Arma Virumque Canō

Arma Virumque CanōI thought about titling this post “Amō, Amas, Amat” or “Venī, Vidī, Vicī”—well-known references to Latin I and Latin II—but I settled for the memorable opening line of Virgil’s Aeneid because my Latin IV class had to read all 12 books of the epic poem in Latin.  I say “had to,” but I really mean “got to.”  It is rare for that to happen in high school, and it is one of my proudest academic accomplishments to this day.  So what am I talking about right now?

I am talking about how important the study of Latin is and how dismally we do it as a nation.  I am guessing that a lot of you believe that Latin is a ridiculous choice of a language to study, but let me try to prove you wrong.  Parents of middle school students and high school students:  Since you might be in a position any day now to make a decision about language study for your child for next year, I don’t have much time left to convince you.  Parents of elementary school students:  Keep reading, because I am going to talk about a problem that affects your child’s ability to learn a fundamental skill in these early years.

Let me skip all of the obvious cultural and historical importance of Latin, because the study of any language will give that to your child.  All languages come with a rich culture and history, and that is one of the key reasons to study any language in addition to your own.  Let me also skip the fact that knowing Latin enables you to read all kinds of inscriptions on buildings and money and the like.  That’s cool, but probably not important.

What is important is the fact—the absolute fact—that studying Latin improves a student’s English vocabulary and, even more important, grammar skills.  Nothing teaches you English grammar like studying Latin.  And it is clear from many of my other posts, my USACollegeChat podcast episodes, and my upcoming speech at a KnowledgeWorks Early College conference in Orlando, that I believe that high school students’ grammar skills are woefully deficient.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to revamp a college’s freshman and sophomore core curriculum, which included mandatory language study.  I boldly advised that Latin be that mandatory study, given the struggles that many of that college’s students had with writing correctly and effectively.  After a lot of back and forth, the college ended up choosing Spanish instead, and I am still sorry.

It’s hard to get anyone to listen to my defense of Latin as the optimal language choice in middle school or high school or even college.  But, I now have new hope, based on my reading of a recent article in Educational Leadership (the well-respected journal of ASCD, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development).  The excellent article, written by Timothy Rasinski, Nancy Padak and Joanna Newton, is entitled “The Roots of Comprehension.”

Here is the authors’ opening statement of the problem, which I think will be quite recognizable to plenty of parents:

Research going back seven decades demonstrates that vocabulary knowledge is strongly associated with proficiency in reading comprehension.  Large vocabularies lead to better reading performance (Baumann et al., 2002; Davis, 1944).  Amazingly, more than 80 percent of students’ reading comprehension test scores can be accounted for by vocabulary knowledge (Reutzel & Cooter, 2015).  Yet, the most recent assessment of 4th, 8th, and 12th grade students’ vocabulary development shows that at all three grade levels, U.S. students have demonstrated no improvement at all in their vocabulary knowledge since 2009 (National Center for Education Statistics, 2015).

According to vocabulary scholar Margaret McKeown, very little vocabulary instruction happens in many U.S. classrooms (Banchero, 2013).  Where vocabulary instruction does occur, students often learn to view it as painful and meaningless: weekly word lists and quizzes. Students may memorize words, spellings, and definitions, but these are quickly forgotten.  The result of either approach—benign neglect or rote memorization—is stagnation in our students’ vocabulary knowledge. (quoted from the article, emphasis added)

Doesn’t that make you sit up and take notice, parents?  Could improving your child’s vocabulary actually improve his or her reading comprehension?  That’s what the research says, and that is a powerful finding, given the number of standardized tests that depend of your child’s ability to read with comprehension.  And that’s not to mention the fact that poor reading comprehension will hold your child back in every school subject from elementary school right through graduate school.

What helps improve your child’s vocabulary most (according to me)—or, at least, a lot (according to the research and the ASCD article)?  It is the study of Latin and Greek roots.  A young friend of mine at Stony Brook University just took a whole linguistics course on the study of vocabulary and the value of recognizing the roots of words.  A vocabulary course in college!

Here is the article’s technical explanation of this simple thesis:

…The majority of academic words are connected by morphemic (meaning-based) patterns derived largely from Latin and Greek lexicons (Edwards, Font, Baumann & Boland, 2004; Graves, 2004; Padak, Newton, Rasinski, & Newton, 2008).  Scholars estimate that up to 90 percent of words with more than one syllable have origins in Latin and that many of the remaining multisyllabic words share roots in Greek (Padak et al., 2008).  These morphological patterns provide the foundation of much content-area vocabulary, as up to 76 percent of commonly occurring academic words share morphological roots (Coxhead, 2000; Hiebert & Lubliner, 2008).  By analyzing these patterns, students can make connections between words that are semantically and conceptually related (Baumann, et al., 2002; Edwards, et al., 2004). (quoted from the article, emphasis added)

In other words, learning Latin (and Greek) roots—along with prefixes and suffixes, which turn them into English words and which themselves often come from Latin (and Greek)—makes it possible for students to dissect new words when they meet them in their reading.   Figuring out the meaning of the words will, of course, help students figure out the meaning of the whole passage.

It should be obvious that knowing one root—or, even one prefix—can allow a child to figure out many words.  Just think how helpful it is for a child to know that words that have port (portō, portāre, L) in them probably have something to do with “carrying”—hence, transport (with trans, L, across), export (with ex, L, out or away from), portable, porter.  There are a million—well, many, many—examples of roots and prefixes just like this.

I frequently find myself surprised when one of my own children does not know what a word means and I have to explain it to them.  Then, I remember that only my oldest child had the chance to take Latin in high school.  My children’s middle school did not offer it, and the high schools that my younger two children attended did not offer it, either.  I tried to get my youngest to take Latin in college—better late than never, I thought—but we could never get it to work in her schedule.  Even though the younger two studied both French and Italian both here and abroad, I continue to be disappointed that they missed Latin.

I often wonder what it must be like for students who don’t have any knowledge of Latin—even of Latin roots, which can be taught easily, starting in elementary school.  The authors of the article make this rather insightful statement:

Words in English aren’t random strings of letters; their patterns have logic and meaning, much of which comes from Latin and Greek.  Unfortunately, many students are unaware of this link and unable to use it to learn new words and concepts.

Yes, indeed.  What could look like random strings of letters to students with no Latin background look like actual words to students with that Latin background.  Think how empowering that must be to students when they are reading a passage and they come upon a word they don’t know.

Well, I haven’t even started on the case for how knowing Latin grammar can make the mastery of English grammar so much easier or how well Latin grammar is typically taught and how poorly English grammar is often taught.  Just trust me on that, though your own experience likely supports it.

And let me say, for the record, that studying Latin does not substitute for studying a modern foreign language.  Kids should study both—for quite different, but equally valuable, reasons.  So, parents, think hard about what your kids are taking in middle school and high school (and, if you are lucky, in elementary school) when it comes to studying a second or third language, and don’t underestimate the value of Latin.

Parents of elementary school students:  How is vocabulary taught in your school? Do they teach Latin and Greek prefixes, roots, and suffixes?  If not, why not?  Find out.  Show the ASCD article to your principal.  Bring up the subject at a PTA meeting.  Parents should have a say in curriculum.  Have yours.

Parents of middle school and high school students:  Does your school offer Latin?  If not, why not?  Is it the lack of interest on the part of the students/parents or the inability to get a certified teacher?  Find out.  Both problems are solvable.  Ask your principal or superintendent or school board to solve them.

It’s All About the Music

It's All About the Music

Well, I was knee deep in editing about 150 college application essays for high school seniors for some weeks and finally can move on to other important things.  I have been wanting to talk with you about today’s topic ever since I read an article last summer about legendary trumpeter Herb Alpert.  (If you are too young to remember Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass, go listen to Alpert’s signature style on YouTube.  Start with “Tijuana Taxi” and “This Guy’s In Love With You”—and stay for all the rest.)

Before we talk about Alpert, let’s say a word or two about the value of music in your child’s education.  In the interest of full disclosure, I have one son with a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree from Berklee College of Music and another son who is an MC and on-the-rise performer of grime in the U.S.  (If you are too old to know what grime is, head back to YouTube and look for grime artists from London, where the genre originated.)  Clearly, as a parent, I think music is crucial to a child’s education.

When I co-founded a small Early College STEM high school in New York City, one of the first things we did was start a music program:  one required History of American Music course for all students, one elective music theory course, and an after-school performance group.  Why?  Because for some kids, music is the only reason to come to school.  Our student was Wilmer, and he is still playing music.  Parents, you might have a kid like Wilmer at home; but, even it you don’t, you have a kid who still needs a music education.

Jackie Zubrzycki reported on some recent research in the Education Week blog Curriculum Matters:

Studying music seems to have helped accelerate the cognitive development, and particularly the auditory- and speech and language-processing abilities, of a group of young children in Los Angeles.

That’s an early pair of findings from a five-year longitudinal study being conducted by researchers with the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California, in partnership with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association and the Heart of Los Angeles, a community center. The study, published earlier this spring in Developmental Cognitive Neurosciencechecks in on a group of students two years into an experiment about the impact of music education on students’ cognitive, social, and emotional development.

And here is just a bit of the substantial research reported by Laura Lewis Brown at PBS Parents:

Research indicates the brain of a musician, even a young one, works differently than that of a nonmusician. “There’s some good neuroscience research that children involved in music have larger growth of neural activity than people not in music training. When you’re a musician and you’re playing an instrument, you have to be using more of your brain,” says Dr. Eric Rasmussen, chair of the Early Childhood Music Department at the Peabody Preparatory of The Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches a specialized music curriculum for children aged two months to nine years.

In fact, a study led by Ellen Winner, professor of psychology at Boston College, and Gottfried Schlaug, professor of neurology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, found changes in the brain images of children who underwent 15 months of weekly music instruction and practice. The students in the study who received music instruction had improved sound discrimination and fine motor tasks, and brain imaging showed changes to the networks in the brain associated with those abilities, according to the Dana Foundation, a private philanthropic organization that supports brain research.

So, for lots of reasons that are scientific and social and emotional and artistic and cultural more, music seems to be quite a gift for children.

And now, Alpert, musician extraordinaire and co-founder of A&M Records, has made music quite a gift for a group of talented college students.  His foundation—co-founded with his wife, singer Lani Hall—has made a $10.1 million gift to Los Angeles City College (LACC), a two-year public community college.  The money will create an endowment, which will be used to raise the number of music majors enrolled from 175 to 250 and to provide ALL of them with FREE tuition.

Yes, ALL of them with FREE tuition.  Talk about giving back…

As reported by Carolina A. Miranda in the Los Angeles Times, Alpert said this about his gift:

“LACC is a gem of an institution. . . . The biggest motivation was helping kids who don’t have the financial energy to go to a major college. At LACC, they’ve nurtured thousands of dedicated students every year. My brother went there. My ex-partner [record producer] Lou Adler went there. I’ve visited the school. It’s alive. It’s kickin’.”

Alpert noted that he was especially interested in supporting a public institution where students of all socioeconomic backgrounds could get a college education.  I hope that our newest leaders are watching and listening, as they continue to slash the budgets of public higher education institutions and make it harder and harder for students of all socioeconomic backgrounds to get the college education they deserve.

And one last word from Alpert:

 “I was super-shy and the trumpet was speaking for me. . . . It made the noise I couldn’t get out of my mouth. It’s a way for kids to experience their own uniqueness and appreciate the uniqueness of others.”

No one doubts that you are unique, Mr. Alpert.  We just need a lot more like you.

Parents of kids of all ages:  How many more research articles do you need?  Get some music into your kid’s life.  If you can afford to pay for private music lessons, great.  But there is so much more that our public schools can do and must do for all of our students.

Lobby your Board of Education, your district administrators, and your school administrators to offer a well-rounded music program—both music performance and music appreciation/history.  As the inimitable music genius Quincy Jones has said, American kids are woefully ignorant of our country’s rich music heritage.  Parents, make sure that ends now.

Still Time To Give Thanks

Still Time to Give Thanks

If you haven’t been properly thankful this November (and there could be a lot of reasons for that), I can solve your problem.  My solution deftly combines November’s two important holidays:  Veterans Day and Thanksgiving.  My solution is a way to say thank-you to our nation’s military families, whose loved ones are serving away from home during this month when the rest of us can be together.

It will take you only a few minutes to go to the website for United Through Reading and see what I am talking about.  UTR is a nonprofit organization that has figured out a simple, but powerful, way to keep military families better connected during a mother’s or father’s long deployment.  At 262 locations around the world last year, UTR set up the technical facilities to record videos of military service members as they read books aloud to their kids at home.  Once recorded, the videos were emailed or mailed home.

What could make more sense and be any easier or cheaper to do?  While everyone knows intuitively that this idea would absolutely work, here are some statements about the program’s impact, as quoted from UTR’s website:

Children’s anxieties fade.
Service members become part of daily life at home.
Spouses are supported because parenting is shared.
Homecomings begin with children welcoming a familiar parent, not a stranger.
Children learn to love books and reading.

And, in case you were wondering, UTR is the recipient of the 2016 Community Service Hero Award from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society and the 2015 American Prize of the Library of Congress Literacy Awards Program.  So, UTR is doing something right.

Parents of kids of all ages:  If you are thankful that your family was together on Thanksgiving, if you are grateful that there are military service members following in a long tradition of protecting and preserving, if you are proud that you had a family member in the military, or if you believe that hearing a bedtime story from a faraway parent is something that all kids deserve, then go to UTR’s website.

First, watch a video or two of families telling about their own experiences with UTR, if you need any more persuading.  Then, donate.  I did—in honor of my mother and father, my father-in-law, my uncle, and my cousin, who served with honor.  This is one great way to give thanks before November ends.

Your Senior Can’t Write

Your Senior Can't Write

I don’t know what you have been doing this fall.  Personally, I have been knee deep in college application essays.  I have been reviewing and editing the application essays of 50-plus seniors, who attend excellent top-ranked high schools, almost all public ones.  Once again, I have come to the same sad conclusion.  As I said to a class of seniors at an elite high school a couple of weeks ago, “You write like third graders.”

Okay, maybe that was a slight exaggeration, but it got their attention.  What I meant was that they were making mistakes in their writing—grammar, punctuation, word choice, and more—that they should have stopped making back in middle school, or earlier.  So, think of this as a wake-up call to you, parents, and to your kids.

Here is the big problem:  You can’t really fix a high school senior’s writing in the middle of trying to get his or her college application essays created, reviewed, and submitted on time.  There is too much pressure then, and there is too little time.  Those of you who have seniors at home are going to need to do the best you can in a hurry.  But, those of you who have a freshman or sophomore or junior at home can do better.  Those of you who have a middle school kid can do even better.  You can start working to improve your kid’s writing in a serious way right now so that a future fall’s college application season will be a lot easier for both of you.

Of all the essays I have read and edited in the past few weeks, I found one essay that was surprisingly well written, especially from a mechanics point of view.  I called the young man aside and said, “How did you learn to write like this when no one else in your class seems able to do it?”  His answer was immediate and seemed exactly right to me.

He said that he had worked regularly with a writing tutor since he had been in ninth grade.  His tutor went over his written work and showed him how to improve it.  She worked shoulder to shoulder with him, line by line, in many sessions.  I got the feeling that she was relentless and demanding.  He said that he did not enjoy writing.  But he sure could do it.

In my experience, both with students and with my own three children, this is what it takes to improve someone’s writing.  It is not lessons taught from the front of a classroom.  It is painstaking discussion and editing of the student’s own work, with the student watching and learning and absorbing and understanding the reason for every change that is being made.  It sounds slow and laborious, and it is.  But it works, and I am not sure that anything else does.

Here is the rest of the problem.  Today’s high school English teachers cannot do that for their students.  I wish they could.  Imagine trying to correct the written work of 150 students on a one-line-at-a-time basis—or even of 100 students or even of 50 students—day after day and week after week while talking through those corrections with each student one by one.  And, of course, that’s not all English teachers have to do.

Parents of middle school and high school students, do this now:  If you can help your own teenager learn to write well—and by “well,” I really mean correctly—then do so, by all means.  If you cannot, for whatever reason, then consider getting the kind of over-the-shoulder tutoring help that is much more likely to ensure your kid’s success than hoping for the best from your kid’s school. 

Parents, I believe this is on you.