedicated to working on them.

Readers and writers, likewise, develop word sense through years of practice, writing for fun, actively acquiring vocabulary and grammar, reading voraciously, and trying out styles, words and phrases that they’ve picked up from their reading. I know that I as an 11th grade teacher cannot take credit for my students with word sense. That credit must be shared among the students’ other teachers starting as early as elementary school, the students’ parents, and most of all, the students themselves.

These are the students who will ace reading comprehension tests, who will pick up on argument analysis the first time around, who will get A’s on the essays I assign, who will receive 4s or 5s on the AP exam. I’m adding a square to the mosaic of their word sense, but I did not magically make them into exemplary writers or readers over the course of one school-year.

This has implications for the students who have not developed word sense, as well. It means that they should not expect A-grades if they have not invested the years into developing word sense that a handful of their classmates have. For me to give out A’s for work that is simply competent or basic would be unfair to those whose work is truly exemplary, tantamount to comparing a player who has finally figured out dribbling, passing and shooting with a player who mastered the basics long ago. I’ve been guilty of this in the past--it has resulted in grade inflation, where an ‘A’ in my class did not mean what it should have meant. This year, I’m consciously fighting that. This means that students need to adjust how they view the grades we as teachers give. A ‘B’ is not a bad grade for students who have finally gotten the basics. In my mind, ‘B’ shows that the students are competent, that they have met the standard, but are perhaps not quite ready to go beyond it. I will do whatever it takes to help my students grow as readers and writers, but I also recognize that my first priority is to help them become competent, and then to find ways to push them beyond mere competency--not necessarily to get them to an ‘A’ level. I want my students to look beyond the nine months they will spend in my class to the future. For those who have a vibrant word sense, how can they use that in whatever calling they pursue? For those who have not developed that word sense, is that something they want to develop? If so, what will that goal require of them in the coming years?

Not all of my students will attain word sense during their lifetime, and perhaps even the majority will not. However, I hope that my students, regardless of their writing or reading abilities, will come away with an admiration for word sense as I have an admiration for court sense. I want them to recognize the hours, months and years of engagement and investment that goes into truly exemplary writing or perceptive reading. And, I want them to realize that if they genuinely want to develop word sense, it’s never too late to start trying.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Teaching Logic

When I was a sophomore in high school, taking Integrated Math, I hated proofs.  For some reason, I just couldn't see the value in outlining the logic of a solution step-by-step.  To me, it seemed redundant--like a waste of time: if a conclusion was obvious to me, why on earth would I need to explain the reasoning?

Fast-forward 16 years: as a teacher, I never thought to teach logic.  As far as I was concerned, if students had a good enough grasp on a concept or theme, they would be able to arrive at logical conclusions about the topic at hand.

Here's what I have realized, though:
1) Being intelligent does not guarantee that one will arrive at logical conclusions.
2) The ability to arrive at logical conclusions does not necessarily mean that one is thinking logically.

In other words, the process of logic needs to be taught and practiced, even for students who consistently arrive at logical conclusions.

I have set aside time on Mondays and Tuesdays each week to study rhetoric in my Humanities class, and the past month has been dedicated to an in-depth study of logos--an appeal to logic.

We spent some time on syllogistic reasoning, the classical example being:
Major premise: All men are mortal.
Minor premise: Socrates is a man.
Conclusion: Socrates is mortal.

We then looked at enthymemes, which condense syllogisms into a single statement, typically leaving out the major premise.  For example, "Socrates is mortal because he is a man" (the unstated assumption being that all men are mortal).

I had the students practice converting syllogisms into enthymemes and vice versa, the main purpose being to root out and explicitly identify the major premise inherent within each claim.  I also had the students practice evaluating each syllogism for its validity (whether or not it followed a logical form) and its truth (whether or not its premises were true).

This was where we observed the limitations of syllogistic reasoning: for a syllogism to be sound, it not only needs to follow a logical pattern, but it also needs to start from categorically true premises.  Most debates in real life are far messier, resting on premises and assumptions that are, themselves, controversial.

This was where the Toulmin model came into play.  Stephen Toulmin was a British philosopher who created a model for argumentation that he believed would fit the messiness and ambiguity of day-to-day discussion and debate.  The Toulmin model is comprised of six parts:

I. Claim (The proposal made by the speaker or writer)
II. Reasons/Evidence (Their reasons for making the proposal and the evidence supporting the reason)
III. Warrant (The underlying assumption connecting the reasons and evidence to the claim)
IV. Backing (Evidence in support of the warrant)
V. Rebuttal (Anticipating and responding to potential counter-arguments)
VI. Qualifiers (Words and phrases that qualify and limit the claim in order to avoid sweeping generalizations such as "every", "all", "always", "never", "none", etc)

We spent a day going over these terms together, and since this was my first time teaching it, I decided I'd try assessing the students right away.  I gave them a short, two-paragraph write-up arguing in defense of a proposal for a tax on sugary drinks and junk food and asked them to analyze it according to the Toulmin model.

A few students immediately identified each part of the Toulmin model correctly, but most students struggled, particularly with the warrant, and distinguishing the backing from the reasons and evidence behind the claim itself, not to mention identifying qualifiers.

So, we spent a class period reviewing and analyzing that passage together.  The next day, I offered another chance to analyze a passage, this time, arguing for a ban on smoking in public places.  The improvement was astounding: all but a few of the students correctly identified the warrant and the backing.  The greatest area of difficulty lay in the qualifiers: while many students did identify qualifying words such as "if", "few" or "sometimes" during the passage, they failed to identify how the writer qualified the claim itself.

Still, it was incredibly exciting to see something as complex as warrants and backing click with the students--the students now understand the importance of examining, identifying and defending their own assumptions as they make arguments, and identifying and critiquing the assumptions in arguments that they encounter.

This is a part of my curriculum that I hope to develop and deepen in coming years, and I regret that I did not recognize the importance of teaching logic and argument structures sooner.  As the debate season starts up in the next week or two, I am looking forward to seeing how my 11th graders on the team apply what they've learned!