Apostrophes and Philosophy: Postcards from the Ivory Tower

I got two emails today, hard on each other’s heels, from Ph.Ds I’ve been badgering for information communicating with on classroom issues that have come up.

Harry Brighouse sends a sneak preview of a chapter in an upcoming edited collection of essays– see the attached file controversial-issues.doc— on the topic of navigating controversial philosophical topics in class. I’ve only skimmed it but it reminds me right away of a dialectic classroom approach which hasn’t gotten nearly enough press called The Paideia Seminar.

Sue Sing of the Open University U.K. sends her views, based on her dissertation research, on whether we can legitimately expect adolescents to know how to use apostrophes. This is thanks to Nigel Hall, whom I mention here. It’s worth quoting at length.

“In the UK, children begin to learn about punctuation at
school during the primary years. They are taught the omissive
apostrophe in Year 3 (aged 7), though they are highly likely to have
encountered it much sooner than this through their reading. In Year 4,
children then learn about the possessive apostrophe. Two years later,
by the end of primary education they are expected to be able to use the
mark for both its functions, easily and competently. However, as you
have found with your students this is often rarely the case.

Through my analysis, I learnt that while some children may appear to use
the apostrophe correctly (for either or both functions), they may not
always be using it for the right reasons. However, without exploring
children’s thinking behind their punctuation decisions this fact will
simply go unrealised and therefore what may appear as sound knowledge
and usage in fact disguises a host of uncertainties and confusions. In
addition, children draw on a range of information sources to help them
decide where to use punctuation marks – some of these being
linguistic-based but equally, some being for non-linguistic reasons.
This is not to say that children are not able to understand how to use
such marks; on the contrary, through our research it became quite
evident that our participants were thinking deeply and intensely about
the subject and were really working hard to try to work out what mark to
write and why.”

These guys are great.

I suppose you could put such generosity down to my excellent criteria in choosing Ph.Ds to badger (snort), but the same thing happened several years ago while I was looking for someone– anyone– to give me a crash course in Haitian Creole for an ESL kid who was coming into the district. I got someone on the phone from a midwestern university and we talked for near an hour.

I think there’s a message here to be had about vertical alignment, that lovely educational buzzphrase that usually means the woefully prosaic “we shouldn’t teach the same material seven years in a row,” but should mean “Let’s make it an institutional priority to talk on an ongoing basis to any university researcher who can help us teach better.” Maybe I should have titled this post “They Don’t Bite.”

You’ll note that I choose the words “institutional priority” with great care. I can call every professor at Harvard until their Nobel Prizes come home, but until intellectual partnerships between school practitioners and university researchers are institutionally supported, they will remain the myopic crazy email fun and pet projects of, well, geeks like me.

Do we do enough of this? Are we scared to do this? What does this say about how we conceive of ourselves as professionals– and how we hold ourselves accountable for effective practice?

5 thoughts on “Apostrophes and Philosophy: Postcards from the Ivory Tower

  1. Wow. I just highlighted and diigoed your post. I’m tempted to twitter it too. Short of making sure a certain % of teachers are in grad school in any given year, and are the sort to talk about it, what can we do? Particularly those who teach at a good distance from a research university. Thank you!

  2. @Ben: FUNNY. Love the Onion.

    @Sarah: Good question. I wonder, for starters, if we could think about the physical placement of schools. It’s not unheard of, but far less common than it ought to be, to have public school buildings right on the campus of a university. My alma mater, Nazareth College, is talking about beginning a school of this type.

    Slightly less grandiose would be simple outreach to education professors and universities BY districts, not the inverse. There are multiple rich opportunities in such a thing, even (perhaps especially) for more rural districts.

    My own district has quite a strong Teachers’ Center, for example, but despite the presence of near half a dozen universities and colleges within commutable distance, including the prestigious University of Rochester, I am not aware of any kind of ongoing research project or consultation with those universities that has been pursued *institutionally*. (I might be wrong, but I don’t think so. The former superintendent of the Rochester CSD has made a point of the isolation of the RSCD from such community resources as well.)

    So what gives, you know?

    I’m aware that this sounds a lot like just piling one other thing schools don’t do well onto the plate, but honestly, the more I think about it, I’d rather have schools pursue research-based pedagogical excellence before allowing themselves to be turned into the largest unrecognized social service system in the country, for one example.

  3. Aw. Thanks, H. I don’t deserve such high praise, but in a year of significant challenges starting the blog is one of the highlights, for sure.

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