Thursday, October 25, 2007

Educational Triage: Academic Integrity or Logic?

I have taught the research essay for over a decade; my skills at teaching the components of the essay, the elements of documentation, and the aspects of academic integrity have grown with each set of students. However, the distance between my skill set and my students’ misunderstandings about plagiarism seems to grow each year despite my gains. This week, I collected short essays in which I asked students to quote one professional reading at least three times. Before submitting their work, I asked students to use; I release the report to them so they can use the tool as a safety net and make changes before submitting the final draft to me in class. A record number of students committed paraphrased plagiarism; they put parenthetical notation, acknowledging the source of ideas, without using any quotation marks to signify that they copied the writer’s language word-for-word. highlighted these “matches,” and the students chose to make no changes before submitting their work to me.

More and more, students tell me they had no idea quotation marks could be used for something other than dialogue. Yup, it’s true. I’ve tried to address this misunderstanding in written directions and class lessons; sadly, this misunderstanding about quotation marks seems to co-exist in students who also struggle with reading and attendance. Sometimes I feel ludicrous. I’m pursuing the curriculum appropriate for students’ age level, but my content doesn’t meet the comprehension level of a growing proportion of students. I don’t have a quantifiable assessment, but when students don’t understand the various uses for quotation marks, I suspect a lower reading level. How much can someone read and still be unaware that quotation marks are needed for someone else’s text when it’s copied word-for-word? Especially if that student has read specific directions for the very assignment? Today’s technological students are surrounded by dialogue—texting, instant messaging, cinema and t.v.; expository reading seems easy to dodge. Rather than fail all offenders, I offer students an opportunity to correct their work for the lowest possible passing grade…it’s a teachable moment, right?

Here’s the cost: I spend so much time teaching students not to plagiarize—in all its various forms—that I spend less time on excellent logic and argument in writing. I spend so much time teaching students what not to do, that I accomplish very little on helping them express authentic discussions of their own. Sometimes I think I need to work exclusively on critical reading before moving on to critical writing. Am I putting the cart before the horse, asking them to care about intellectual property before they’ve had any of their own? I think I cared about academic integrity because I felt I had a dog in the fight; I had ideas and expressions of ideas to which I planned to put my name. My students and I spend so much time clearing up what it means to be honest, that we don’t spend a significant portion of time ensuring that students write about ideas of any consequence.

A colleague of mine attributes the growing number of students who don’t understand that the syntax, the words used to express an idea, can be “owned” to the open-source nature of Internet information. Upon Googling “plagiarism,” for example, a student might find five sites that define and explain the concept with the same exact language, and one site makes no reference or gives no credit to another. The words, in effect, seem to be the public domain—common knowledge has been extended to word-for-word expression.

I know as teachers we can spend a weekend talking about “kids today” and the problems with the Internet and plagiarism; I really, really like the Internet, and I like teaching with it. I just want students to understand about quotation marks, to value written expression as worth crediting to someone else. More and more, with each passing year, I feel old, beating my intellectual property drum before a people who find satisfaction in the facsimile without concern for its origin. What line is worth fighting for on the front of research in our brave new world? Should I surrender some of the paraphrased plagiarism energy and work harder on the logic? With fifteen weeks in a semester, I’ve got to prioritize, and when I’m in the trenches like this week, I lose my certainty as to which is more important.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Educator

Thursday, October 18, 2007

What's my Job Again?

When I first started teaching, it astounded me how quickly teaching my classes didn’t seem like enough in the school culture. “Good” teachers, I learned, did lots more than teach effectively. What would I sponsor? Would I like to coach? How about committee work? Ironically, these additional pursuits sometimes take much more of my focus than actually teaching my students. This week, I’m coordinating a conference and distributing a department-wide exam, and I’m embarrassed to say, when my students asked me questions after class, I felt like they were distracting me from my “real work,” keeping me from what I’m at school to do. Nutty, right?

Ultimately, all the additional projects I take on are rooted in the goal of “helping students” or “improving education.” It pains me that those very pursuits I give my extra hours to also drain me of some patience and interest in my actual, flesh-and-blood students. “I’ve answered that already,” I’ll think to myself as a question forms on a student’s lips. “Does this story have a point?” I’ll wonder when my committee work obligations pile up or the club I sponsor is having a candy sale. I feel like a parent writing an essay on the joys of raising a child as said child cries for attention in another room…

I’m not sure why the “extra” jobs in education fill me with a greater sense of urgency than teaching does. In part, I think it’s because those jobs offer a higher profile and greater variety than teaching. If I work really hard on the literary magazine, the principal is more likely to hear about it and compliment me than if my lessons are excellent and my patience un-ending day after day. Working with discouraged learners, I’ve determined that consistency is the way to go. Consistency in my lessons and management style creates a successful, stable climate, but like with a good, nutritious diet, doing the right thing can get old. I think I get sucked in by the variety of skills and ideas I get to use with an “extra” project like organizing a professional development day. It mixes things up a little…

These concrete tasks also give me a greater sense of accomplishment because I can actually see that I did it, and I did it well; they can be quantified. The department exam gets distributed successfully: clear directions, numbered tests, reasonable deadlines. The professional development day goes well: enough parking, yummy lunch, meaningful presentations. The markers of a successful semester aren’t as easy for me to identify even after years of teaching. Some students understand while others don’t. Some students grow while others struggle. For how much can I take the credit or the blame? The favored metaphor is that teachers “plant the learning seeds,” which while lovely, also means we might not have the student anymore when the time comes to assess the harvest.

My students weather my extraneous education deadlines; they understand that teachers have stresses that ebb and flow, too, and they expect me to reciprocate to the rhythms of their own lives. I just like to remind myself that teaching them well is the point of what I do despite the fact that I can’t measure it. While I might be wooed by the singular jobs that come my way, teaching students well and patiently is my chosen work. I hope I get through this week without thinking too often, “Gosh, as soon as I teach my classes, I’ll be ready to start working!”

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Friday, October 12, 2007

How Should We Court Parents?

I’d love to tell you that I first read about Damian Frye during my careful daily reading of the New York Times or through my conscientious attention to my NCTE newsletter. However, I first met his story on the parenting site when I read Madeline Holler’s “Hey, Teacher, Leave those Kids’ (Parents) Alone.” According to Tina Kelley in “Spreading Homework Out so even Parents have Some,” Frye teaches ninth grade in Essex County, NJ and asks parents to do things like “read and comment on a Franz Kafka story, Section 1 of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and a speech given by Robert Kennedy in 1968.” Good stuff, eh? Here’s the kicker: “If the parents do not comply, Mr. Frye tells them, their child’s grade may suffer — a threat on which he has made good only once in the three years he has been making such assignments.”

He goes on to explain “that all the students’ parents had computer access and that only two had told him that they were not fluent in English; one posts on the blog anyway, one sends her responses to him privately, by e-mail. Another parent phones responses in to him. Tony Lopez, a corporate lawyer who posted a lengthy reaction to the Kennedy speech…said he was actually glad to do the weekly homework.” At this point, I’ve read Holler’s annoyed blog, Frye’s enthusiastic testimony, and a hundred or so of the comments posted to the New York Times article, and I’m still not sure what I think…

NCTE’s own Carol Jago praised elements of Frye’s assignments but also “cautioned against penalizing students for something that their parents cannot or refuse to do.” As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I purposely teach discouraged learners, so I’ve taught a higher proportion of kids whose parents might not be a resource. Computer and Internet access for parents, in fact computer literacy for parents, could not be assumed where I taught high school. I also taught in districts where instituting a policy that showcased one child’s socioeconomic differences against another’s was frowned upon. One county-mandated unit I taught required students to interview a family member, and even that benign requirement got dicey; some students ended up interviewing a close adult relationship within the school instead because of stories too sad and varied to record here. It upset those students for other kids to know they didn’t have a close relative…I’ve never taught honors, but some people commenting on the New York Times’ thread laughingly predict the competitive nature of parents coming to fisticuffs on Frye’s blog since “the parents probably write the students’ essays anyway.”

Suffice it to say, I cannot emulate Frye’s assignment in my classroom because I don’t think it would work for the kids I teach. However, I’m struck by his innovation; I haven’t spent much time thinking about how to involve my students’ parents in their learning. My relationship with parents has been more like teammates as we work their children’s I.E.P. plans into the mainstream classroom or (thankfully—less frequently) it’s been…um…I’ll confess…defensive on my part. The state I taught in required four years of only one subject—English—so the grades students earned in my class garnered lots of parental attention that sometimes devolved into bullying the teacher. (Gulp. It only happened once, but I’m not sure I’ve experienced many things as stressful as looking up into my doorway and seeing an angry parent in her coat, arms folded, expecting to meet with me unannounced because of a message I’d left about her child’s performance…) So, anyway, the idea of courting parents has not occurred to me. I thought about parent involvement with the kids who worked the literary magazine I sponsored; heck, they gave their resources often to our penniless endeavor, but it is a new idea for me to consider crafting assignments so that parents can have “intellectual conversation with teenagers who are normally less than communicative.” I hadn’t considered that part of my job as I drafted a unit. So now I’m wondering, is it part of my job?

When I really think about it, I like the idea that my assignments would enhance dinner table conversation for my students and their families. I often wrote the goal, “Students will foster an appreciation of literature” on the board after “Students will cooperate in groups” and “Students will punctuate full sentences correctly.” While I’m not comfortable with Frye’s policy of grading students in part by their parents’ performance, I will really think about inviting parents into the process, of using my lessons as a neutral gathering ground for parents and children to meet, because I believe that is part of the power of reading and discussing literature. I believe it has a curative power—why not let my students witness that in their own lives?

The discussions I’ve encountered online debate whether or not Frye should do as he does. I’d love to hear what my fellow English teachers think they could do instead…How can we take what works about his concept and adapt it to our own circumstances?

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

I Need Spirits--Yes, I Do. I Need Spirits--How 'Bout You?

So, umm…I’m wrapped a little tight. I like routine, which is part of what I love about education. I think the comma really, really matters. So things like Homecoming and its preceding Spirit Week can make my eyes twitch. Sometimes Spirit Week made them roll in their sockets. Okay, to be fair, just the left eye…

It took me a few years to understand that Spirit Week is the week when adolescence trumps education, and that’s okay for one week. Theoretically, I’m all for school spirit, pep rallies, big games, parades, and formal dances; it’s just in practice that I get anxious. Early in my teaching career, I thought I could stem the Spirit Week tide, but I soon learned to go along for the ride. One week, right? It’s not like I was SGA sponsor! (God bless SGA sponsors…) Spirit Week winds the student body up like a top, and teachers just need to guide the spin through Friday…

What would Monday of Spirit Week bring? Pajama Day? Hat Day? The variance from normalcy started slowly. I actually liked Pajama Day. Not because I participated, but because teenagers who wear very little clothing on a regular day tended to wear darling, modest flannel p.j. sets, complete with pig tails or sleeping caps and the whole thing smacks of Peter Pan in a way I find charming. Because of my before-mentioned leaning towards tension, I did worry about a fire drill with so many students clad in stuffed animal slippers that didn’t lend themselves to actual locomotion, but I digress…

By Thursday, the pulse of energy amongst the students began to make my own heart palpitate. Thursday was often Mix and Match Day. By then, any students in my classes of disengaged learners who were invested in the school in any way were probably absent due to hallway decoration/float building/dance organization/pep rally preparation or the like. Those of us who remained eyed each other warily. My students dared me to teach a lesson of consequence during Spirit Week. Would I prove such a Spirit Week Scrooge? Mix and Match Day’s disconcerting visual montage exacerbated my anal disposition’s discomfort that the school had wandered from the rigidity I knew and loved. Students neatly braided half their heads but allowed the other half to flow freely. One high heel would be worn while a flip flop slapped alongside it. Jarring color combinations swirled around during hall change. Eventually, I found it easier if I stayed up ludicrously late Thursday night, for total exhaustion would make it easier to ride the surreal wave of Friday…

Ah, Friday of Spirit Week…Students wore the school colors on their…well, on every conceivable surface. Change of class became the center of the day; classes are merely where students must wait for the real action, doled out in four to six minutes of passing time. The bell schedule was modified to allow for the pep rally that would be held at the end of the day. I actually relaxed on Friday. In my sleep-deprived haze, I realized my world of forty-two minute lessons subdivided into six or twelve minute tasks could not exist. No administrators asked about NCLB goals or if my county objectives were on the board. “Thank you for coming in,” they said as they rush by with their walkie-talkies. “Let’s stick together!”

My first high school pep rally as a teacher scared me. Coming in rested, I remained completely aware that we, 172 adults, had grouped approximately 2200 students into one room, which pulsed like a hive and gave off heat from the bleachers in those strange swirly waves like pavement on a highway in August. Then, the band played music, and speakers encouraged the student-bleacher conglomeration to stand, to compete by grade level, to wave…Young girls in tiny outfits (yes, exactly like American Beauty) roused strong feelings in our hormonal crowd. The potential for disaster made my mouth dry. In front of the doors stood twenty or so of us adults, the rest of us peppered around the gymnasium as assigned by a diagram found in our boxes two days earlier…Our front line consisted of six to eight men, most of whom suffered from at least one of the following: bum knee, lumbago, high blood pressure, asthma, or gout.

With experience, I realized that total disaster rarely rages at a pep rally because the students mostly—wait for it—enjoy it! High school consists of a huge social component, and even students who don’t care for school spirit, sports teams, or competitions, certainly enjoy the anarchy Homecoming imposes on the school structure. Students who didn’t necessarily excel in my class might excel at the many venues Spirit Week and Homecoming provide, and because it happened right during school, I got to see and admire it. Heck, a pep rally can make stars out of the band members! I learned to wait a week to cure illiteracy and eradicate lazy thinking. Besides, the week after Spirit Week would be fantastic. Students took at least three days to replenish their stores of energy, and I got a lot done in that time…What kind of spirit does Spirit Week rouse in you?

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher