Archive for the ‘Teaching English’ Category

What Happened to the Narrative Method of Teaching History?

January 14, 2018

Most students do not find history an interesting subject before graduating from high school (unless they have an exceptional teacher, of course).  Most students see no point to studying history, or what relevance most of it has to their lives now.

Sadly, most history classes at the high school level involve memorizing lists of military or political events, and names of leaders.  But all this is meaningless to most students.

When I was a child in elementary school, I recall my father telling me, “History is like a big, long story.  That makes it easy to learn and easy to remember.”

Yet the history lessons I had in school, and even in University classes, were nothing like this.  Since 1960 or before, most history is now presented in Social Studies “Units,” or in disjointed tidbits mixed into lessons on geography or the arts.  What is missing, however, is any sense of cause and effect, or how any of these periods tie together or transitioned from one change to another.  Thus, history has become, for most, memorizing random facts with no meaning, in order to pass a test.


We must look briefly at the three methods of viewing time.

CHAOTIC TIME is how time is viewed by a small child.  Events follow each other randomly, and it is hopeless to try to impute any meaning to these events.

CYCLICAL TIME arose with the very first societies.   Natural cycles of planetary events began to be linked with human activities such as planting, harvesting, hunting, and feasting.  Lengths of days, and times of year, were measured by watching the stars or other natural phenomena.  Cyclical belief systems and practices arose in early societies all around the world.  Examples of some cyclical systems include astrology, the Cult of Osiris, Feng Shui, or the Aztec Calendar.   Through repetition, cyclical time was able to conquer chaotic time.

Most early societies believed in a cyclical view of time, in which patience, ritual, and the healing power of time-from-nature were valued.  The ability to divine nature’s energy and use it was highly valued (Strauss, 11).   One advantage of belief in cyclical time is that when societies have horrible wars, or fall apart, these times are seen as temporary, as being a “winter season” from which the spring and a renewal will eventually come.

Things changed with the arrival of monotheism, especially Christianity.  From its earliest days, Christianity tried to stamp out the cyclical view of time.   They denounced it as “calendrical paganism” and did their best to stamp out non-linear thought-systems such as astrology (Strauss, 10).   Yet, they were never able to stamp it out completely.  When modernity, and especially the Enlightenment arrived, the Western World switched to a LINEAR VIEW OF TIME.

The greatest achievement of LINEAR TIME has been to give all mankind the sense that we are improving ourselves, that we are MAKING PROGRESS TOWARD A BETTER END.  We now “prize the ability to defy nature’s energy and overcome it,”  (Strauss, 11).

By the sixteenth century, printed copies of the Christian Bible were now circulating, and there was a new urgency in European society, as people now began speculating about Christ’s second (and final) coming.  Early English settlements transported this linearism of religious purpose in building utopias to America, where it greatly influenced future American society.  Waves of immigrants saw themselves as the builders of new utopias–Calvinists, Puritans, and others transported ideas of “building a New Jerusalem, as defenders of ‘God’s Chosen Country,’ and pioneers in the service of a Manifest Destiny.”  (Strauss, 10)

Linear societies define EXPLICIT GOALS (whether moral or material), and set out to deliberately attain them.  When these goals are reached, people feel triumphant.  This leads us to view life as SELF-DIRECTED, and our personal lives as SELF-MADE.  These ideas instilled in Western societies the idea of LINEAR PROGRESS toward an EVER-BETTER MATERIAL and societal future.  These were the ages of belief in technological progress solving all problems, of Manifest Destiny in America.

In America, the HAPPY ENDING is truly our NATIONAL BELIEF  (Strauss, 11).


This view held until World War I.  The entire Western World was affected.  Suddenly, we were NO LONGER SURE of the idea of continual progress.  Now, we had the fear that our linear path may, in fact, be DOWNWARD.

Despair and dystopian ideas took hold.  (The optimism following World War II created a reprive from these ideas for a time; however, they returned in the 1960s.)  Progress doesn’t look as positive as it did in the past; the fear of nuclear winter (or planetary destruction), robotic technology replacing human jobs, and the new fear that HISTORY IS RANDOM AND DIRECTIONLESS has replaced Manifest Destiny and Belief in Continual Positive ProgressThe FEELING of CHAOTIC TIME has returned, as if events follow each other randomly, without purpose or reason.


Dramatic changes in history teaching methods during the twentieth century were caused by changes in our societal view of time.

When the narrative method was used to teach history, the glue which held it together was that it was a teleological view.  This view means that history had a beginning and was headed toward a particular end.  In more religious times (and among those who currently believe “End Times” are coming) this would mean the time of the last Judgement, or the times of Revelation, or the End of the World, or the Second Coming of Christ.  In America’s past, the idea of Manifest Destiny came out of this teleological view.

Among the less religious, a secular teleological view was substituted, that of continual progress toward the self-betterment of mankind (Strauss, 11).

The teleological, linear, narrative view essentially taught (in religious times) that the victors of history were part of the God-approved progression of history toward an eventual religious triumph and religious conclusion:  including the rise and fall of societies; the conquest of societies and peoples; the people in positions of authority having the approval of God to be there, etc.    Events such as the genocide and/or enslavement of  Native Americans were viewed in the past as replacement of inferior societies and worldviews with morally-correct and improved peoples and world-views.  Today’s ways of looking at events was not even considered, since the teleological view implied God’s approval.

Generally speaking, science eschews teleology.  Teleologically-based “grand narratives” are now frowned upon in post-modern society.  However, in America, the belief in scientific progress leading mankind toward a Utopian end has persisted until recently.

For example, the television  series Star Trek was so popular precisely because it supported the idea of hope and progress being able to solve all future social problems of hunger, poverty, wise government through democratic institutions.  Furthermore, they go throughout the universe spreading hope, light, and progress by means of the morally upstanding Federation (seeming to represent the ideas of the United States after WWII) against the Klingon Empire of Darkness (seeming to represent the Western ideas of communist empires of evil and darkness).


History classes in schools and in text books (where they are even still used) tend to be very light on examining the time periods between major catastrophic or important events.  This is partly due to time constraints, but it is also due to the fact that so many people and societal groups DISAGREE on the causes.

Text books took to leaving out anything controversial decades ago so that they can sell one or two versions of their books across most state lines.  Books and history courses that offend no one are now the order of the day.  When causes are taught, they are taught in isolation from other events.

Here is one example.  Hardly anyone knows why World War I was fought.  Students are taught, “The cause was the shooting of the archduke.  Then everyone began fighting.”  In fact, the real causes are found in the larger, global events of the previous one-to-two centuries leading up to the war, in the expansion of the British Empire, particularly in India, and the Great Game played between Russia and Britain, and alliances which took place in Europe, concerned with balance-of-power politics.  Students learn little to nothing about any of these things, and learn nothing of how the basic geography of certain countries drives their foreign policy.  Once these things are studied, World War I doesn’t seem so mysterious.  (See references below if interested in pursuing these topics further.)

For years, as a teacher, I wondered both WHEN and WHY the teaching of history changed, and I am finally glad to at least understand what happened.  I wish I had solutions toward improving it in modern society.  But when every group seems to be pushing their own agenda, and with no one really in charge, I have no idea how to do that.  Any thoughts would be welcome in discussion below.


Strauss, William, and Neil Howe. The Fourth Turning: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny. Bantam Doubleday Dell Pub., 1997.


Tharoor, Shashi.  An Era of Darkness:  The British Empire in India.  Aleph Book Company, 2016.

Frankopan, Peter.  The Silk Roads:  A New History of the World.  Bloomsbury Publishing, PLC, 2015.


Teaching Cursive Part 7 (of 25): How to Teach Correct Forward Slant

January 8, 2016


Turn the paper while writing in order to get properly slanted cursive.

Turn the paper while writing in order to get properly slanted cursive.


Correct positioning for left-handed writers to obtain the forward slant.

Correct positioning for left-handed writers to obtain the forward slant.


This post is both for parents and for teachers who may be called upon to teach cursive, but need help with how to teach the correct slant.  For examples of correct slant, see this post.

The way to get a slant is to TURN THE PAPER (or notebook). Instead of having the paper directly upright in front of you, rotate it about 45° COUNTER-CLOCKWISE, so that the upper right corner is in the 12:00 position (and lower left corner is in 6:00 position). Then write normally on the page, and the writing will have the proper slant.

The paper should be turned on an angle to write for one’s entire life–it is the correct way–it is not something one does while learning as a child, and later on reverts back to using a straight paper.  No one can write with a proper forward slant if the page is not turned on the desk

A helpful hint for teachers and parents is to cut a thin strip of paper (I used to use a 1/8th-wide strip cut from red construction paper, but any paper will do) and tape it to the desk or table where your student is working. The bottom edge of his paper should rest on that line. As a third-grade teacher, I taped these red lines on each desk before the first day of school. (I also did it when I taught Kindergarten for three years.) How did I get the idea? My own teachers did it when I was a child.

Line taped on edge of desk for slanted cursive writing.

Line taped on edge of desk for slanted cursive writing.

If you would like to try the taped line method (highly recommended), here is how to put it in the right position:

Steps for Correctly Positioning the Taped Line on the Desk

It’s important to WATCH your own children or students work, for several weeks or months, until they develop the habit automatically. It feels very awkward at first since they have most likely learned incorrectly. They might need constant reminding every two or three minutes at first.  As a teacher, it was easy for me to keep constant watch in the classroom and remind students all day long, “Turn your papers,” or “Papers on the red line.”

How to Move the Paper Up and Down While Writing

Once students start writing, there will naturally be some students whose writing is not slanted enough, and others whose writing is too slanted.  At that point, tell those individual students to habitually turn their papers more, or less–whatever is required–in order to arrive at the correct amount of slant.

 How to Adjust Student Papers Later On

My hope is that these instructions will help parents and teachers understand how to teach cursive slant with excellent results.

Why Reading Levels Continue to Decline–PART I (of 2)

April 30, 2015

Students who still can't read

The problem of students who are unable to adequately read their grade-level textbooks is not new; the problem starts in early elementary school and only gets worse as students move up in grade levels.  Unfortunately, the rise of the internet in the past twenty years has only exacerbated the problem.

Let’s look briefly at the pre-internet reading situation in middle-class schools and above (poor schools have additional problems which will not be treated in this particular article).  Looking back, the most important function of the school library was to be filled with books to be used for school research projects which were at the correct reading levels for students.

Primary School Libraries

Not only were grade-level books provided, but there were plenty of below-grade-level books on every topic available to readers who were still below grade-level.  For example, a middle-school student with a lower reading level could still find good primary-level books on any research topic assigned. There used to be hundreds of books available through publishers, on every conceivable topic, for school libraries and public libraries to choose from.  Bookstores made them available to the general public.

Today, funding priorities are focused less on providing new books for the school library–partly because of the explosion of new topics and knowledge in our modern world, and also because of the explosion of information on the internet.  Now funding must be divided between  books, and new library computers.

The market for children’s non-fiction has plummeted since 2005.  Sales to both libraries and bookstores have dropped substantially. Therefore,  fewer nonfiction books for children are being written and published.  Publishers and booksellers decided to drop most nonfiction, and focus primarily on children’s fiction–for which there does continue to be a market.

Desirable Non-Fiction Book Topics

 The lack of nonfiction is particularly damaging for boys.  They tend to prefer autobiographies, nonfiction, newspapers, and realistic topics. Ever since 2005, as the internet has become more powerful, children’s nonfiction has declined.  This decline is preventing many boys from developing as readers. National standards in Britain and America drive the decline even further, “…as the strictures of the national curriculum have driven many publishers to stop producing anything very original, and how many books on Vikings and rainforests do we really need?”

Starting in middle school–most commonly Grade 6 and above–teachers now direct students to the internet for research, instead of to school libraries. One reason is that science classes are now often researching topics which are not even available in books in the school libraries–things such as genetics, and various types of cells–and this is happening in Grades 6, 7, and 8.

Students are now being asked to research obscure people for reasons of diversity in the classroom, rather than famous people.  This means that the information can only be found on the internet.  Students are now expected to use the internet for all research.  This is now true even in elementary school.  Students may be assigned reports on animals, for example.  Perhaps there are perfectly good books in the school library at the right reading level; however, it has now become “too much trouble” to even check , when one can “just look it up online.”

Using online sources creates a much worse problem–aside from the problem of whether a source is reliable, biased, or incomplete–that is, the problem of reading level!

Below is reading sample from a Grade 5 science text which more than half of students (even in good schools) might find too difficult to read without the teacher’s help.  Why?  Because students are now used to reading only fiction in reading class.  They are not used to the vocabulary in non-fiction; nor are they used to reading expository sentences..

Levers text


Not only have student reading levels declined in real terms, but the sources students are now attempting to use are usually written at far too high of a level for their age.  Students in middle school and high school usually go first to Wikipedia (and are often specifically told to do so by their teachers, particularly in international schools that have much less access to English-language printed material).  Unlike school library books or school text books of old, vocabulary is not controlled for difficulty.  Sometimes the articles are poorly written, and written by scholars who are just trying to impress other scholars with their difficult vocabulary.

Below is a section of what one of my 7th-graders attempted to read for a report on glial cells last year, using Wikipedia.  Most students now need adult help to translate and explain what they are trying to read.  To a poor reader, this may as well be in Chinese:

Glial cells text from Wikipedia

Those students who can afford it hire private tutors.  My students show up and say, “I have a project or report due next week on glial cells (or guard cells, or an obscure historical figure).  Can you help me?”  Students arrive knowing nothing about the topic, and are expected to research on line, and write a report listing their sources.  So, together we look on line and usually find very scholarly articles, which I, as an excellent reader in my 60s with a graduate degree and decades of experience teaching, sometimes have trouble understanding!  So we pull out little snippets of information from various articles, which I explain in plain English and then mark our source.  Even many Wikipedia articles are written by scholars, seemingly just in order to impress other scholars!

Hiring a private tutor

I learned a great trick years ago when I was in a professional writers’ group.  If you need good, concise information on an area or a subject, one of the best ways to find it is to go directly to children’s books, where you can find the information thoroughly distilled and written in clear, easy English.  I use this same strategy now and show students how they can search on the internet using the search terms “my topic + explained for children.”  It doesn’t always work, but it often does.  Sometimes we arrive at a website where something has been clearly explained at a reading level appropriate for middle-school students.

The thing which most excited me about the internet when it first began, especially as an overseas teacher with little access to English-language reading materials, was its potential as a world library at our fingertips.  Sadly, much of this potential is being lost for two reasons.  First, children are not developing adequate non-fiction reading abilities to function in society.  Second, most of what is available on the internet is written at far too high of a level for students to be able to benefit from it.

In most American schools, for the past several decades, the textbook has been seen by teachers as only one resource of many for classroom use.  In fact, years ago, over-reliance on the textbook was almost seen as the mark of a lazy teacher, within the teaching profession.  Unfortunately, the current result of this attitude has now led to teacher over-reliance on the internet, with students who are unable to understand either their textbooks OR the internet!  I personally have come around 180° to the view that students would be better served if they learned and discussed in class everything which is in the textbook.  Now, however, there is a new problem!  Many schools are now moving entirely away from textbooks as a way to save money, and teachers are mostly downloading random worksheets from the internet. Unfortunately, it is students who are again losing out on their education.

Part II of this series will discuss what parents, schools, and teachers can do to address these problems.

–Lynne Diligent

Why the Flipped Classroom Has Gone Too Far

April 20, 2015


Flipped Classroom

The flipped classroom is just not appropriate for all subjects, all of the time.  This educational fad has gone way too far, and is being used for the wrong reasons.  Most importantly, it runs into problems when teachers attempt to use it as a time-saving device in order to cover more material, because only a small percentage of students’ reading levels are actually up to grade level.

While the flipped classroom sounds like a new idea, it is actually an old idea.  Several decades ago, it was called preparation–a good name–in Britain, although I am not aware of any specific name for it in America.  It often consisted of reading a selection in a text book before arriving in class, for example, so that one could better benefit from a lecture.

The flipped model works extremely well for math classes.  As an elementary teacher, I would look each day at the following day’s homework section.  I would give about fifteen minutes of instruction and guided practice specifically on what my third graders needed to complete that day’s homework. We did not waste time in class doing homework.


I expected all children arrive in class with their homework complete, in order to be ready for the most important part of the lesson, learning from mistakes.  Right or wrong, they all got nice, big A‘s on the homework for completing it in pencil (including showing all work and carry numbers or cross-outs).  If they did not show their work, or if the work was either undone, or incomplete, they got a large, red F.  Within a short time EVERY child arrived daily with homework done.  We then put pencils away, and got out ink pens which we called “marking pens.”  Each child corrected their own paper.  There was no incentive to erase wrong answers, because the child already had an A, just for completing the homework.  We spent the following 30 minutes going over the problems missed by the largest numbers of students, working them on the board.  Students learned so much when they could see where they went wrong.  In most cases, we found errors such as subtracting the ones place, while adding the ten’s place, in the same problem–or, in forgetting to add in carry numbers, things like that.  In math class, the flipped classroom works fantastically.

Using the flipped classroom as a time-saving device runs into trouble in subjects which require a lot of reading for two reasons.  One reason is that in many good schools, students are feeling overwhelmed with the amount of homework, leading them to take ineffective shortcuts.  Using Spark Notes, and similar services, just do not engage student interest, and students miss the benefit of the literature.

The most important reason the flipped classroom runs into trouble is that students’ reading levels are just not up to grade-level standard in terms of being able to read either text books, or literature, on their own.

This problem is not new.  It was widespread in the 1970s and 1980s.  Secondary teachers in Colorado at that time were required to take Reading in the Content Area.  It was a course designed to help secondary teachers help students who were unable to read their textbooks adequately.  Because of the decline in book reading and adequate reading instruction, together with the rise in technology, in 2013,  more than two-thirds of students in the United States were now below reading level for their grade.

4th Graders Who Scored Below Profient Reading 2013

Unfortunately, today, most students, even some of the best students are not even attempting to read literature (or their history, or science, text books).  Most are attempting to find the film online.  Poor readers who attempt to read Spark Notes have trouble understanding even that, and certainly no one finds Spark Notes inspiring.

Many secondary English teachers (including elementary reading teachers, and secondary science and history teachers) are now assigning reading for homework, in order to cover more material and just have discussion in class.  The problem with this is that two-thirds of students are either not able to read effectively, and do not even attempt to read because of feeling overwhelmed.

So what do teachers need to do in order to combat these problems effectively?

First, they need to read the book (or text book section) themselves, in the mindset of a student, thinking about vocabulary which many students may not know, and noting it down.  They need to think about the major ideas and how those ideas relate to life today.

Next, they need to introduce the book or reading selection with a short, inspirational talk, that will make students feel like they can’t wait to read more!  They need to talk about and explain vocabulary (whether it is old-fashioned language or science terms) before students start to read.  History teachers need to think about the problems they are teaching about in a historical context and how those problems relate to life in the world somewhere today. Introduce the similar problems and questions of today and how they are being dealt with in the modern world, then look at the same questions in how they are being dealt with in the novel, or in history, or in the science text book.  Discuss what could happen in the future with the same issues.

Rather than starting a unit with reading the text book or novel, start the unit with a discussion of the students’ life questions about the issues which will arise in the reading selection  Here are three examples:


History:  While studying various political decisions of Roman Emperors, first discuss similar problems in the modern world.  Open with a question, “What do you think about when you hear of an apartment building collapse that kills people because of shoddy building practices?  What should be done?”  Or, “What’s it like to be stuck in rush-hour traffic?  What would it be like if the highway were also clogged with pedestrians, donkey carts, and horse-drawn carriages all at the same time, and it happened four times a day instead of two times a day?”  Then, “Now let’s see how they dealt with these same problems in ancient Rome.”

Rhett loves Scarlet, while Scarlet loves Ashley and uses Rhett!

Rhett loves Scarlet, while Scarlet loves Ashley and uses Rhett, in Gone with the Wind

Literature:  “How many of you have ever had the experience of being in love with someone, only to have that person be in love with a different, third person?”  Then, “The problem of love triangles is universal throughout human history, and that’s what this novel is about.”

Science (Astronomy):  “Does alien life exist on other planets, or in other galaxies?  What do various current scientists think about this, and why?  Which planets and stars are most likely for this?  What kinds of planetary conditions are thought to be necessary?  Could we actually travel to other stars or planets, and how long might it take?”  Then, “Now let’s turn to the text book and begin reading together about the planets.”

Lastly, MUCH more time needs to be devoted to in-class reading (even in high school).  If teachers are concerned about embarrassing some students reading aloud, or if there are poor oral readers, students benefit greatly (even in high school) from the teacher reading aloud well (and adding in inflections and pauses), while they follow along.  It also gives everyone a chance to stop and discuss various points, such as how they feel about actions characters take, or what situations they find themselves in.

Teachers need to inspire and motivate students, and help students to see connections that they would not see on their own.  If the teacher is excited about the material, he cannot help but communicate that love and excitement to the students.

–Lynne Diligent



Young Student Remembers Past Life?

January 20, 2013


Several years ago, while teaching third grade, the school asked me to have students write stories.  One of my third-grade boys (age 8) wrote a story unlike any I have ever seen in all of my years of teaching.  Instead of writing about the usual kinds of stories which children do, he wrote about his experience as an adult man during war.

His story was about trying to save his family while he was being called off to war.  He was rushing to hide them in the basement and get them necessities, while trucks of soldiers were coming by to pick him up and take him with them off to war.  It was in Europe, and there were trucks.  It’s been several years, and I no longer recall all the details, but the essence of the story has stayed with me ever since.  Out of all the stories my students wrote over the years, it is the only one I can clearly remember today.

As someone who believes in reincarnation, I’ve always wondered if, in fact, this child’s story was a past-life memory.  It was shocking to read.  It sounded like one of the World Wars.  His concerns sounded just as if an adult man of 35 was speaking about his feelings.  There are a number cases now researched and published of young children who remember past lives, and even past lives in wars.

I mentioned the story to his mother, and she responded, “I know.  He’s just like an old man, in a little boy’s body.”

–Lynne Diligent

How to Help Students Improve Their Topic Sentences

June 8, 2012

Writing a good topic sentence is surprisingly still a problem for many middle-school students. Students usually have one of two problems. The first problem is that many students write an incomplete phrase as a topic sentence, putting a period at the end. These students are confusing titles and topic sentences. The second problem is that the topic sentence students write is not general enough to the whole paragraph and should really be another supporting sentence.  This post will only deal with a solution to the first problem.

I discovered an easy one-on-one method to help students work on the problem of confusing title phrases with topic sentences. I suggest having a long list of about fifty simple essay titles prepared. Point out that titles are not complete sentences. Ask the student who has trouble to change the title phrase into a complete sentence. Many students will immediately change it into a question. While a question can be used as a topic sentence, I don’t them use questions, because this doesn’t solve their basic problem; it allows them to get around their basic problem.

If the student just cannot change the title into a declarative topic sentence, then help him. Give him three or four examples; then move on to the next example. This technique works even better with two or more students in a small group. Ideally, the group should be composed ONLY of students who have the same problem. (It’s of no help to anyone to be placed in a competitive group–or class–with others whose level of competence far exceeds their own.)

Points can be kept with a tally-mark system of who can come up with the best topic sentence. I also give students a chance to change and adjust their answers (after hearing another child’s answer) before I choose whose answer is best. If they are all equally good, I give points to each child.

Here are two examples:

Title 1: How Technology Affects People’s Lives

Example Topic Sentences:

A. Technology affects people’s lives in many ways.

B. We would be lost without technology in modern life.

C. Technology can have either a positive or negative influence on our lives.

Title 2: Comic-Book Heroes

Example Topic Sentences:

A. My life as a child was filled with comic-book heroes.

B.  Comic-book heroes inspire us in real life.

C.  Real-life heroes are better than comic-book heroes.

The second student problem, that of using as a topic sentence one which should really be a supporting sentence is a little more difficult to solve, and requires more one-on-one work in a different approach.

–Lynne Diligent