Apr 18, 2011

The Joys of Michael Clay Thompson

Michael Clay Thompson is a teacher, writer, academic and classical education enthusiast. With the Royal Fireworks Press he has written and designed a wonderful Language Arts curriculum.

We love MCT in our homeschool classroom - they are beautiful and simple in appearance yet wonderfully complex in content. Our girls are intrigued and engaged! Using "Building Language" to explore word stems November and July were shrieking with excitement to give their take on "re" words, and "ex" words. Here is 7 year old November's aqueduct she built at The Corner - a wonderful play space for the Under 8s in the State Library of Queensland. This is how her conversation with a worker went...

Worker: "Wow - that is great! What is it exactly?"
November: "It is an aqueduct."
Worker: "A what?"
(at this point the 5 year old July runs over to interrupt help)
November: "Its an Ancient Roman structure..."
July: "...used to carry water from the hills down into the towns!"
November: "Its name comes from aqua for water and duct...
July: "...for lead! They lined them with lead and they all went mad!"
Worker: [looks dizzy at this point] "I am 25 and I have never even heard of them before..."
All three of them then proceeded to knock the aqueduct down, while the woman next to me asked where do they go to school? and looked politely and nicely interested while I raved happily about homeschool and the fun we have with MCT.

Recently Michael wrote a series of insights into his approach. These were posted at the Royal Fireworks Press Support Group - find the Forum here - and here they are...I have just labelled them Part 1, 2 and so on for my own clarity -

[Part 1:]
Anyone who is new to the MCT programs will gradually find that the questions in these books are often or even usually different from the questions in more traditional books. The tradition in textbooks is typically cognitive and flat in affect, and the question is what we would call CONVERGENT, meaning that it is about finding the right answer in the book and transcribing it. Look at those words: FINDING. THE. RIGHT. In such questions, the student really does not have to think about the idea itself or grasp its meaning or nature. It is just, SEARCH the book until you FIND the answer, then copy it. The student has to follow orders. To obey instructions. The workbook of doom effect. The questions in this book are usually not like that. In these often Socratic questions the student does not obey; the student has to lead. These questions typically put students in intellectual situations where they first have to pay close attention to what is being asked, then perhaps go back and reread a section of the text, and then do a short creative think piece that demonstrates or illustrates the idea that is at issue. They are not finding and copying, they are working out an understanding and then creating their own examples. The entire process is much deeper, and much more personal. In the process of grappling with the curious details of the assignment, the student is brought to a deeper reading of the book. In these kinds of questions, there is no recipe of correct steps to follow; the concept can be discovered in individual ways. I would recommend a light-hearted feeling about such assignments, treating them as fun and experimental. Tell the student to read the question carefully, think about what part of the book might help, and then give it a shot. I do not, NOT, want to say, "Turn to page 79 and read the first paragraph" and so forth. I want the student to have to use his or her mind to think about what information is most important to the question. This entire mode of assignment is therefore more exploratory, creative, individual, open-ended, and experimental. The student will be trying things. This then lets the parent follow up with a dialogue about "What did you learn from doing this?" "What did you realize about the sentence?" What I have found through forty years of teaching is that these advanced questions create much deeper student learning and involvement in the knowledge than workbook-style, follow-instructions, right-answer questions. Students have to think for themselves, they are not told what to do in precise terms, they have to decide what to do, and there are indeed spots of frustration when they have to create their own instructions and think it through for themselves. As much as possible, let the student work it out. Just say, "Oh, I think you will come up with something interesting," and let the student puzzle it out. This was a long comment, but I hope that it shows some of the question theory that is concealed in the MCT books. Best to all.

[Part 2:]

Here is another dimension that is working below the obvious surface of the curriculum: it is structured to force the student to reread the text. The research shows that the best readers are rereaders. The ordinary student reads something one time and then says, "I've already read that," assuming that he or she has gotten whatever is important in the very first encounter. The more advanced reader reads something the first time and learns much, but knows that he or she is missing things on the first sweep. I have often noticed, in my own reading of novels, that it takes me one reading just to figure out how to read the book. The first time I underestimate the importance of a character, and discover too late that I was not paying sufficient attention to the details when I read about that character in early chapters. I do a much better job on my second reading. The very great books I have read many times, seeing deeper levels every time. These textbooks are like that. I have noticed in my online teaching that almost all students miss crucial points the first time they read a chapter. They THINK they understand, but when I ask comprehension questions, we discover that the student did not really understand. So here is a crucial element of the MCT curriculum: no serious curriculum can be read once and completed. In this curriculum, you read the chapter but then the questions are such that they turn your attention to things you may not have noticed, to subtle details, to what a term means, or how it can be applied. We all probably have a tendency as parents and teachers to do much of the organization and digging for the student, to try to simplify it for the student, but the paradox is that this well-intentioned process can be overdone, excusing the student from doing it himself. I do not want the student to avoid rereading. I really do want the burden of thinking and rereading to fall to the student. It is the very purpose of many of the questions in this program to send the student back to the book, to reread a particular section again, this time at a deeper level. We cannot do that rereading for the student; our role is more to join in a good discussion after the student has gone back and read and thought and searched and created a conclusion. We want to teach the student to reread, with thoughtful focus. We want to teach the student that rereading is a good thing, a normal and usual thing among advanced readers. Rereading is one of the best, most enjoyable, parts of being a real student. Great students always reread.

Part of this involves a sense of time. This curriculum is not one where you have to hurry and get the blanks filled in. There is no hurry. Let us stop on a thought. There is time to understand it truly. Let us be with the thought, take it in, discuss it and enjoy it. Let us take the extra time to realize its meaning and importance. It is this deeper, more authentic engagement with beautiful academic thoughts that I hope is the core of the MCT curriculum for children. I hope that this will help show the strategy of the books, why there are comparatively few blanks and comparatively more Socratic questions. Blanks can be finished; thoughts are opened, and left open for life.

Here is another element of my textbooks. The speed of reading is not the same as the speed of thinking. When we read, our eyes and minds pass from word to word to word, moving quickly forward. The next word is always there, visible, slightly to the right, and we irresistibly look at it, and then at the next, and the whole process drives us forward. There are no thought stops available, where we pull over and ruminate about ideas. 

If the process stops there, the learning is unavoidably shallow. If all the student has to do is look backwards, find the exact words a question requests, and copy them, then that is shallow. You can copy words, even when you have no idea what they say, or what they mean.

What must happen is that after the reading, the curriculum sends the student back to those same sentences, one thought at a time, to reflect and assess, to figure out what they really mean, to see why they are important--often far more important than they may have seemed at the speed of reading. These questions cannot be copy-and-paste questions where the student FINDS the answer, all tidy, and copies it to a worksheet. To be effective, these questions must be such that the student rereads, thinks, talks, notices, applies. 

The speed of reading and the speed of thinking are different. Reading is quick and forward moving, horizontal, but thinking is slower, punctuated with stops, and vertical. 

A student who comes to the MCT curriculum from a find-and-write-the-answer model may well be unsettled or even frustrated at first as he or she discovers that the curriculum is working at the level of ideas, requiring more comprehension and deeper articulation.

The MCT books are designed to create vertical academic experiences, where the students think down into the ideas. Many times there will not be a right answer, with the exact right words, because the very assignment is to get the student to produce an individual articulation of the idea. This does not mean that whatever the student says is right; you can articulate a misunderstanding. It does mean that these books include a prominent thinking dimension that can be missing from worksheet-oriented assignments. MCT students are less busy filling in blanks, and more busy rereading, thinking, and explaining.

The speed of reading is not the speed of thinking.

White space, margins...ideas.

[Part 3:]

Once you have a sense of how the MCT curriculum works, that it is not just a hurrying horizontal curriculum but one that creates vertical, deep explorations of powerful core academic concepts, you begin to notice elements that contribute to that process, and they begin to make sense. For example, Tom Kemnitz has given serious attention to the white space and margins that I design into the books, and I would like to comment on that too. Think about a normal page of text. You finish one idea--which may reach its clearest expression in one sentence--then there is a period, and an eighth of an inch to the right of the final word in that sentence is the first word of the next sentence. It is impossible to stop your eyes from leaping the gap and catching a ride on the next sentence. And so reading goes, pell mell, from one sentence to the next. The thinking you might have done recedes into the rear horizon. It is the difference between spending a week in a town and passing through it on a train, trying to take it in through the window of your cabin.

The meaning is clear. The book must say its thought, and after the period, there must be no word to its right. 

The page must stop the mind. This may mean that the entire page must be devoted to a single sentence, as though the page were a slide. At this point, the beleaguered publisher has a printing expense blackout and sinks to the floor of his office. 

The margins and the white spaces organize and focus the ideas. They point the eyes. 

This principle extends even 
to the way the text is broken into lines. 
When I am arranging a passage on a page, 
I try to break the lines at grammar joints, 
rather than in the middle of grammar elements. 

For example, I try to keep a prepositional phrase together on one line. I try to keep a dependent clause on its own line. When a sentence takes three lines, each line is a thought within a thought, and it helps clarity to keep the words with the words they go with.

I worry sometimes that my pedagogical strategies are too invisible, that people think I just want a page to be pretty, or they look at a page that has one sentence on it and think of that as lacking in substance. No, the other sentences are there, but not on the same page. On this page we will take time for this sentence. The purpose of a one-sentence page is to zoom and hold, giving a visual structure that supports vertical reading. These principles are intense pedagogical strategies, implementations of a theory of teaching; they are designs, and we can do a better job implementing the curriculum if we know that they are good things that support learning.

The books stop the children's minds. The long-term difference of this approach, as the student studies book after book in level after level, is that that the student has a feeling of understanding everything, rather than a vague awareness of having read everything.

[Part 4:]
Doing four-level grammar analysis is like practicing your piano.
Here is a question that I have thought about, and you may have too. Even for me, I knew the answer, but I had to think about the reason. Q: Why do students have to keep doing four-level analyses in every level of the MCT curriculum, in the grammar and practice and writing books, once they know how to do it? If a student has already done level one or two, is it not better to skip the practice book or the four-levels in the writing book? (No.)

This is a good question. Why should a student have to keep doing it? Am I not opposed to students having to prove and prove and prove that they know something? 

Yes, I am opposed to that, but this is different. Four-level analysis is different. It is not like having to show repeatedly that you know the capital of Tuvalu (Funafuti). That is a scrap of knowledge, a concrete detail that is verifiable in its entirety in a single question.

Four-level analysis is different because it is an expansive--almost cosmic--inquiry into language, with four tendrils of inquiry moving forward simultaneously, and it is investigating something that is not concrete or simple but that is essentially bottomless.

Four-level analysis is in part a mode of inquiry. When I think of using four-level analysis to approach and examine language, I think of a little space probe, with four little instruments onboard, approaching an enormous, unknown planet in the dark depths of space. Beep? Beep? Like the planet, language is enormous, and like the probe, four-level analysis is little, and it can only find out so much. The gigantic language is too big to be described completely; it will always have paradoxes and unnamed phenomena and never-before-seen objects that keep pushing our ability to comprehend what we are learning.

Four-level analysis can lead you through the known, beyond the terms, past the things that have already been named, and on out to the edge, where the wild questions are. You go out beyond the rules to the usually darkened reasons for the rules. You come upon sentences such as Shakespeare's "Fair is foul, and foul is fair," from Macbeth, and after you solve the grammar, you sit for a long time, looking at its perfection, wondering why it is so beautiful. After a long thought, you do not know.

Four-level analysis is in part a logic of sentence construction. With each example you see more clearly how and why to make a verb agree with its subject, how to structure a good introductory participial phrase, how to punctuate a complex sentence, how to edit out junky modifiers, how to do the ten thousand things that writers want to do.

What I have learned myself after using four-level analysis for decades in my own teaching and writing and workshops and conferences and personal reading and thinking about language is that I am still growing in it. Not a week goes by that I do not discover something I had not thought of before (phrasal interjections this week). Not a week goes by that I do not more deeply realize the integral connection between grammarthink and poetry or literature or writing. 

What I have seen in a consistent process during a period of decades is that by continuing to do four-level analysis, my thinking about language keeps getting clearer, and clearer, and clearer. Every month I am able to do more, see more, share more, enjoy more. Every month I find new grammar things, like shells on the beach.

I have been trying to find the way to explain this, and here is the analogy that finally occurred to me, the most precise analogy. You keep doing four-level analysis in your pursuit of language just as a pianist keeps practicing piano in the pursuit of music. Both music and language are vast, bottomless, hopelessly beyond our abilities to understand them completely. They are more than the work of a lifetime. They cannot be finally mastered. And both piano playing and four-level analysis are skills that keep increasing, keep getting easier, keep becoming more joyful and exciting, the more you do them. No great piano player ever gets to a point of, "I have arrived, and now I no longer have to practice." 

You do have to practice. And as you get better, you can play harder and harder pieces, and do so with greater depth and comprehension. It is exactly the same with four-level analysis. I am at a point now that when a sentence containing a gerund phrase as the subject of a sentence flies by, I watch it just as I might pause for a second to enjoy notes of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto. I read my wife this paragraph, and she laughed and left the room.

Four-level analysis is like Julliard in a box. A few years of it, and you are different.

Four-level analysis is not a little skill that you learn and discard. What students can acquire is a four-level mind, an ongoing and exciting awareness of how words and sentence structures and phrases and clauses operate in their language environment, which includes everything they hear and read and write. It is a dramatically expanded form of language consciousness that makes writing and punctuating easier and more joyful. 

What you will see as you get to know the MCT curriculum is that it introduces and then permanently incorporates four-level analysis as a mode of language consciousness, with examples that become increasingly subtle, or paradoxical, or beautiful, or architectural. As the student's four-levelness increases, the stronger examples increase, and the entire process builds all of the language elements together into a coherent ability. 

Each level of the MCT curriculum takes the student forward. If you have done the previous level, you are in a position to do the new examples more quickly and easily and to spot the paradoxes and mystery phenomena--to enjoy them. If you have not done the previous level, you have some learning to do, but you can still catch the train if you jump.

A final thought to punctuate the end of the comment: it takes about three minutes do do a four-level analysis. You can incorporate them as homework, groupwork, Socratic discussion, daily warmup activity...you can pick a sentence out of a poem...it is incredibly flexible but not disruptive of your schedule. And each one you do is a thumbnail review of all of grammar. 

I hope that this helps explain the importance of four-level analysis in the MCT books. I keep reading comments by parents to the effect of, "Just trust the curriculum." Just trust the four-levels.

What are your experiences with Michael Clay Thompson?

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