There's a Place for Cut-and-Paste Learning, and It's Not Fourth Grade

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, June 4, 2009

Dear Extra Credit:

Because you asked, I think I can give you a fairly clear example of how the emphasis on testing is taking over instructional methods.

I have three children in Fairfax County schools. When my sons (now 16 and 14) were in fourth grade, they used their history textbook. As homework, they read sections of the book and extrapolated the important points, which they noted in a notebook or on index cards, which were then checked in class. Classwork consisted of a variety of techniques, including games and projects to help the kids learn the material.

My 10-year-old daughter is in fourth grade. At back-to-school night, her history teacher announced that the textbook was "too advanced" for fourth-graders. She said that instead of using the book, the kids would be creating a "multimedia journal" containing the material they would learn in class. The teacher stressed the importance of the journals and implored us to protect them, because they couldn't be replaced.

My daughter's journal is a composition book in which she cuts, pastes and colors on informational pages given by the teacher. I can only describe the pages as CliffsNotes. Each page lists important points condensed into SOL facts for the kids to memorize. Clip art is inexpertly scattered on each page to organize and identify information.

One homework question asks: "Where was Jamestown located in 1607? Where is it located today?" The page that supposedly supplies this answer shows a map with a peninsula and then an island. The location of Jamestown is not marked. One must assume from the text on the journal page that Jamestown was initially on that peninsula and is now on the island.

My daughter spent the better part of 20 minutes trying to answer this question before asking me for help. She basically wasted 20 minutes, because the journal page, in my opinion, is a horrible way to learn. The textbook, on the other hand, has wonderful information about why the original Jamestown location was at first deemed suitable but found to be unsuitable, most importantly because of marshy, salty water.

When the teachers asked me what they could do to challenge my daughter, I asked them to use the textbook. Unfortunately, I don't think these new teachers know how to use the book, and I have not seen any increased usage this year.

I don't know where the teachers are getting the mimeographed pages they use for instruction in lieu of the textbook, but I do know that the journals are incomplete. On one of her latest history tests, my daughter missed two questions. We could find no reference to the questions anywhere in my daughter's history "journal," but we did find the information in the history textbook.

I now have my daughter keep her history textbook at home, and I try to make sure she reads the important sections. I think it's a wonderful book, and I completely disagree that it's outside her reading level. Even if it were, I would prefer to challenge her to use the book anyway.

History is only one example of this trend. My daughter colors, cuts and pastes mimeographed notes in all subjects, and I'll spare you my rant about all this cutting and pasting. Suffice it to say that my boys stopped cutting and pasting by second grade and learned how to write spelling words in cursive. My daughter continued to cut and paste her spelling words through the third grade.

One side of me hopes that there is a good explanation for these new teaching techniques. Maybe you can tell me that kids are learning better this way. My gut tells me that my daughter is not learning how to read, study or concentrate on material. Instead, my gut is telling me that these new techniques are teaching my daughter that it's okay to have a short attention span.

Name Withheld


I am very grateful to you for sharing such details. It is exactly what I asked for. I am withholding your name at your request, the first time I have ever done so in this column, because you convinced me that I cannot expect such candor on this subject if I don't offer that protection.

But you did not give me much evidence that these teaching methods, which I agree make little sense, have been caused by increased emphasis on testing. If anything, abandoning the textbook would increase the chances of bad test results, because the books are usually tied to the state assessment exams. What you are describing seems to be an inexperienced teacher out of her depth, a problem that predates standardized testing.

I welcome similarly incisive reports from other parents, or even teachers.

Dear Extra Credit:

Ruth P. Doak, in her letter published in your April 9 column ["On Bad Grammar and Advanced English Courses"], was incorrect in describing "us" instead of "our" as the "wrong pronoun." The Harbrace College Handbook states that "a pronoun immediately before the gerund is usually in the possessive case."

It goes on to say, "When the emphasis is on the noun or pronoun preceding the verbal, the verbal may be interpreted as a participle modifying the noun or pronoun. Then the noun or pronoun is not used in the possessive case." So, your sentence, quoted by Doak, was correct: "I worry more about us worrying so much about preparation."

Marguerite T. Gaffney

Montgomery County

Thank you. This is doubly embarrassing, because, being an erratic grammarian, I thanked Doak for setting me straight and remain uncertain who is right. But your citation is very convincing.

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