HomepageISTEEdSurge
Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
Join ASCD
March 1, 1999
Vol. 56
No. 6

Keeping It Simple and Deep

+2
What do Japanese haiku have to do with innovative school reform? More than you might think.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

Instructional Strategies
The old pond / A frog leaps in. / Sound of the water. —Matsuo Basho
O snail / Climb Mount Fuji / But slowly, slowly! —Kobayashi Issa

Sometime in the 16th century, a paradigm shifted in Japanese poetry. The traditional court poetry of abstract allusion and elegant phrasing gave way to something new. This new form concerned itself not with princes, battles, and fabulous kimonos, but with fleas, snails, the pounding of rice, and the sounds of roadside birds (Blyth, 1978). The Japanese did not, of course, call this a paradigm shift; they called it haiku.
Today we are surrounded by a language of standards and authentic assessment. These hallowed educational reform movements want our work to be suffused with validity and truth, respect for the diversity of individual learning styles, and commitment to excellence and real-world applications. At the same time, we find ourselves operating in a realm of failed budgets; puzzled and resistant teachers; contradictory mandates; and administrative practices that place curriculum, instruction, and assessment at the very bottom of long priority lists.
The haiku poets also found themselves caught between standards—like courtly love and ancient traditions—and the realities of everyday life. From this tension, they created an innovative and remarkable poetic form. Is there anything we can learn from their negotiations of ideal standards and everyday reality?

Simplicity and Depth

In a mountain village / setting free the horses / The first morning of spring. —Onitsura
Reading haiku for the first time, Americans are often struck by their simplicity. Yet the haiku also are incredibly deep. How did the great haiku poets—Basho, Issa, Buson—accomplish this wonderful combination? And more important, what can professional educators learn from their work?
Suppose that we take these two principles, simplicity and depth, as the foundation for our work in staff development and school improvement. Traditional forms of school improvement have tended toward both excessive abstraction, with few concrete methods that speak to specific classroom situations, and daunting complexity, with pages and pages of standards to examine, organize, and prioritize. Perhaps haiku can teach us a salient lesson. By searching for school-improvement methods that combine simplicity and depth, we can bring large-scale change to nearly all classrooms, rather than to just a few classrooms whose energetic teachers have the time and disposition to make nontraditional improvement programs work.
  • Simple changes are not radical, revolutionary, or mold breaking. They are constructed out of the educational resources and knowledge that teachers currently possess.
  • Simple changes do not create conflicts between the modes of instruction, curriculum, and assessment and the policy environment of state mandates and tests.
  • Simple changes respect the practicalities and resources of schools. They do not call for radical shifts in school structures or budgets.
If these simple guidelines stand alone, they might seem like a prescription for no change at all. Something very different occurs, however, if we combine them with guidelines for educational depth.
  • Deep changes affect the entire faculty. They are not constructed around large general sessions, complicated representative structures, or turnkey programs.
  • Deep changes combine agreements about unified assessment with a complementary commitment to diversified teaching and administration. In this way, they are profoundly democratic. Like the U.S. Constitution, they combine a set of minimal common agreements with a deep respect for a culture's ability to foster and learn from diversity.
  • Deep changes are constructed through a continual process of examination and reflection rather than on strategic long-range planning models.

Simplicity and Depth: Instruction, Assessment, and Curriculum Standards

Three examples from our professional development work in New York and New Jersey give these abstract guidelines some life.

Instruction: Do You Hear What I Hear?

Listening tasks are increasingly common on state tests. By examining and reflecting on these tasks, a group of teachers with whom we work constructed a strategy to help students develop the skills and the habits of mind to succeed in listening tasks. They called the strategy Do You Hear What I Hear?
In using Do You Hear What I Hear? teachers read aloud brief, challenging texts every Monday. Teachers center each reading on one higher-order thinking question. During the reading, students take notes, focusing on the text that will help them answer the question. In the next phase, students have small-group discussions, after which they construct and compare plans for writing brief, interpretive essays. Students either draft the essays during class or finish that evening.
Do You Hear What I Hear? occurs on three Mondays each month. On the fourth Monday, students use a simple writing rubric to select their best essay. Then they hold peer-editing sessions to revise and refine their products. The teacher marks only their polished essay.
How is this simple? It's easy to plan, easy to grade, and not dissimilar from many teachers' current practices.
How is it deep? Everyone agrees to it. It's based on rigorous texts and genuine interpretation. It provides opportunities for teachers to respond to and coach students in needed skills.

Assessment: "The Deal"

In many schools where we work, teachers have negotiated with one another a set of assessment contracts or deals. Everyone strikes these deals within a grade-level team or secondary school department. The deals describe teacher agreements on the most important kinds of student work to serve as a source of assessment information.
Teachers develop the deals with a facilitator in a series of brief meetings. During the meetings we conducted in one successful district, teachers examined state tests and combined their findings with their knowledge of learning styles, reading and writing in the content areas, and a model of authentic learning. When they agreed on their deals, teachers then selected four students (high, high-average, low-average, low) as case studies and used these students' work as a basis for making decisions about how to revise instruction and curriculum to meet the students' needs. At the same time, the administration agreed to help teachers establish time lines and planning time for reaching their goals. In another district, the school board agreed to provide eight half-days each year for teachers to pursue their work on assessment contracts.
How is this simple? It does not conflict with state tests and mandates or deeply intrude on current teacher practices, accounting for approximately 30 percent of teacher assessment practices.
How is it deep? It affects everyone and positions the teachers to reflect on and respond to the actual work of students. And it's democratic: The deals are negotiated by teachers, not mandated from on high.

Curriculum Standards: Poster Sheets

In another district where we work, teachers had become frustrated with the glut of complex curriculum standards. What they needed, they decided, was a basic, understandable set of standards that was not only easy for teachers to use but also highly accessible for students to use in creating, evaluating, and revising their own work. One irony of standards, as these teachers discovered, is that the parties least privy to them are the students to whom they pertain. So the teachers formed groups to study state standards and assessment and to rewrite them so that they directly addressed students in a language everyone could understand. For example, a group of middle school English teachers developed several sets of standards, including a poster for thematic reading.
These standards became part of the everyday culture of the classroom, and teachers used them to guide their decision making. Teachers hung them in classrooms, sent them to parents, and attached them to student work. Because these standards were ubiquitous and easy to remember through acronyms, students internalized them.
How is this simple? It does not conflict with state tests and mandates. It respects the practicalities of classrooms and the resources of schools. It streamlines and simplifies standards.
How is it deep? It affects everyone directly, including students and parents. It produces an inclusive classroom climate for feedback, discussion, and self-evaluation.

The Poetry of Professional Improvement

Our frame for this article is, at first glance, a bit odd. After all, what does poetry have to do with contemporary education movements? Shouldn't the language of professional development be more scientific than poetic?
In fact, the work of such researchers as Isabel Beck, Howard Gardner, and Fred Newman informs much of our practice. But when we try to apply this knowledge to the particular cultures of schools and to the difficult realities of teachers, we come across countless variables. How we respond as educators becomes a personal and creative act—a kind of poetry. What we need are new models that promote individual creativity within a standardized structure rather than conformity to countless standards; that create collegiality rather than isolationism; that foster and learn from diversity; and that take into account the practicalities and obstacles inherent in teaching to help both teachers and students improve.
As Lucy Calkins reminds us in Living Between the Lines (1990), there is a clear connection between teaching and beauty. For now, we are a long way from Navajo sand painting or the cave drawings in Lascaux or the poetry of Shiki: A little boat / going around a big boat / another morning of spring.
But we are beginning to hear and apply other voices, voices that are wonderfully simple and stunningly deep.
References

Blyth, R. (1978). The history of haiku. Tokyo: Hokuseido Press.

Calkins, L. (1990). Living between the lines. Westport, CT: Heinemann.

Richard Strong has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

Learn More


ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Related Articles
View all
undefined
Instructional Strategies
Thinking Harder About “Trigger Warnings”
Matthew R. Kay
3 weeks ago

undefined
Disciplinary Literacy Means Doing the Discipline
Rachael Gabriel
3 months ago

undefined
Developing Knowledgeable Readers
Natalie Wexler
3 months ago

undefined
Three School Tools for Literacy
Kate Stoltzfus
3 months ago

undefined
Integrating Literacy Across the Curriculum: An Easy Way to START
Harvey F. Silver & Matthew J. Perini et al.
3 months ago
Related Articles
Thinking Harder About “Trigger Warnings”
Matthew R. Kay
3 weeks ago

Disciplinary Literacy Means Doing the Discipline
Rachael Gabriel
3 months ago

Developing Knowledgeable Readers
Natalie Wexler
3 months ago

Three School Tools for Literacy
Kate Stoltzfus
3 months ago

Integrating Literacy Across the Curriculum: An Easy Way to START
Harvey F. Silver & Matthew J. Perini et al.
3 months ago
From our issue
Product cover image 199027.jpg
Using Standards and Assessments
Go To Publication