Saturday, March 28, 2009

Parsing out the Teaching from the Labor

At a recent conference, I ate lunch opposite an entrepreneur who invented a company that helps colleges grade student essays via the Internet. For example, as the classroom instructor, I could give feedback to students’ first drafts. They could do a peer review on the next revision, and then send that version to the online tool to be graded by live, qualified individuals who respond in fewer than 24 hours. Then I would grade their final draft. Besides lightening my grading load, this process also gives students up to three reading audiences for one essay. After some lively debate, I left the table with one point this entrepreneur made resonating in my head: “Teachers need to identify what they do better than technology. Then they need to cultivate that and let technology do the rest.”

He argued that historically across industries, technology has increased productivity and reduced costs. He pointed out that education mostly uses technology as an alternate delivery method. Again, he told us, “Teachers need to identify what they do better than technology. Then they need to cultivate that and let technology do the rest.”

My colleague and I discussed it on the car ride home. I talked to my husband…Bored my friends with it…Dreamt about it…A world in which a portion of the grading process could be subcontracted out...A world in which I am the Master Teacher, and my time is a valued commodity not to be spent grading fill-in-the-blank vocabulary tests. On some levels, it’s intoxicating. On other levels, I’m intimidated.

I already believe in mastery quizzing; if the answers on an assessment should be the same for every student, I already have it on my class web enhancement. It takes an investment of time up front to load a multiple choice quiz into software, but watching students practice repeatedly with the instant feedback has convinced me my time is well spent on the effort. What do I do better than technology in this instance? Well, sometimes, I like to write the content myself. Not all the time…some grammar practice is universal, and I use other sources liberally. Sometimes, however, I want to customize content to my students or our particular needs at that time, and I use my expertise to do so.

I’m more uncomfortable with the idea of using standardized technology tools to help with grading student essays. I argued that I “pay witness” to students’ incremental growth by responding to each stage of their drafts myself. Is that true or merely narcissistic? Do I believe it matters that I read everything myself just because that’s what I’ve told myself to get through pile after pile? Would it be so terrible to let students have a mix of authorities read their essays through the writing process even if some of those authorities are people neither I nor my students ever meet?

If technology truly grows into assessment over the next few years, what do I do “better than technology?” The question has buzzed around my head because I identify much of my teaching with my assessment of the writing process. To see a movement (not that anyone’s offering to buy my department this tool) on the horizon that takes over parts of the assessment process intimidates me a little. If someone else lightened the assessment load, what would I put in its place as a writing instructor? I can be heard clucking my tongue, saying things like, “There’s so much I never get to,” but am I ready to get to it? Would it be an opportunity or the end of personalized feedback and an intimate learning process?

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

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Stepping back and Breathing in...

The winds that blow through my educational institution this March warn of increased class sizes, smaller budgets, and more emphasis on measurable outcomes. My students confront the state exam next week, a measurable outcome that significantly impacts us all. If I let it, these problems can suck me dry. Sometimes I spend hours debating with colleagues, reading professional publications, and racking my own brain, trying to think of answers to the big problems facing public education today. Ultimately, I realize that I am a teacher, and regardless of the system’s trends, I need to protect my own pedagogical fire in these winds. What do I believe I am there to teach when I stand before my students?

Luckily for my buffeted soul, I remembered a key influence on my pedagogical fire, Elizabeth Hutton Turner’s Georgia O’Keeffe: The Poetry of Things. Even more amazingly, I found the book quickly amidst my piles. Comfort flashed through me as I just ran my hands over the cover. Ten years ago, I first read Turner’s essay, “The Real Meaning of Things” in a coffee shop in Dupont Circle, steps away from the Phillips Collection gift shop where I impulsively purchased the book. It fell easily to the pages most pertinent to my spirit, to the passages that most call my name. Turner explains the effects Arthur Wesley Dow’s philosophies had upon O’Keeffe’s work. She writes, “Dow wrote, ‘The study of composition means an art education for the entire people, for every child can be taught to compose—that is to know and feel beauty and to produce it in simple ways.’” My mind instantly transposed these ideas for the visual arts to the written arts. With kindred recognition, I read on: “O’Keeffe told her high school students to find art in the everyday: ‘when you buy a pair of shoes, or place a window in the front of a house or address a letter or comb your hair, consider it carefully, so that it looks well.’ Max Weber, a former student of Dow’s…instructed his classes…with much the same mantra: ‘Culture will come when every man will know how to address himself to the inanimate simple things of life. A pot, a cup, a piece of calico, a chair, a mantel, a frame, the binding of a book, the trimming of a dress…these we live with. Culture will come when people touch things with love and see them with a penetrating eye…’” Sigh. I find just typing such sentiments a gorgeous experience.


When I teach students the magic of words shifting parts of speech as they move about a sentence or how the scansion in a sonnet reinforces the meaning of the words, I believe I liberate them to lives of simple beauty. I do. If they can find adventure through text and exhilaration through writing, they can live lives without boundaries, the rich inner lives of those who see beauty and gain wisdom from the everyday. (It’s the way I want to remember to live, too.) No one needs to agree with me. No school system needs to adopt this philosophy as its core curriculum. These are some of the ideas that inspire me. Reading this essay, feeling in line with artists empowering others, that’s what lights me up when I stand before my students even if we’re reviewing for a state exam. My pedagogical fire is my secret weapon, and no one will protect it but me. I’m not putting this book back in the pile. I want to leave it where I can see it, especially while these winds blow hard. Teachers must find and protect what excites them about education. We owe it to ourselves and our students.

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

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Reflecting Upon an Exam Pass Rate

Illness. No ride. Death in the family. Short prison stay. Oversleeping. Helping sick parents. Feeling overwhelmed. Dentist appointment. In the past two weeks, my students have given me these reasons for their absences. We take the state exam in two weeks, and students who do not pass will need to repeat the course. Additionally, my students’ state exam results will be charted and compared with my department and our cohort schools. Gulp.

More than two thirds of my students maintain excellent attendance and will most likely pass the state exam on basic writing without much trouble. They engage; they practice; they try. The one third I worry about have struggled with writing for much of their educational careers, and their lives actively impede concentration. Seriously, some of the problems they go home to would have knocked hundreds of points off my own SAT score, I’m sure.

I don’t have a magic wand for helping students pass this exam. I use clickers to promote interest; I tell anecdotes to highlight relevance; I grade writing quickly to create momentum. The content is remedial, the test unrelenting in its pursuit of the comma’s proper placement. I teach the course beyond this basic writing class, and it offers variety through its realm of ideas. This course’s canned curriculum with required multiple choice tests offers no such variety. I do different lessons at the start of the semester and once the exam is over, but right now, in the last weeks before THE TEST, I dare not deviate from the test conditioning. We take a total of six practice tests, discussing the way the questions are structured, reviewing the grammar rules in isolation of anything we might write or discuss.

I truly enjoy teaching this course, but I start to wig out about our pass rate as the test approaches and my vulnerable one third show up only intermittently. How can I drag them across the finish line if they aren’t here? We have meetings, we teachers, where we are told of our influence, of how we must relate to students, imprint upon them like baby birds, and take them to great educational distances with heartfelt dedication. I buy into that. I feel a little frenzied when I take attendance and the seats of the students I think need the most practice sit empty. Yet when they tell me where they are, (Illness. No ride. Death in the family. Short prison stay. Oversleeping. Helping sick parents. Feeling overwhelmed. Dentist appointment.) I see clearly into the face of our economy, of our community problems. Wash your hands and eat better! Pay your court fines! Set an alarm! Ask a neighbor to sit with your parent! Whistle a happy tune! Change your appointment for later in the day! Really? I can’t say any of that because it is so insufficient to these students’ problems. They might not know how to eat better. They didn’t have the money for the court fines. They sleep through alarms, exhausted from working and going to school. No one else will sit in the ER with the sick parent. Their problems are overwhelming. The dentist appointment needs to be during class because missing work would mean diminished wages. So when students tell me where they’ve been, I nod. It feels incredibly narcissistic to suggest to them that I can fix what keeps them from focusing on their studies.

Getting 100% of my students to test competency requires social resources I don’t have to offer my students. My one third will try their damnedest to be in attendance on exam day. Some of them might pass, too. However, when I look at my work as a teacher distilled to a graph of who passed and who didn’t, I need to remember that I didn’t withhold the affection or the dedication that would have pushed all those dots to the mark. Some of my students might fail this test because life can be difficult, and a public system that teaches everyone will reflect the trials people face.

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

Sunday, March 1, 2009

"Lady, Step Away from the Metaphor..."

I’ve always considered myself lucky that I don’t lose my composure easily; staying calm and saying reassuring things during stress frequently helps me out as a classroom teacher. (Well, most of the time...) During stressful moments, I can seem measured as long as I don’t have to create any similes or metaphors. The figurative language I create under duress always gives my anxiety away.

If I didn’t teach literature, I may have never discovered this idiosyncrasy about myself. It first came to light when I had to videotape myself student teaching back in 1993. (The tape would provide perfect fodder for a “no teacher should do that” drinking game, by the way.) The tape showcases me at twenty, standing before an eleventh grade class of twelve self-contained, I.E.P. classified boys. With my zero years experience, I made the insightful decision to teach them feminist poetry. Anne Sexton’s Transformations to be exact. (It probably doesn’t require a viewing of the tape to laugh at me.) Shockingly, the class participation part didn’t go well. I wanted my students to write a simile, and they unanimously claimed they couldn’t think of anything. “Come on! Of course you can!” I urged. “Just pick something and compare it to something else…” The tape unflinchingly records the awkward pause as I struggle to think of a simile to show how easy it can be: My eyes search the room. My mouth hangs slightly open. My hands wave vaguely in the air. “Umm. Okay, Like…like…like…Look I’m doing it right now! For example, I could say, ‘The bell went off like a bomb in my head.’ Or I could say, ‘The flag waves like a body from the gallows.’” Oy. It goes on from there, but suffice it to say that my emotional desire to run screaming from the room as I surveyed the debris of my lesson revealed itself through my similes.

I’ve tried to avoid such pitfalls with better preparation. If I want to provide examples, I write a list of innocuous comparisons ahead of time. Once I’ve taught something before, I can usually remember the examples I’ve provided in the past. And since sixteen years have passed, teaching is less stressful now that I’m more experienced. Mostly, I do okay now, but this week, I revealed too much about my state of mind again through figurative language.

My school decided to put a departmental exam on computer, and the powers that be selected my class to help pilot it. We met in a special lab, but despite lots of troubleshooting, the pilot didn’t work, and I had to move my students back to our classroom to recoup the remainder of class time. My students bubbled with the euphoria that comes from having enjoyed thirty minutes with nothing to do. We walked back into our regular classroom, and I noticed someone new in the room, a colleague stopping by for an observation. I knew these observations would happen, but I didn’t expect one on such a raucous day; cue the stress. With a deep breath, I settled down my students and started to lead a productive lesson. Things rolled along well. However, one student got out a phone and started texting. Gently, I asked the student to put it away. “Oh, absolutely,” the student said, and put the phone under the edge of the desk, proceeding to text from the lap. Since I don’t tend to blush or yell when I get stressed, I should have reached for a rote teacher phrase, like “Please put it away in your bag.” However, I foolishly reached for a metaphor: “When my husband and I agreed not to cheat on each other, we didn’t mean ‘Don’t cheat on me where I can see you.’ We meant, ‘Don’t cheat on me at all!’” Oy, again. My class blinked and then burst out laughing. “Ms. K, you’re crazy!” The student zipped the phone into a book bag pocket, and my class observer looked at me wide-eyed. My mind reeled. Had I really just compared a texting student to a cheating spouse? Sheesh. Did my unconscious mind really feel so betrayed?

Ah, well. Maybe one day I will truly feel calm in stressful situations so that even my creative mind plays along. Until then, I think I need to just step away from the figurative language when I feel my blood pressure rise.

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