Monday, December 28, 2009
A few weeks ago, our district sent around a flyer about a grading study group that they were putting together to investigate new ways to grade. One of these new ways involves a no zero policy allowing for the lowest grade assignable to be a 50. In the words of Hamlet, "Angels and ministers of grace defend us!"
I get perhaps shielding maybe some students occasionally from getting a zero, but to never assign them? I am supposed to give a student who turned in nothing for the quarter a 50? Something seems wrong here.
Now, I am aware of all the blah-blah arguments about grades, but here is a brief list of reasons why this policy is a bad idea:
1. Grades are a measure of student progress. A student who does not understand 50 percent of the material should not be misled into believing that he or she does.
2. NOT because it will inflate grades. There is a great article which I cannot find at the moment (of course) called "The Drama without a Villain." The whole article is dedicated to the myth of grade inflation. It begins with the Committee of Ten, those guys who created Carnegie Units, complaining about, you got it, too many "A"s being awarded. Not going to go deeply into it here, maybe in another post in February, but according to this fine article (which I swear I will find and then post the bibliographic information for at a later date) grade inflation is about as real as Nessie and the Creature from the Blue Lagoon.
3. I've seen too many students in AP English courses who can't write. I am not being over-the-top here. Let me give you an example: "incase" as a word throughout an entire essay. Once would have been a typo; twice, tragic. No less than twelve times did this student, who is actually on of the best I have, write this as one word.
4. I don't spend my precious time tackling mound after mound of papers so that I can give a student who completely ignored the assignment a 50. If I ask for a paper on Jude the Obscure and I get an essay on the merits of certain waterfowl, I should be able to give that student an appropriate grade.
5. Where is the justice in assigning a plagiarized paper a 50?
These reasons and many more have me stewing about this attempt to rewrite policy.
An aside on the policy piece. In Virginia, the COMMONWEALTH where I teach (all caps on purpose), there are only local Boards of Supervisors who control the purse strings. School boards are dependent upon these local boards for their budgets, etc. School boards are not allowed to generate a private revenue stream. Thus, much like the federal government, our Boards of Supervisors have a little bit of control over what is done in the schools. Just thought I would mention that for those from most of the other states who have independent school boards.
So, this attempt to rewrite policy is being driven by assistant superintendents of curriculum, etc. who wish to get a gold star on their resumes, School Board members who have children in the system, and Board of Supervisors members who have school children in the system. There is a trifecta if I ever saw one.
So, I began thinking about what the implication would be for students in the English classroom. Potentially, students could pass English classes while avoiding an entire section of the course. Don't like the essay writing? Skip it and do everything else. Don't like to read? Skip it and write the essays. With the lowest grade being a 50 and the highest F being a 59, there are only 10 percentage points that need to be attained before students get a passing 60.
What do you think?
Can this grading system be used for anything other than turning out a bunch of students who can't read, write, or think?
Has this system been implemented in your district? If so, how is it working out?
Is it a good idea to destroy our own competitiveness as the forces of globalization once again demand that we compete for ideas, resources, and power?
Is it destructive to students to lie to them about where they really fall?
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
So, I open it up to you (same referent). What do you assign for break? What factors help you decide what to assign?
This post is an open discussion, so please write back.
Burke’s idea is unassailable. These personae represent many extant frameworks for new 21st century job skills. Take Daniel Pink’s (2006) book A Whole New Mind, wherein Pink outlines the six senses of the right brain and how to develop them. His reasons for these new skills include the usual trifecta of “Abundance, Asia, and Automation” (Pink, 2006, p. 30). The jobs that people could get without a college diploma are being reduced dramatically. Students must be educated to think, but they need more than the typical left-brain approach that is given high value in the test-score driven high school system. If students are to be successful, they must go to college; if they are to go to college, they must know what we ask in the academic standards and be able to imagine new possibilities and uses for this information.
Let’s look at the seven personae. Burke’s (2009, pp. 13-14) framework outlines the following:
- Storyteller: “everyone must be able to use a range of means and media to tell the story of an experience, an event, a situation, or a problem and its proposed solutions;…we must be equally able to understand and analyze the stories…others tell us.”
- Philosopher: “[students] must be able to understand and grapple with [complex ideas] by posing questions and considering a subject from multiple angles;…they must be able to convey their own perspective on and response to these ideas through words, images, numbers.”
- Historian: “we must know how to gather, assess, and apply background knowledge relevant to the text or task at hand in order to comprehend its ideas and arguments…[students] must also know how to reason like a historian.”
- Anthropologist: “[students] must all develop the ability to understand not only our own but also others’ cultures…developing the ability to observe, examine, and communicate insights about these cultures, for such skills are fundamental to our personal and economic success.”
- Reporter: “Everyone today must be able to watch for, locate, evaluate, and analyze a remarkable amount of data from different sources;…we must develop and continually refine our ability to investigate, research, and navigate…[the] sea of information…[and] convey the results.”
- Critic: “We all need the skills critics use to evaluate and analyze a text…[and] now it must also…examine retirement plans, medical options, and competing products and services.”
- Designer: “Design is such a crucial aspect of any text…we need to know how to ‘read’ for it, noticing the features used to invest the text with meaning…we must consider design when we compose documents, create online content, produce videos, or otherwise communicate with people.”
These personae are well-framed and highly adaptable. I can think of a number of lessons and assessments I use that feed into one of these. This fusion of Gardner and educational practice is easily understood, seems to be perfectly suited for thinking about the goals of instruction, and can be used to design assessments.
The first thing I notice is that there may be a way to streamline the seven personae. For example, the Reporter persona seems as though it could be the Storyteller persona; also, the Anthropologist seems as though it could replace the Historian. This overlap could be beneficial for the implementing instructor or it could hinder implementation. The benefit would be the specificity with which each persona discusses the outcomes of English education. Thus, a Storyteller becomes a creative writer while a Reporter becomes a non-fiction writer or journalist. The hindrance of the overlap comes from the openness of each persona. An Anthropologist could not study culture without understanding that culture’s history; moreover, the “thinking of a historian” is part of how Anthropologists make sense of their findings. Perhaps some streamlining could make these personae easier to keep in mind when thinking about how to design lessons that develop each one.
I assign some projects built on a rubric I constructed from Daniel Pink’s six senses of the right brain (2006, p. 65-67). This rubric assesses student creativity in each of the six areas: Design, Story, Symphony, Empathy, Play, and Meaning. Jim Burke’s personae represent a set of right brain skills that can be used to create a classroom consciousness of assessment and assignments. In these creative projects, I could use the skill set Burke presents to even more specifically describe what I am looking for within each rubric heading. For example, my design column could have varying levels of “considers how the features of his or her project invest it with meaning” or some such.
Think about essays. If these seven personae were part of how you approached creativity and imagination in assessment with your students, you could remind them that the narrative essay should draw most on their Storyteller skills, while the expository essay (depending upon the content) should draw on their Reporter and Historian skills. Using these personae to discuss imagination and creativity in student assessment and assignments could result in much more insightful and developed papers that would allow students to demonstrate how much they really understand.
My head has been buzzing with ideas since I read this article. These personae offer such an opportunity to discuss how we approach creativity and imagination in the era of the standardized test. Using these personae when we think about lessons and assessment can help us honor the right brain while still educating the left. Education does not have to flatten out; students can be well-rounded in an era of standardized testing.
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
The following scene may be familiar to some of you:
It is a hazy weekday morning. You pull into your parking space at school, open your car door, sling on all your gear, and enter the building. You pray you balanced all of your things correctly because you must sidestep a zillion teenagers who will, and have, run teachers down on occasion. You make it to the office, sign in, sigh at the mountain of mail in your mailbox you wish you had a hand for, and then you head to your classroom. The smell of freshly-brewed coffee drifts slowly down the hall, welcoming you to another morning at school. You drop the gear in your room, run back to the office mailbox, grab your mail, and then return to your desk. (They should call it your castle since the numbers of student papers piling up in the corners are beginning to look like parapets.) You grab your mug, head across the hall, and fill up your cup. Then, you walk back across the hall, grab a legal pad and a pen, and head for your weekly department meeting. Your serene morning is about to end.
At the meeting, you and your colleagues debate over the use of materials in the classroom. The honors/Advanced Placement/Dual Enrollment/ International Baccalaureate students get short shrift. The special education students get mentioned and the special education liaison takes them on by him or herself. Then there are the standard students. I have found that whenever these students come up, people get weird. Once motivated and intelligent people become work-o-phobic. Teach them Shakespeare, you say? Make them do homework, you say? Do I look like a miracle worker? Yes, you do. You are a teacher—time to start acting like one.
If this scene is familiar, then perhaps the quotation from the National Center on Education and the Economy’s report Tough Choices or Tough Times also struck a familiar chord. Our standard students are being fed fairy tales of the power of education. They are being told of the empowerment an education can provide while some teachers quietly exchange rigor in the curriculum with easy-to-read books and easy-to-grade assessments.
At our school, the newest drive is for literacy. We have been adapting all sorts of new methods (new to us that is) to raise students’ vocabularies. We have adopted root word strategies, interactive reading strategies, cross-curricular classrooms, ad nauseum. What we haven’t added is the rigor. What possible vocabulary growth can tenth grade students get from To Kill a Mockingbird? What a fantastic novel; its simple language makes it all that much more powerful. The problem is that that may be the only major work students read all year. The rest of the time, students read short stories, poems, and the phenomenal, yet equally simple, Night. Where is the challenge of Shakespeare? Some of our teachers teach Julius Caesar to tenth grade, others try to find ways to run out of time. Where is the challenge of at least one difficult novel? I mean, my AP Literature class will read A Tale of Two Cities because we have it for twelfth grade. Some districts use that novel as a freshman text.
The bottom line is what the bottom line always has been in a meaningful education: effort. Many teachers do not want to struggle with their students to teach them Shakespeare. They would rather pull out Harper Lee or Elie Wiesel and get a powerful story with little linguistic development. Learning language is hard, but I’ve never thought it was optional.
So, what is to be done? The answer is simple. Next time you consider what to teach next, think about the numbers. Do you want half of the students you teach to be unsuccessful? I think the answer to that question will give you all you need to know about the importance of a rigorous curriculum and whether or not you should push your students to become better readers. They will need two years of college to be successful. Could your students make it that far?
I know mine will; we just started reading The Merchant of Venice as an anticipatory piece for The Great Gatsby. The play is the thing for a comparison with Gatsby. Considering its discussions of wealth, dangerous conflict, and forbidden loves, The Merchant of Venice could be Gatsby’s long-lost cousin. The students are using many of the tactics offered in the Folger’s Shakespeare Set Free collection to become comfortable with the language. I am not worried about them getting the story…yet. Right now, I am tackling the task of getting students excited about reading Shakespeare. Turns out, with the Folger’s help, it is not all that hard.
How do you inject rigor into your curriculum? What are some strategies you use when teaching a difficult text?
Monday, December 14, 2009
Hello NCTE secondary section community. We are your new bloggers Dan Bruno and Tara Seale. We look forward to getting to work on this blog for you and with you. We will write entries based on our own classroom practices, our own areas of expertise, and your e-mailed questions. See below for specific contact information and our individual interests.
North Stafford High School
839 Garrisonville Road
Stafford, VA 22556
I graduated from the University of Mary Washington with a B.A. in English Literature and Language and a B.A. in Classical Studies with a concentration in Ancient Greek. I also have a Master of Education from the University of Virginia in Social Foundations of Education. I currently teach an ever-changing class load in a school with a hybrid bell schedule (something I will definitely be posting on in the future). As my schedule now stands, I teach English 11, Journalism I, Journalism II, Journalism III, AP English Literature and Composition, and AP Language and Composition. This year, my AP Language class has been paired with an AP US History class to create Hislish, an interdisciplinary approach to learning about American history and letters. I am also involved with school politics, serving on both the School Board Roundtable and the Superintendent's Advisory Council. I will be adding posts on the following topics:
1. Teaching Shakespeare
2. Teaching Classic Texts
3. Advanced Placement English Language and/or Literature
4. Integrated Learning Teams
5. The Policy Arena
6. Educational Philosophy
7. Educational Sociology
8. Educational Psychology
9. Applied Psychology
10. Teaching Vocabulary
11. Writing to Write/Writing to Learn
12. Ancient Greek Literature
I look forward to working with all of you in the future. Please e-mail blog post requests, comments, and questions to MorganWriter612@gmail.com.
Bryant High School
200 NW 4th Street
Bryant AR 72022
I have a B.A. from Louisiana State University and further education classes from Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, AR. I consider myself a 21st Century educator, and I am an active tweeter, blogger, and ninger (I am not sure if the last one is a word yet). I teach two 9th grade English classes a day, and I serve as an Instructional Technology Specialist for my district when I am not teaching. I recently graduated from the Google Teacher Academy, and I plan to add blog posts related to the following topics:
1. Educational Philosophy
2. Student Engagement/Classroom Management
3. Data and Curriculum
4. 21st Century Practices & Assessments
5. Required Reading
6. Sentence Modeling
7. Smartboards in and English classroom
8. Web 2.0 in an English classroom
9. Other technology devices in an English classroom
10. Reluctant readers
Thursday, November 26, 2009
I’m grateful for:
* Inspiring teachers who continue to try new things in their lessons after more than twenty five years in the classroom who befriend me and share their wisdom generously
* The print shop I can use to order copies ahead of time
* Students who give a damn
* A grown up job that allows for a “do-over” semester to semester
* Technology which allows me to communicate with students without having to be physically available all hours
* A career which keeps me up to date on buzz words that impact my own child’s education
* A classroom with windows that look out onto a nature preserve
* A built-in excuse to buy new fiction in order to “keep up” professionally
* A job where I never have to try and get the holidays off in order to be home with my family
* A profession which continually challenges me and fills me with the knowledge that I am doing something worthwhile with my life
Friday, November 20, 2009
For a myriad of reasons, a larger majority of my students are resisting critical thinking this semester. When I wrote one student about an entire viewpoint the student’s argument ignored, I got a very polite email explaining that the student preferred to simplify the issue by avoiding that part of the problem. %$@#? In truth, I found that student’s candor refreshing. Most students greet my encouragement to take on complexity with a “I don’t know what you mean” stare. “That would mean I have to look up another article,” one student told me as if my expectation required a run across a minefield. “Yes,” I countered. “Sometimes research argument writing isn’t a linear process. Our research leads to additional questions we didn’t have at the beginning, and we need to double-back to find answers.” “I don’t double-back,” the student told me flatly. At no point have I given a zero or threatened failure. Most students, for the first time in my fifteen years, are telling me that what I’m asking for sounds exhausting and difficult, and like the Bartleby they might never read about because the story exceeds five pages in length, they sigh, “I would prefer not to.”
I’ve drafted numerous rants against “the millenials” in my head, but really, what I want to ask is, where does the buck stop? What changes in my expectations reflect my flexibility and understanding of changing generations and what changes reflect a lowering of standards? If students prefer not to take guidance on persuasive argument, do they fail despite having turned in a paper of the required length? After a semester of patient persuasion, do I have the energy for the fallout that position would require?
co-posted on Between Classes
Friday, October 30, 2009
I’ve just finished grading my students’ argument essays. In third person voice, students are asked to argue a point of view using three quotations from an assigned reading. I’ve done some variation of this assignment each of my fifteen years of teaching writing. Across that time, I’ve seen students’ arguments grow more…well, more bullying.
I teach my students that the goal of an academic argument is to persuade people who don’t already agree. I encourage them to strike a tone that acknowledges the opposing point of view while refuting it with examples and evidence. Lately, as recent as the last few years, a growing percentage of students (not all of them), try to vilify the other side in their arguments. Now, hyperbole is not new to novice writers, but the tenor seems uglier to me. Gross generalizations characterize their enemies: “Parents today are fat and lazy.” “Everybody’s a pervert on the Internet.” “Stupid people deserve what credit card companies do to them.” Yikes!
As I spent this past week writing comments that asked how those remarks would persuade rather than alienate an audience who recognized themselves in the statements, I thought about the current media climate in which my students are growing up. Polarity and anger seem to be the modern media’s cash cow. Regardless of party affiliation, blogs and cable news channels teem with bile and anger. Gone are the David Brinkleys of my own coming of age. Phil Donahue, once considered such a hot head because he leaned forward in his chair and even stood up and ran around his audience, strikes me now as a gentle journalistic hippie. When I think of the people they see as models of “academic argument,” I realize my students might just be imitating the nation’s model for argumentative discourse.
I try not to be outdated as a teacher. I don’t teach MLA the way it was in my day (end notes, anyone?), and I don’t require that all their sources in a research essay come from hard copy sources. One of my responsibilities is to prepare my students for the current marketplace they face—and yet? I don’t know if I can change here. I might just retreat to my ivory tower and teach students the civil argumentative discourse I believe is the root of understanding and change in the world and trust that our current ravings will pass.co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher
Saturday, October 10, 2009
According to the ever-venerable Wikipedia, “okay” is a word “denoting approval, assent, or acknowledgment.” I think I need to post that definition where I can see it prominently. I often use “okay” for acknowledgment; my students hear approval, and between those two uses stretches a field of misunderstanding.
Here’s how the scenario usually goes down:
“I’m not going to be here for the test tomorrow because I have to pick up my uncle’s second cousin from the airport because my grandmother has diabetes, and my father’s car is in the shop and I have to be at work on time or I’ll lose all the fingers on my left hand.” *Details have been changed to protect identities, but please note that the convoluted and urgent nature of the student scenario has been retained.
Weeks later after grades have been posted.
“I have a zero for that test I missed and when I told you I was going to miss it, you said it was fine.”
“I’m sure I never said it was fine. You need to make up that test.”
“You said it was okay! I would have made it up weeks ago when I still knew that story if I’d known it wasn’t okay! Why did you say it was okay?”
Note to self: eradicate “okay” from teaching language. I need a new verbal filler for that scenario. It’s not “okay” with me that the student will be absent, but these aren’t scenarios where I’m being asked for permission. I’m being informed of a decision. Nodding seems like approval, too. I feel rude not saying anything. What else would signify acknowledgment without approval? “Gotcha.” “Sounds complicated.” “I see.” Yes, maybe “I see.” Or maybe, “See me when you get back.” Leave the ball clearly in the student’s corner…I may need to snap a rubber band on my wrist for a while to change this habit…co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
I think “teach don’t tell” might have been one of the first pedagogical concepts I truly learned. But for some reason, I forget this lesson regularly. It happens when students have particular problems, when they catch me off the cuff, or when my mind is pursuing another line of thought. Why is telling sometimes my default setting?
I recently caught myself mid-telling. A student committed copy/paste plagiarism in a last paragraph of an essay despite viewing a Turnitin.com report that clearly caught the problem before the paper needed to be submitted to me. I discovered it on a Sunday night as I checked the reports for plagiarism. I sent the student an email that pointed out the problem and asked what the student thought when seeing the match on the report. The student emailed me that after looking at the report twice, the student hadn’t noticed any matches. (Right there, in the bright color—see?) The student assured me that had the match been noticed, the student would have been sure to “mix the words up a bit.” Not quite a substitute for full documentation. Sigh. Bite of chocolate.
I wanted to tell the student that all the lessons we’ve done on plagiarism and how to read a Turnitin.com report should have prevented this problem. I wanted to tell the student that I did my job; I covered this content in a student-centered, interactive way, thanks very much. I wanted to tell the student that the learning process breakdown most likely happened on the student’s end—forgetting to scroll down and read the whole report, working too late to read carefully, giving in too easily to the challenges of developing a point and resorting to copy/paste to round out a paragraph. Another bite of chocolate.
Bolstered by sugar, I remembered to teach, and I instead asked the student to do these things:
1) Go back and review the excellent answers the you gave on the plagiarism quiz, including:
Even if the information you use is commonly known, if you borrow the exact wording from a source to explain that information, you'll need to use quotation marks and to credit the source. Your answer: True
2) With that fresh information, go back to review the Turnitin.com report again.
3) Write down observations and realizations as you look at your report and then share them with me.
The student did it. The student owned the problem and told me if the mistake meant failing the class, then the student understood. Hooray! My news that the essay would need to be done on a new topic came as a relief instead of a great big hammer. Put chocolate away.
When I tell instead of teach, students tell me something right back, usually some version of, “You’re a crazy English teacher lady and you’re wrong about me.” Telling versus telling means nobody listens. Remembering to teach instead of tell bears much better learning fruit.
I think I sometimes tell despite knowing better because some student mistakes strike me as an accusation that I wasn’t clear, that I didn’t do my job well. When I’m not feeling defensive, I realize that’s stupid of me. I think I tell more often when I’m tired or overwhelmed or when the learning process gets sluggish. In the end, I think it’s my humanity butting up against their humanity, and it’s bound to happen now and again. Maybe I’ll just tell myself to relax…where’s that chocolate?co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher
Saturday, September 19, 2009
Hey, there! It’s me, your English teacher. We’ve only met a few times because you don’t come to class all that often. I’ve left a phone message or two, and I’ve sent some emails. You could have a personal issue I don’t know about; I wouldn’t know because I don’t know you because I get to know students when they come to class. So, I’m writing this letter as a therapeutic exercise for the helplessness I feel in this situation.
Listen, I get that writing may not be your thing. I may not be your thing either—that’s okay, too. If students come to class and participate, I can help them move forward. I’m not saying I can fix everything that frustrates you about writing, but I can help move you forward. Momentum comes from action, and your first action needs to be to come and participate. I don’t mind doing the heavy lifting. Just come. Just try.
Maybe you’re trying to forget about this class for whatever your reasons are, and I kind of wish I could just forget about students who stop coming to class, too, but that’s not how my job works. I’ve got to tally your attendance, so I see your name each class meeting, and I picture your face, and I wonder where you are, and I ask around, and I leave a message here or there, but you’re not really on anybody’s radar. Come and try for me and be on my radar. Please?
The more absences you accumulate, the less I can see your face in my mind’s eye. We’re approaching the tipping point, the point when I start to accept your absences as an immutable fact and dedicate myself fully to the students in attendance. You start to become a statistic, a stat pulling down my retention scores, one of the numerous reductive ways in which teachers are measured. That retention score doesn’t reflect the problem you have that isn’t getting help, and it doesn’t measure the earnestness I feel when I try to reach out into the ether and pull you into attendance. In fact, the statistic probably demoralizes both of us, racking up higher and higher numbers until we both feel like it’s insurmountable.
Please come to class. Come soon.
Ms. Kco-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher
Sunday, September 13, 2009
The developmental writing course I teach requires that the second test of the course be on the apostrophe. Yawn. Of course, the first test focused on capitalization--wow! The canned curriculum leads up to a state exam in the end. Big surprise, right?
So, it’s three weeks in, and I’m trying to weave magic with the apostrophe. (My best apostrophe joke? I put the sentence, "The class earned three A's, five B's and twelve C's on the test." Then I rub out the apostrophe on "A's" and say, "See if you take away the apostrophe, it looks like "as." If I say it quickly enough, they mishear me and we can all laugh. That's as good as it gets, folks.) In an effort to spice up the apostrophe's introduction, I asked students to open up their books to the twelve rules of the apostrophe. I linked to a selection of the Top Food Bloggers on the Internet and asked students to peruse the sites in search of six examples of the apostrophe in action. Of their six examples, they needed to find at least four different apostrophe rules. (Our state exam is on the computer, so we teach these courses in a lab. I think this assignment could work for homework or in groups at stations, too.)
It took most students over forty minutes to complete the assignment. They could find examples using the apostrophe from the blogs quickly, but differentiating between a singular noun being made possessive or a singular noun that ends in “s” being made possessive or an indefinite pronoun being made possessive or a contraction—well, that took much longer.
I know that reading enhances writing, but I’m continually surprised at the hefty academic contribution of a reading activity like this one. By the time we went to a practice test on the apostrophe, students could better understand what differences to look for in the sentences. Arguing that the apostrophe couldn’t possibly be that varied seemed out of place since they’d already found it in action. Unlike our textbook, in “real life writing” the apostrophe doesn’t sort itself into sets of ten examples that all use the apostrophe as a contraction. A few students mentioned wanting to revisit the blogs for fun—always a bonus—and no one complained that the reading content didn’t matter. I guess food, written about and photographed beautifully, is a universal.
Next week, I’m going to try introducing subject/verb agreement through some selections from RollingStone.com. Here’s hoping reading from life continues to root these grammar lessons in application and contextual interest…co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher
Sunday, September 6, 2009
This fall marks my fifteenth year teaching English. The classrooms, districts, states, and ages of my students have varied, but here I am, fifteen years later, still teaching writing, reading, and critical thinking. Since the traditional teaching career lasts thirty years, I’m struck by this year fifteen, this mid-point between new teacher and indisputable lifer.
In a recent shifting of piles, I found the reading journal I kept for my Teaching of Writing course, taken at The College of New Jersey in the fall of 1993 with Michael Roberts. In it, my twenty-one year old self responds to articles discussing writing theory. I used brackets to record different insights as I continued to read across the semester. Our professor ran our class as a writing workshop, asking us to keep writing portfolios of varied pieces of writing in varied stages of development, so my change in perspective also came from experiencing the techniques as a student (many for the first time). For my fifteenth year of teaching, I thought it could be fun to shadow that journey from my mid career view point. I’m trying to find the articles and read them again, to rejoin myself in the pages of that 1993 journal to see what I think about the issues from this point in my teaching career. When I copy from my 1993 journal, I’ll be using blue italics…
Ideally, I think that Murray’s article, “Teach Writing as a Process not a Product,” is an excellent example of theory. I am cynical at how effective it would be in practice. Take for example a basic skills level class. Murray assumes in his Implication No. 2 that the student has the maturity to pick his own subject. Picture if you will the class of Compensatory Writing Skills. When asked what they would like to write about, a boy from the back jeeringly suggests sex. As I blush, he calls out, “What’s the matter Miz Nowak, don’tcha like sex? How do you guys think she likes it best?” I know that I personally would feel as though I had lost control. Memory is funny, but I’m fairly confident this exact thing did not happen to me. However, the semester before I wrote this example, my practicum experience put me with a self-contained special education class of sixteen year old boys. Suffice it say, I mastered very little that semester, but it did shatter many of my “We’ll read poems and cry together” illusions about teaching. It left me scared of deviating from worksheets, quite frankly. How are we to implement these implications at the high school level when the students do not bring with them the learned behavior and skills they need? Wow—why am I so ready to blame the previous teachers before I even get started teaching? Yikes! The ole’ “blame those middle school teachers” riff coming from my not-even-a-teacher-yet self. I find that disturbing. Perhaps it would be better to start with students choosing their subjects from a list, until they are comfortable within the choices of their new process of writing. We cannot jump in at the high school level with these wonderful examples of theory if the students are not used to them. They will respond with inhibition, embarrassment, and immaturity. The entire system of implementing writing needs to be changed within the alteration of product into process. [10/29/1993—Knee deep into our application of such theories, I have more confidence that students will be able to pick their own topics. As a student myself, I much more enjoy the opportunity to pick my own and feel I do a better job with them.] [11/30/1993—Now that we are at the end of the semester, I am sad to see how quickly I dismissed teaching writing as a process. True, perhaps the entire system of education needs to be changed, but if I am not willing to start, how can I ever expect changes to be made? That brings a tear to my eye…I hope I always retain a willingness to change…Students may respond with inhibition, embarrassment and immaturity—the first week or two. That is why I am there as the teacher, giving them the confidence, providing the security and controlling the environment in which to try.] Sigh. So much of the teaching I do now prepares students for state testing, which requires response to a prompt. Other assignments prepare students for college writing, where professors often give a focused assignment. I haven’t thought about 100% self-sponsored topics in a while. In my teaching practice, I most often let students choose from a list.
I heartily agree with No. 3, “The student uses his own language.” I think many students are limited by the widening gap between acceptable language and acceptable writing. All of his other implications seem very logical and hopeful, but I wish there were more details on how to avoid pitfalls. It is so easy to march into a classroom full of theory, and so difficult to march out with confident students and teacher. [9/8/1993—I feel a little better after reading Steven Zemelman and Harvey Daniels. Hopefully, A Community of Writers will provide me with all the realistic applications I will need…[11/30/1993—One of my biggest problems as an educator is that I try to prepare for the classroom like I would prepare for a test. I expect myself to walk in the first day and be able to solve all the problems. If I don’t walk into a classroom believing in theory, how can I expect to achieve anything new? I realize now that it is okay to come across pitfalls. I will probably learn more from my own pitfalls than Zemelman and Daniels could ever teach me.
Donald Murray’s piece introduced me to the idea of writing as a process, and I embrace that concept fully today. It tickles me how I skip commenting on eight of the ten implications. The whole concept blew my mind, I think, so I’m not sure I even understood what the implications would look like in application. I’m confident I didn’t understand No. 1, “The text of the writing course is the student’s own writing.” I don’t follow it, Mr. Murray. I think No. 1 assumes students have a background as readers, which many of my students do not. Even in my writing courses that do not teach from literature, I use texts beyond students’ own writing; in fact, I’m required to by department and state policies. Some of them are textbook samples of other students’ writing, some of them are newspaper articles or short stories, and I use them to cultivate students’ inner ears for language and its possibilities.
I like No. 4, which advocates the drafting process, but I’m not sure what Murray means by “Each new draft, of course, is counted as equal to a new product.” Counted how? Scored? We don’t grade drafts, anymore than “a concert pianist is judged on his practice sessions,” right? Fifteen years in, I feel mired in a culture where students perform the tasks I “pay” them to do, by making it “count.” I give credit for a draft, in a pass/fail sort of scoring method, but no, drafts are not “counted as equal to a new product.” Final drafts are weighted more heavily in the grading formula than drafts, and at this point, I’m not sure how to escape such a system.
No. 5 strikes me as charming but unrealistic. Since much of my teaching of writing is test format driven, I don’t encourage students “to attempt any form of writing which may help him discover and communicate what he has to say.” The concept attracts me, but my teaching reality has much more of a locked step curriculum, and we all work on mastery of academic essay structure rather than writing in variable forms. I can see how this is like teaching people how to cook one dish without educating them on flavors or the chemistry of heat and fats. The people can cook that one dish convincingly, but they may not have transferable cooking skills should they wish to vary the dish. I’ll chew on No. 5; I’m back here revisiting this theory for just this kind of idealism.
I recognize my teaching in Nos. 6, 7, and 8. It’s like revisiting my birthplace, finding my 1993 self and realizing here is where much of how I teach writing today was born.
Gosh, Nos. 9 and 10, huh? What’s not to like? Except I’m not consistent about either concept despite finding them appealing. It’s like my resolution as a parent to redirect rather than yell. Good idea—difficult to practice consistently…There are points in the semester when differentiated process time (as advised in No. 9) gets tossed. “People, we’ve got to move on! We need to be at point X by such and such a week.” And whoo-boy, do I have rules and absolutes despite liking the philosophy of No. 10’s “There are no rules, no absolutes, just alternatives.” Nuanced directions foster miscomprehension in my experience, so I go for absolute directives: “Don’t use second person.” “Use MLA format.” And please forgive me, I’m pretty stringent about a paper’s heading, too. I like to think of myself as a process leaning teacher, but the sheer volume of papers and students has led me to rely heavily on some strict policies.
I find my last November comment sweet: If I don’t walk into a classroom believing in theory, how can I expect to achieve anything new? I realize now that it is okay to come across pitfalls. Oh, to be twenty one and anticipate changing public education without thinking pitfalls are okay and inevitable. I’m still not fully prepared for the test of new students. I still don’t have all the answers. I’m more comfortable climbing out of pitfalls, and I do think I learn quite a bit from them. Meeting up with myself in 1993 reminds me that the things I do well today came from the courage to try new things. I need to nurture my willingness to continue to do so…co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher
Saturday, August 22, 2009
This August marks my third year writing this blog. In the previous two years, I’ve shared some back to school tips and ideas for classroom lessons to kick off the year, and those concepts serve me in good stead year after year. During our “back to school” hoopla this year, however, the heavy weight of intense state budget cuts, increased class sizes, and H1N1 fears blanketed all the meetings, and I realized I’d like to use this blog as a kind of teacher meditation space. I don’t plan to get annoyingly metaphysical, but I may indulge a little more of my teacher Pollyanna. Honestly, I don’t have answers for what confronts public education lately. I’m not great at my yoga practice (my son can be heard chirping, “Mommy, that’s not what the lady on TV is doing with her body!”), and I may need to vent in this venue from time to time, but for the most part, my plans involve some rose colored glasses. I think I’m really going to need that kind of focus this year, and I hope my readers will find discussions here that lift the teaching spirit more often than depress it.
With that in mind, I’d like to welcome the 09-10 school year with a Top Ten List of the Best Pieces of Teaching Advice I’ve gotten so far. Every new school year, I flip through my memories of past First Days of School. So many wonderful educators have shaped my growth as a teacher, and so I’d like to pass along these pearls of wisdom in the digital faculty room we share here:co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher
Thursday, July 30, 2009
Sometime in middle school, my parents took me to an especially fancy meal. I don’t remember if the meal celebrated someone’s anniversary or perhaps it might have been Mother’s Day. I don’t remember what I ordered or what I wore. I have only vague impressions of the room—lots of French windows, cloth napkins. My memory centers on the small dollops of sorbet served between two of the courses. Perched on tender twists of white paper, pink scoops of watermelon and mint ice waited to melt quickly on our tongues. The remarkable pleasure of the slightly sweetened ice lit up my mouth. Back in the days before ice dispensing home refrigerators, the crushed ice struck my twelve year old self as sheer luxury.
The experience gave me an appreciation for the power of small, quality refreshment. In the past week, I graded and returned summer research essays, and I administered final exams. Our first day of in-service for the fall semester falls on Thursday, August 20th. Between now and then, I’m mixing up some figurative sorbet. We’re part of the economy choosing a “stay-cation” this year, and I’ve got a few tidbits planned to refresh my teaching palate. I’ve got some crafting plans with my little guy, and a pile of stuff to read and enjoy. A childhood girlfriend will be flying in for a visit, and my husband and I plan to get to the latest Harry Potter film. I’m looking forward to coming back to both my classroom and this blog space in a few short weeks refreshed and ready for another course of ideas and discussion…co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
True Life Dialogue:
Student: “How strict is the five page minimum for the research essay?”
Me: “I’m looking for at least one line on the sixth page; it’s a full five page minimum.”
Student: “Really? Because I’ve completely exhausted my argument in three and a half pages…I think I’ve fully addressed the issue.”
Me: “Well, feel free to pose a deeper, more complicated argument if you need to…”
Student: “Oh, really? I didn’t know we were allowed to exceed the parameters of the assignment. It seemed pretty basic.”
Me: “Teaching you is an endless source of pleasure.”
Okay, so I didn’t say that last part. I said something like, “Absolutely.” My memory gets a little fuzzy because my blood pressure rose in response to the student’s last comment. Exceed the parameters of the assignment, indeed…
I could blame this issue on the fact that I’ve drafted off beat assignments in an effort to side step plagiarism. I could defend the fact that my off beat assignment is vague enough to permit deep and thoughtful answers for those who seek them. However, I’ve decided to confront myself with a more uncomfortable truth this student put a finger upon: I differentiate better for developing students than I do for high flying students.
As a student, I flew high academically. I know, no one wants to see my transcript now, but for a good portion of my life, I drew considerable self esteem from that sucker. I know first hand that high fliers can provide teachers with a challenge, and quite frankly, I’ve shied away from said challenge. In my experience as both a student and a teacher, high fliers are often tracked. By deciding not to teach honors classes, I mostly avoid high fliers and the challenges (and rewards, to be fair) that they present. I’ve focused my energies on teaching “average,” “on-level, “parallel,” or whatever a school district calls the “regular kids.” In those “regular” classes, I often teach developing students, and I’ve worked hard to develop content and methods that meet those students’ needs quietly and effectively. In those “regular” classes, I sometimes teach high flying students, and I’ve not addressed their needs as effectively.
High fliers usually show up in my classes because of choices that took them off the honors track when they were younger or because they don’t want to diffuse their energies from their high level math and science classes. Why haven’t I differentiated effectively for them? Well, for the most part, they do well. It’s easier to ignore the unmet needs of students who earn A’s.
Besides the fact that their boredom and lack of challenge doesn’t manifest in a measurable way, I’ve gotten this far without successfully differentiating for high fliers because I don’t know how to do it covertly. They’re wily, these high fliers. I don’t want to give them “extra” work. I don’t think they’d roll over for more difficult variations of essay assignments. My differentiation for developing students happens in collusion with the student: “Pssst. Here, do this extra worksheet and meet with me after class, and we’ll make sure you pass this class.” How do I make the work more challenging without it seeming punitive, especially if a student has purposely taken my class to avoid English class challenges?
Ugh. I need to give this one lots more thought. I know that challenges make me and my teaching grow, but sometimes complacency looks soooo much more relaxing…co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
This summer, I’m teaching a hybrid class for the first time; we meet half in the classroom and half online. Traditionally, the “seat time” for this course would be about six hours a week. I’ve tried to design online lessons and activities for three hours a week, plus there’s the usual amount of homework.
It’s really made me sit and think about how “teaching and/or learning time” can be calculated. I’ve taught this course many, many times in the traditional classroom setting, and I’ve taught fully online courses, but I’ve never tried a hybrid before now. To design each week’s online module, I took a week’s lessons and considered what would work better in the traditional classroom and what would work better online. It’s a huge consideration, and one on which I’ll need to spend quite a bit of time debriefing myself.
What’s caught my initial consideration is how to measure “teaching and/or learning time.” If students sat in the traditional classroom for thirty minutes while I alternately lectured and led a discussion, calling on various students for intermittent responses, students could spend a good portion of that thirty minutes passively listening about the text. (Or perhaps surreptitiously texting… Ahem, I mean never…) If I create an online discussion thread where students have to post two questions and then answer the two questions posted by three other students (essentially answering six questions), students may spend fifteen to twenty minutes actively writing about and responding to the text. (While listening to music and talking on the phone? No. See, in a hybrid, I only imagine the online session behavior, and I imagine it is spent rapt. Some pencil chewing…Lots of text referencing…Shush. It’s my imagination, and a girl’s gotta dream…) So does that fifteen minutes of writing count as less than the thirty traditional minutes of listening? Do I try to calculate three literal hours of online work, or because the nature of the online work is more active (students have to “prove” they’re there by producing something), is the time calculation converted somehow? If hybrid students accomplish the same amount of assignments in a week I previously gathered from students during a fully traditional teaching of the course, can we call it done? Is time spent in class letting one or two students (or even ourselves) dominate a group discussion time better spent? What about the time spent waiting while late students are caught up or people without materials are assisted? It’s forcing me to look back at my traditional teaching and consider how well I spent that time…
I won’t really know my own answers to these questions until I finish the course and see these hybrid students’ research essays and final exams. Kind of a “the proof is in the pudding” philosophy, I guess…It’s funny. At first, teaching a hybrid kind of felt like getting away with something, but in truth, I’m more accountable for my time than in the traditional classroom. In the traditional classroom, I taught for six hours because I kept them six hours. Now I really have to think about what those three online hours need to look like to constitute me having taught them…It’s certainly a growing experience.
Saturday, July 4, 2009
I have mumbled, grumbled, and struggled to design interactive media that appeals to my Generation-So-Don’t-Think-Like-Me students who thrive in a non-linear environment. Yet I feel about teaching the way the dancers on So You Think You Can Dance describe movement—I just have to do it. (They would use an exclamation point. I certainly gush less than they do.) I’m a teaching creature, truly. So I have sucked it up and taken my linear laden self and waded into the world of online education and media. This effort has born my own blogging and the development of my online reading. As I read a recent article on Time Magazine’s website, I realized I have become more similar to that which I once could not understand…
Listen, I have trash taste in media. I read Gawker as faithfully as the Washington Post. I cry over One Tree Hill as loudly as I weep for characters in Richard Russo’s
It’s given me a reader’s buzz. I don’t regret it. I’m not sorry. I’m glad I know how to be linear should the situation require it, but oh glory be, the intermittent attention technique to reading a long article might be something I underestimated. Maybe I’ll add commiseration to the tools I use as an educator come the fall…co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
So, um, I haven’t been blogging much lately. I’m teaching three classes (two preps) this summer as well as working on some curriculum projects, so I have fodder for ideas, but each time I’ve started an entry, I’ve decided against posting it. See, I’ve been..ahem…a little cranky about my students lately. I decided I wanted to blog about the process of teaching, about solving problems, and the past few weeks, I’ve been swallowing irritation more than inspiration.
It happens. Teachers get cranky. I know how to keep it out of my classroom and my interactions with students, but it is more difficult to keep crankiness from coloring self-reflective writing. While I don’t want to write a complaining blog, I also don’t want to represent myself as a teaching Pollyanna. Therefore, I thought I’d share the titles of my rejected blog postings with everyone, and let readers’ imaginations fill in the blanks. Frankly, anyone who has taught for a while knows how these entries go:
- Seriously? Seriously? No Book Again?
- I’m Rubber; They’re Glue: How to Keep Students from Bouncing All the Thinking Back on the Teacher
- Summer Students: A Breed all Their Own
- Yes, Virginia, When You Repeat a Class, the Content is the Same
I’ll get over it; certainly, it’s not as if I just met these education problems! Sometimes, thinking about teaching yields the results I need, and sometimes, a cognitive break is in order. To everything there is a season, and frankly, June may be the season for a break whether we stop teaching or not…co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Recently, I had an experience where a student clearly appeared to have cheated. Turnitin.com showed that the student’s essay matched a classmate’s essay by 47%. The classmate and the student in question had been in the same peer review group, and the classmate’s draft contained the material first.
My body reacts to such discoveries. I get hot. I bite the inside of my cheeks. My mind swirls with a mix of emotion: shock, disgust, embarrassment, and anger. My gut wants to lash out at such a student, to explain at length how such a blatant act of stealing violates our writing community and insults me as an instructor. Then the worry and guilt sets in: What kind of class have I created where a student feels such desperation when confused? Why didn’t the student see me as more accessible, whatever the challenges with the assignment might have been?
Over the years, I’ve learned to let these reactions wash over me. I entitle myself to that experience, but I don’t act upon it. When I confront a student about such a situation, I limit myself to reporting events, explaining implications, and opening a discourse. Here’s what I wrote to this particular student:
Student X, your Turnitin.com report shows that significant portions of your essay match Student Y’s essay. In your group thread for peer review of Essay One, these passages are original to Y’s draft, not your draft. It appears you lifted chunks of Y’s essay and represented them as your own in this essay.
Whew! It takes lots of restraint to write a relatively inert response like that, but over the years, I’ve learned how little I know in these situations. I’ve drawn conclusions, acted accordingly, and ended up with egg on my own face. By granting students a bit more rope, I can gather more information before committing to a course of action. I do this process because I’ve benefited from it in the past, but this time, I truly thought my narrative for the data was indisputable.
Not for the first time, I was wrong. The student explained what happened, and while the student clearly used bad judgment, the person hadn’t been guilty of all the things I’d imagined. Even though I thought my note asking for an explanation should earn me a nomination for sainthood, the student started by telling me that my note created feelings of “bafflement and humiliation.” I actually think both those reactions are called for, so I’m okay with that, (alright, maybe not "humiliation...") but the student’s response made me very happy that I’d refrained from responding to the paper with the vitriol I’d felt.
So in the end, my accumulating experience teaches me how little I know for sure. Students, with their variable human nature, create new and unique ways of mangling text each semester!co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
'Tis that special time of year when teachers of all shapes, sizes, and ideological persuasions find themselves humming Alice Cooper. Even for those of us who teach summer programs, June, July, and August just feel more relaxed.
Part of my summer recreation is catching up on all the television I miss during the year because it comes on after 9 p.m. I feel secure enough in this education forum to confess that I cannot watch television shows that begin after 9 p.m. I fall asleep right there on the couch. Teaching requires early rising and to compensate, I take to my bed around 9 p.m. So, no, friends with jobs outside of education, I didn’t see Lost or Grey’s Anatomy or House or…or…or…I read the reviews in the paper and then I catch up via Netflix or Hulu during the summer. (Oh, yeah, I don’t have a TiVo either. Truly lame public educator here…)
So as I clicked through Hulu for things I’ve missed, I stumbled upon Glee. I’d seen a little bit about it in the papers, but I’d written it off as a branch of the doesn't-interest-me High School Musical tree. Then this blurb on the Fox website caught my eye: “Will Schuester, a young optimistic teacher, has offered to take on the Herculean task of restoring McKinley's Glee Club to its former glory. Everyone around him thinks he's nuts. He's out to prove them all wrong.” “A young optimistic teacher?” There’s going to be a television show about an optimistic teacher? Now I could write volumes about how teachers (especially English teachers) have been portrayed in television and movies, but suffice it to say that the more favorable portrayals of teachers show us as resilient under trying circumstances. Optimistic? I don’t think I had ever seen the media group “optimistic” with “teacher,” so I gave Glee a whirl.
Please watch it. We deserve an hour like Glee provides at the end of the school year. It fictionalizes high school just enough. It’s like Election without the bitterness, the Best in Show for high school show choirs. It’s affectionate. It’s effervescent. It makes me want to go see a high school choir competition. It reminds me why I pray my son joins band or choir. The series won’t begin until the fall, but I’m already looking forward to catching up on episodes next summer…