Friday, December 17, 2010

How Google Has Enhanced My Practice - An Homage to My Fellow Blogger

I have dedicated this blog post to Tara Seale because I owe everything I know about using Google to teach to her wise counsel.

Here's what I was able to do with my AP English Language and Composition class. The assignment combines a lot of exciting elements from student self-assessment to guided process writing.

First, the basic assignment: I've been doing Mentor Text writing assignments since I started teaching, I just didn't have a name for it until after this past NCTE conference. This assignment asks students to read a professionally written text and then try and mimic it in style. This mimicry helps the student practice writing like the experts, helping them integrate professional skills into their amateur styles. The result is a more finely tuned compositional style, one with greater maturity and clarity.

I asked them to write a holidays-are-crazy style essay based on a "Shouts & Murmurs" column written by Larry Doyle titled "Is There a Problem Here?" The original can be found here.

Students read the piece (once in class, once at home), analyzing for Doyle's use of rhetoric; students were asked to also pay special attention to the elements of voice (diction, detail, syntax, imagery, figurative language, and tone) and the four basic elements of satire (irony, hyperbole, …, …). We read, they highlighted, we discussed, they took it home to reread.

Then, students had to draft their rough drafts. They needed to mimic Doyle's satirical style while focusing on some aspect of the holidays. Here is where the technology really came into play.

Before I go into how I used the technology, let me explain each component. All of these programs are located in Google Docs. The first is the Google document. This program is just like Microsoft Word (with some isn't Microsoft after all). The Google document features collaborative typing and pop-out chat, great tools to help guide students with their writing - in real time!

The second program is the Google form. These are great. Seriously. Imagine a world where you can create any information gathering form you want/need and then have that form generate a spreadsheet with the responses. I created a student survey earlier in the month and now I have actual telephone numbers for all of my students' parents.

For the assignment, students drafted their holiday craziness essay on a Google document. Then, they evaluated themselves based on a rubric I created on a Google form (you can see the rubric/form here). The idea was to have the students assess their own writing based on effort and perceived achievement (based on an A - D scale). Then, students wrote reflections justifying the choices they made in their writing and their assessment. Finally, students revised based on their assessment of their work. I will conference with them once we return to school on Monday (or, snow-willing, after the holiday break). The resulting Google document flowed from a draft, to a reflection, to a revision, showing thoughtful, process-oriented writing from beginning to end.

So, what did I get out of it as teacher?

First, I got instant feedback. The responses from my survey/rubric form dumped into a spreadsheet. I could see where students thought they stood in terms of their writing at a glance. I could also see what they liked about the assignment and their writing (a voluntary, extra box that nearly every student filled out).

Second, I got the ability to have writing conferences with my students without giving up class time. Using the real-time editing and pop-out chat features, I could have individual writing conferences without having each student come to my desk while the others worked on whatever. Additionally, I didn't have to make one stroke with a red pen.

I am sure that there will be many more advantages to using these programs. I really didn't expect to discover the versatility and utility I've already experienced.

As a side note, Google has a program called Knol. It is a collection of people's knowledge on different topics. I searched the Knol database for Huckleberry Finn and found a four minute synopsis video of the novel done in Legos. It...was….awesome.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Why High School Matters

by Tara Seale

I recently returned from NCTE 2010 in Orlando. As always, High School Matters was my favorite session, packed with the best presenters and the best teachers sitting shoulder to shoulder. If only the whole room could work at the same school. What a school that would be.

First, Carol Jago related her favorite books for the year, and she provided a complimentary bookmark for each attendee. If you were unable to attend, and you would like to see Carol Jago's recommended reads, please click on this link: Carol Jago Recommended Books for 2010
As a bonus, she shared a book that was not on her bookmark. It was called The Room by Emma Donoghue. I also heard another recommendation for The Room by a fellow attendee at the NCTE, so it will be a Kindle download and a holiday read for me. Carol Jago's recommended reads are not only interesting, but inspiring. If someone as busy as Carol Jago can come up with 8 incredible reads for the year, what is my excuse? What is your excuse? We should all be reading and sharing in 2011.
On a more humorous note, Carold Jago also shared the YouTube video, "It's a Book" by Lane Smith. It is funny, but scary at the same time. Did you see Wired Magazine's cover from November titled "The Web is Dead." Will we have a magazine cover in the near future that announces "Books are Dead?"

Carol's talk was followed by one of my favorite ice breakers. Everyone at the round-table shares their favorite book of the year, and in the process, we get to meet everyone at our table. Never enough time, but it doesn't really matter because we all enjoy sharing, interjecting, and enjoying one another. It is a time to discover that English teachers attend NCTE from all over the country, and they are interesting, intelligent, and fun people to know (we did not make it around my table, but it was okay because we all bonded and connected).

There are usually three speakers. Last year, a poet performed in the middle, but at this year's High School Matters, a local Shakespeare group performed. I loved how the theater group utilized gestures created by the audience members who volunteered to paraphrase Shakespearean language. It had my head spinning as to how I could incorporate this into my classroom. I will, but I need to contemplate the best method.
As always, NCTE throws so many ideas at me that I need Christmas break to recover and incorporate.

High School Matters incorporates two round-table discussions. This year, I found myself at two tables titled To Hell with Romeo and Juliet and Exploring Zines. If you have not attended High School Matters at NCTE before, I suggest you attend this session because not only will you meet round-table leaders in secondary English, but you will connect with everyday high school teachers who just happen to sit next to you, like me! When you walk into High School Matters, you will see a number on each table. This number is important. If you look on the paper printout on each table, it will describe each table's discussion focus. Who wouldn't want to attend To Hell with Romeo and Juliet? If nothing else, could I use this as ammunition not to teach the next month or so? Alas, it was not a session to throw out Romeo and Juliet, but to accurately place the characters in their proper place in Dante's Inferno. What a great idea! My second table discussion involved creating small publications for passion, not profit. That is the definition of a Zine. I was unfamiliar with Zines, so I am glad I attended this round-table discussion.

The last speaker at High School Matters was Jim Burke. He has impacted many English teachers as the creator of the English Companion Ning which has almost 24,000 members. Jim Burke is funny, witty, and real. His senior moment talk was almost too real for me. We both have children who left home this year which is a scary realization involving not only our own life, but our control or lack of control over our children. Jim pointed out how literature reaches not only the kids we teach, but the kids we raise, and also the lives we live. Jim Burke made the audience re-live books we are all familiar with, but in a different light because every time we read them, it is a different point in our lives, and that is significant.
He created an heroic journey chart that rivals Joseph Campbell. I hope he will post it online. I have too many arrows, notations, and annotations in my composition book as I tried to keep up with him, but fortunately, he also provided an incredible visual for students and teachers alike by taking his students to the football field.

Although I scribbled many notes before this, I have very little here. I think it is because it was so poignant. Burke had his students sit on the yard line of their age. Most sat on 17 or 18. Then he sat (on his age) more than double the yards away from his students; later, he said this was a bad idea and doesn't suggest it. But fortunately, this is the best part, he had his students look back and walk the few short yards to their 9th grade year, not many steps. Look at how far you have come (but on a big football field, it isn't much). Now, let's hypothetically say that you live 100 years. Look down the field. That is how much you have to learn. That is how much you don't know. What a significant visual to the know-it-all teenagers. Maybe they don't know much after all.

Now do you see why High School Matters?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Business-Based Reforms and Foucault's Pendulum

Back and forth, back and forth. In the middle of the city of Paris, a pendulum swings back and forth over a table. Foucault's pendulum, named for physicist Leon Foucault, works with the rotation of the earth; in fact, the pendulum is one of the first experiments that visibly showed that the Earth rotated on an axis. So now, there it sits, strung up in the Pantheon in Paris, swinging back and forth, ad nauseum. That is the way with cycles: seasons, calendars, water, business-based reforms in schools.

Efficiency has long been a by-word in our profession (and several other human service professions), but efficiency is not the way of schools. There is no efficient way to teach students because they are people with flaws and faults that are all their own. Larry Cuban's book, The Blackboard and the Bottom Line, includes the story of an executive who found his assumptions of business-based educational reforms challenged. This executive, the owner of an ice cream company, was addressing a group of teachers about their learning. During the question and answer session at the end, a veteran teacher asked him what his most famous favor is. "Blueberry," the exec replied. "What do you do with the blueberries that aren't up to your standards?" "We toss them out." "We can't toss out our bad blueberries," she replied.

At this year's NCTE convention, this story came charging back into my mind. I was sitting in a room at the Yacht and Beach club convention center and I began to remember why I got into the classroom. But, that happened a lot at this year's convention. I think that is why I get so excited in November; NCTE is my oasis of educational nirvana, my moment of zen in a year of otherwise tenuous situations at work.

The business-based reform crowd does have something to contribute to education, but more often than not the focus on efficiency grinds educators down. Why would something that should be beneficial be so destructive? The reason is the focus. The focus for efficiency is time, not people.

According to Cuban (2004), the things that teachers are looking for in a reform are "effectiveness, fidelity [to original goals], popularity, and adaptability." These four are not unreasonable requests. I think people have the conversations about the first and third of the traits listed, but the second and fourth really deserve closer inspection.

First, what are the core assumptions of these "efficiency," or business-based, reforms? They are:
  • Schools are inherently and malignantly flawed
  • Teachers, administrators, and support staff are glorified blue collar babysitters who only bungle our big business reforms
  • Schools should be run like businesses, idols of perfection in the American landscape
  • The strong economic growth, high productivity, long-term prosperity, and increased competitiveness in global markets depend upon a highly-skilled workforce
  • Public schools are responsible for churning out these highly skilled workers
  • All public schools are failing to create highly-skilled workers with urban schools failing the most
  • Business-modeled reforms can be applied to schools to match workers with their jobs, increasing public confidence in schools (does anyone have Ayn Rand's number in the after-life?)
  • Higher tests scores automatically forecast better performance in the workplace (All core assumptions from Cuban, 2004; sarcasm added by the author)
These assumptions resulted in a standard reform model, adopted along Bipartisan lines (now we need to call Gary Sheytengart), that eventually allowed for the national government's hijacking of state and local responsibilities in the public schools. Systemic reform - establishment of curricular standards, imposition of standard texts, merit pay, expanded parental choice, and hostile takeovers of failing schools and districts - was born, leaping unwisely from the brow of a group of business "leaders," politicians, educators, and parents.

Imagine my dismay when I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about a new non-governmental agency, "cutely" titled StudentFirst, created and helmed by the belle of the business-based ball, Michelle Rhee. That was when I had it.

I have had it, and so should you. I am in a fortunate position (which is unusual) in Virginia. we are obstinately holding out against the Common Core. The more I read of it, the more I am glad we are. The reforms of the Common Core appear to be doing more to fragment and micro-manage our teaching than any set of standards I have seen before. Reading an opinion piece published online at EdWeek's website on November 12th, I began to hear some of my own frustrations and realizations given life in the much more eloquent voice of Kelly Gallagher.

Gallagher, one of those teachers on my people-I-need-to-thank-for-sustaining-me-in-my-first-five-years list, has come to a realization about the proliferation of standards that I thought I was crazy for thinking. Let me syllogize (alright neologisms). Sprinting-and-covering material, while really efficient, does not build learners. Multitudinous and specific content standards create a sea of material that must be covered quickly to ensure students are prepared by the time state tests arrive in January (Semester Terms) or May (Year-Long Terms). Therefore, having a lot of content-specific standards assessed on the multiple-choice end-of-course assessment does not allow for the development of deep thinking we expect from students.

So, driving uniform, efficiency-style reform down the collective throats of educators and students alike is not the answer. What is the effect of fidelity and adaptability to reform movements? Let's consider the fidelity to original goals first.

The original goal of the NCLB reforms was to increase educational parity across every line, but especially the gap between the "rich" students in the suburbs and the "poor" students in the inner city. Yet, from international comparisons of our students with those from other countries to the Condition of Education reports published by the National Center for Educational Statistics, our students results have stayed significantly stagnant. If we were true to our goals, we would not cling to a reform that has had almost nine years of time and no significant difference.

The same applies to adaptability. Reforms focused purely on outcomes run the risk of repeating the same errors because they do not ask about how they got involved. There is no talk of adapting reforms to geographical areas and certain populations in the service of meeting educational goals, there simply is a meeting or not. If you miss the goal, you have not reached adequate yearly progress. You are not adequate. In uninformed hands, the notion of schools literally classified as "inadequate" becomes a dangerous political weapon.

So, what now shall we do? I think Virginia has taken step in the right direction this year. Our state standards have been revised, more unified, and more focused on the academic skills necessary for success in the English Language Arts classroom. What's more, all of the key elements of the Common Core are present in the condensed Virginia standards.

The START treaty has been in the news lately and I think it is time we learned the lessons nuclear war has to teach: keep the infrastructure small and specific and verification can be easily achieved. Just as the START treaties seek to reduce the number of nuclear weapons so that they can be tracked more easily, so we should streamline our standards, reflect and remind ourselves of the goals we have for our students, consider that perhaps the most popular reforms are not those that are the most effective, and keep searching for those reforms which we can adapt to our classrooms to create greater success for students. If we don't get involved and take back what we can of our schools from the business-based reformers now, we cannot be surprised when, as in Max Berry's novel, schools become named for corporate sponsors like Nike, McDonald's, and Office Depot (I wouldn't want to play against the team from Nike High if I went to McDonald's High). And, lest we forget, maybe we should ask Christopher Whittle how those Edison schools have done in the for-profit public school business (think the popular song "Breakeven" by the Script).

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Project for Awesome

by Tara Seale
Have you ever wondered how YouTube chooses the videos that are featured on their website? I just visited YouTube, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure it out.
Look at the bold titles: Trending, Most Popular, Featured Videos, and What's New.
What would it take to create a YouTube video and have it featured on the front page? Who would even endeavor to have their video featured on YouTube's front page? I can tell you who. The NerdFighters and their Project for Awesome (P4A).
On December 17, P4A will once again try to take over YouTube and the trending topic of Twitter by promoting videos that represent charities. This is truly an awesome project because it brings attention to the needs of our world. I first learned about this project from Lee Ann Spillane, a high school English teacher from Winter Park, FL. At NCTE's National Convention 2009 in Philadelphia, she told me that her class was participating in P4A by creating one video that they would promote on December 17th. I didn't really understand what she was talking about, but when December 17th rolled around, I found myself remembering our conversation as I followed her numerous tweets and shout outs that proclaimed something great was happening, so at this year's NCTE National Convention 2010 in Orlando when Lee Ann and I both showed up to an early Sunday morning session to hear Kelly Gallagher, Penny Kittle, and Jeff Anderson present, I asked her about P4A again. I paid closer attention to the details this time. This year, each of Lee Ann's students is creating his or her own video to promote a charity on the P4A day. The students will embed the P4A logo into their video to designate it as part of the P4A project. She is also working with the technology department to gain access to YouTube for a day so that her students can participate in commenting, viewing, favoriting, and promoting their videos to propel P4A to the top of the YouTube and Twitter trending lists.
What an incredible experience for these high school students. Congratulations to Lee Ann for creating a genuine authentic audience that brings attention to worthwhile causes and involves students using 21st century technology. Imagine the connections the students will feel as together they unite to take over cyberspace for a day with something they have created.
Lee Ann first became involved in P4A when she realized that one of the founders was a former student, Hank Green. Hank and his brother John grew up in Winter Park, FL, and John is a young adult author of several books including Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns. The two brothers are responsible for the popular VlogBrothers Channel on YouTube and for creating the Nerdfighters.
What are Nerdfighters? They do not fight nerds, they actually promote nerds and fight World Suck which they explain in the video below. I encourage you to watch their video because I learned so much. For example, I now know the difference between an acronym and an initialism. They also brought to my attention that I sometimes have a high puff level, which I knew, but I just didn't have a phrase for it. Thank you John and Hank for putting this all into perspective for me, and thank you Lee Ann for being a teacher who takes risks to engage students in something as amazing as Project for Awesome.
Project for Awesome Website (This website will update to the 2010 P4A in December).

Updates for P4A: Video Announcement about 2010 P4a

Monday, November 22, 2010

NCTE 2010 Convention Presentations

By Tara Seale
NCTE members and convention attendees can view all of the uploaded presentations at the NCTE Connected Community website in the near future. Currently, only convention attendees can view the uploaded presentations. If you would like to post your presentation but need directions, click on this link: Posting on the NCTE Connected Community.
You can view my presentations below. At the convention, I served as an associate chair for one session and presented in another session.
On Friday, I presented with Julie Stephenson. Our presentation was titled: New Frontiers in New Literacies: Growing Multimodal Readers and Writers.

On Saturday, I presented with Bill Bass, Sara Beauchamp-Hicks, Andrea Zellner, and Troy Hicks. Our presentation was titled Using Google in Ways that Haven't Even Been Invented Yet: Visionary Reports from Cyberspace.

For more resources, visit this website: Google Monsters: Reports from Cyberspace

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

National Common Core Standards

by Tara Seale
According to the Education Week Blog Post, forty-one states have adopted the National Common Core Standards. My own state, Arkansas, has also adopted the Common Core Standards, and my school district adopted the standards in the draft stage even before our state adopted the standards. The teachers in our district began writing out a curriculum to match the national proposed standards. I am proud of the hard work by the English teachers in my district, and our ideas are similar to the draft curriculum that is now available online. I wanted to share this draft curriculum in case some of you are not aware that it is out there.
The Curriculum Mapping Project is sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and it is an impressive draft document. Click on this link to view the English Language Arts Curriculum Maps for all grade levels.
If you click around and thoroughly explore the website, you will find wordles (word clouds) of the curriculum maps for each grade level. The largest word in a word cloud is the most repeated word; therefore, the largest word should be the most important element in the word cloud. See the high school word cloud below or click here: Common Core Wordle

Monday, November 1, 2010

HEY! What's the Main Idea?

This really seems to be the big deal this year. I haven't been to a single function with other English teachers that hasn't eventually brought this complaint forward. Overwhelmingly, students are struggling with separating the main idea from other topics included in the essay, story, etc.

I am not sure why this happens. I've only recently begun trying to formulate a plan of attack for the problem.

The first place I looked is Jim Burke's The English Teacher's Companion. Jim's work has been indispensible before, so I figured I couldn't go wrong. I didn't. There were the usual strategies available for use, but most of the meaning-making strategies felt like class activities. What I was looking for was a strategy I could give them to fall back on when I wasn't there to help them push through a dense text.

I looked next at Kelly Gallagher's Deeper Reading. In the book, Kelly divides reading into a process like writing, complete with multiple drafts. This spark led me back to Jim's work on Tools for Thought. In that collection of strategies, the Pyramid Notes sparked a memory of another pyramid device. So, I was off again, in search of the muse.

The muse, in this case, was actually a man: Doug Buehl, author of Classroom Strategies for Interactive Learning. Doug's strategies are universal, across-the-curricula, and easily adaptable. The fourth chapter of the recent third edition is all about fact pyramids. I reread the chapter, noting that the key to this pyramid was the fact that the bottom contained general knowledge facts while the top contained the overarching idea. The middle section contains short-term, organizing concepts. For example, a fact pyramid on the Crusades would have large concepts like the causes, effects, and impact of the Crusades, while the middle section would list the Crusades: First, Second, Third, and Fourth. The bottom slice would include related terms and names like "Pope Urban II" and "Cruciata." Thinking about Jim, Kelly, and Doug, I began to work on a synthesis of the fact pyramid, the text frame, and the drafts of reading.

And that is as far as I have gotten. Another colleague and I are going to work on it tomorrow (yeah...Election Day; let's hear it for the work day). I hope to post more later in the week.

In the meantime, what do you think? Do you have any strategies for teaching the main idea? If the problem is as widespread as it seems, please share away.

(P.S.) Click the title to see the post on the NCTE Connected Community.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Teaching with Our Own Wisdom?

TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

This oft-quoted poem has been used for many hopeful celebrations of life: graduations, college acceptance, internships, fellowships, study abroad, weddings, births; the list seems interminable. One thing many people do not know about Robert Frost is that he too was a disillusioned modernist. His adherence to form did nothing to alter his message. Another possible interpretation, one I think does the text more justice, is about the inverse relationship of power and intelligence in received wisdom. The “sigh” that Frost makes later in life is not necessarily the sigh of satisfaction. Rather, it is the sigh of momentary indecision, the what-do-these-youngsters-expect moment that characterizes later life. There is not necessarily any wisdom in experience. Living a long time means nothing unless it is examined. Frost echoes this sentiment in another of his poems, “Mending Wall”:

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself…
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

Between Waiting for Superman and the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act [ESEA or N(o) C(hild) L(eft) B(ehind) for short], there has been a lot of talk of school reform, but little of it contains any wisdom. Aiding the sweeps of received wisdom about education are the counterarguments claiming that public schools are performing admirably; but what is our metric for admirable performance? I personally get easily confused when I listen to closely to this maelstrom, so let’s take a moment and rise above.

First, let us look at the current iteration of ESEA. Essentially, there are four pillars behind the Bush-administration-generated education agenda:
1. Raise Academic Achievement
2. Focus on What Works
3. Reduce Bureaucracy and Increase Flexibility
4. Increase Options for Students and Parents
The first pillar includes considerations of raised expectations for all students, closure of the various achievement gaps, and measurements and reports of achievement. The second pillar deals with topics like research-based educational strategies, funding proven strategies, and communicating findings of what works to teachers. The third pillar provides flexibility for teachers to do their jobs while moving away from a culture of compliance to a culture of accountability (whatever that means; a recent CCC journal article speaks in convincing and eloquent ways about the need to eliminate this word from our educational lexicon in favor of the word responsibility). The final pillar seeks to dismantle the idea of a one-size-fits-all approach to education through more choice and more parent communication. There is nothing specifically wrong with these goals, but there is a lot here that, eight years from implementation, seems laughable or frustrating to people in our position. I mean, I can’t remember the last time I presented information on a radically different, yet highly effective new approach to teaching that did not meet with some resistance, rather than the funding and support called for in NCLB.

We all have our frustrations with NCLB, but a lot of that frustration is misdirected. Much of what we see as difficulty created by the Act is really ineffective implementation. The states are still the primary sources of control in education and the localities are still the implementation arm of the states. It is the locality level that really needs direction. For example, at a recent meeting in my county, people were upset with the upcoming budget and the lack of funding we have. To make a long story short, people are afraid, as many are, that their jobs will be lost. The only solution is to advocate for funding. But, people think our schools are great. Just last week, I quoted an article that offers the same piece of received wisdom. Education is in trouble, we all say doing our best Chicken Little, but my school is fine. The reality is that our schools, while functional, are not necessarily great. At the high school level alone, only two of our five schools made their progress goals. The other three did not meet the standards they set the year before. Sounds like we could use funding to develop more effective ways to teach.

Now, we can agree that there are multitudinous reasons for schools not to meet there progress goals. I’ll even concede that the eventual 100 percent goal is, statistically speaking, impossible. The reality is that these are the conditions under which we toil. The problem is about the structure adopted by localities. We cannot look up to the national government, hands out like the mouths of baby birds, without first looking at ourselves. Are our policies at the local level truly effective for teaching and learning? Are our budgets balanced for the benefit of people or facilities? I don't care how many SMART boards you have, poor teaching is interactive, too. So it comes down to examining our practices and policies in localities.

In Virginia, the state test, or Standards of Learning—SOL for short (make your jokes…welcome back)—tests, are given at reasonable points in the school year. The problem is that my locality does not use a school year; they use a hybrid system. Some of the classes in my building are on a semester schedule—everyday until the end of January, four classes a day, eighty-seven minutes each—while others are on an alternating day schedule. This can be confusing. Some buildings use this hybrid schedule; other buildings have either one or the other. The SOL test in writing is given in the spring to year-long classes; for semester classes, it is given this week. Just over a month into the school year and we are giving the writing test. Not to mention, the testing happens on the National Day on Writing, a day designed to promote writing, not reduce it to a chore (irony, don't fail me now). Talk about setting people up for failure? At the local level, there was a considerable lack of wisdom used in this decision. Additionally, students from year to year may have English in the fall, then not again until the following spring. That is an entire calendar year between English classes. As teachers of English, we know the value of consistent application of skills and feedback of progress.

This poor planning is not the fault of high-stakes testing or NCLB or even George W. Bush. Short-sightedness is not partisan. The wisdom we have received tells us to vote with the union, point fingers at the federal government, and demand better for our children. I agree one out of three times. We should demand the best for our children; however, we forget that education is a matter of local importance: local funding, local boards, and local children. When we remember this simple fact, our view of the “problem” of American education can become, paradoxically, more complete. When a student’s essay is confused and jumbled, the source of the problem is usually too large a focus, not too small.

Like Frost’s speaker, we have occasion to use our everyday skills to speak for ourselves, show others the potential of our schools, and build systems that defy the expectations of cynical politicians and jaded directors. I can’t tell people what’s wrong with schooling, but I can certainly show them and let them awaken to the understanding themselves. I would be satisfied with “elves” or even “boogeymen.” The bottom line is that if schools in America are failing, it is because people have forgotten their responsibility (not accountability) for our children in lieu of some other, less reliable, source of wisdom.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Rhetori-WHAT?: Teaching Rhetorical Analysis to High School Juniors

Those of you who teach AP English Language are probably not impressed with the title of this blog. Rhetoric is the heart and soul of our curriculum. The juniors I speak of are not AP students. Rather, in this post, I will outline a method I developed for teaching my students in standard English about rhetoric and how to analyze its use in writing.

I spend about a week introducing the terms and having students identify how and where the terms can be used. You can really play with this portion of the unit depending upon how you teach new concepts and terms. I use a combination of graphic organizer and PowerPoint presentation. The real fun happens after I get through the basics, when i am ready to tackle the actual analysis.

First, I hand them one of the "Nacirema" lectures. In particular, I hand them the one on the "Body Rituals among the Nacirema" by Horace Miner. The real fun in using this piece is the reaction the students have. Usually, about half way through, portions of the class are fighting off sleep. Until, suddenly, one student begins to laugh and shake his or her head. The heads pop up like gazelle who have heard a lion nearby. Laughter? With this boring lecture. But then, another student starts laughing, as though the laughter from one was enough to help others that this piece is not to be taken seriously. Suddenly, everybody is trying to figure out what they missed. We finish that lecture and move on to the "Sacred Rac." Again, students frantically try and discover why their classmates are laughing (some so hard they've fallen on the floor--not really). Finally, we throw out the big reveal. "Nacirema" is American backwards. These crazy rituals? You did about half on your way here. Suddenly, they want to know how they were fooled.

Here's your moment. Reintroduce the rhetorical terms. Have a discussion about some examples of the terms in the text. Come up with a main idea. Model a think aloud wherein you link the examples to the main idea. Show the students that analysis has a function. They get into this discussion, throwing examples out right and left. Then, break their hearts.

When you say, let's write, they'll be upset for a minute, but they'll get over it. I write up the following criteria on the board:

"Your analysis will...
___ Discuss the use of 2-3 rhetorical terms

___ Define each term

___ Provide an example for each term from the text

___ Explain how the example is representative of the term"

This brief analysis hones the students' skills in selecting the correct term to describe an author's style and it pushes them to choose good examples and then justify them. Win-win all around.

But wait...they didn't explain how the example shows an author using style to support a main idea?

Slow down.

After students have written the analysis and turned it in, we move on to another challenge. Now, we read a piece of more traditional satire: Larry Doyle's "The Babyproofer." They love this one. The jokes are in your face and the ones who babysit/have younger siblings really identify with the message. Once we read it, students are asked to identify the author's main idea. They spend time doing this in groups, discussing their ideas and trying to find a common idea. Then we spend time refining this idea using evidence from the text. Then, I write the following criteria on the board:

"Your analysis will...
___ Explicitly state the author's main idea

___ Discuss the use of 2-3 rhetorical terms

___ Define each term

___ Provide an example for each term from the text

___ Explain how the example reinforces the main idea of the text"

By the time the students finish this analysis, they've done all of the steps from the first and then supported the main idea. The main idea portion of this analysis helps students pick out examples that specifically focus on support for the main idea, rather than just a grab bag of quotations that may or may not support the main idea.

After these two, I assign a piece of their choice. They then perform all of the steps on their own and explain how they went through the process. The students really seemed to enjoy the process this year and their scores on the Unit I Test were appreciably higher because of it.

Waiting for Reason: Documentary Films and Lack of Critical Discourse

There’s an old movie starring Humphrey Bogart called Dark Passage that features an iconic and, at the time, unheard of conceit. Bogart’s character, an escaped convict, spends the first portion of the film invisible to the audience. Why? We are watching the events of the film unfold in first-person; that is up until the moment when the bandages are taken off of our surgically-altered face and we are finally able to glimpse ourselves. It is in this moment of reawakening, of a fresh start, that the film, and Bogie, really open up and fly headlong through the rest of the narrative. This critical viewing of self is what film is all about. We see ourselves in characters locked in timeless struggles, rooting for the good guys and cheering the destruction of the bad guys. In our postmodern world, this view has slightly changed. We’ve moved out of the completely fictional and into the realm of the real, too. Documentaries share marquees with the latest action thriller; unfortunately, these documentaries are swallowed as truth, not discussed with a critical eye.

I could spend paragraphs, lines, words, letters galore talking about the lack of critical intelligence in America; however, I would just be another charlatan trying to get you to read or buy something. In the end, that seems to be what Waiting for Superman is all about. Truthfully, though, I wouldn’t know. Why do I feel the need to write about it? Frankly, between Oprah’s special episode, my daily interactions with parents, movie reviews, pundits talking, the odd guy on the street who has a vision for education, and the founder of Facebook donating $100 million dollars to Newark schools, I feel like I’ve seen the movie, had the discussion, and moved forty years down the road.

What this overhyped monster does reveal is a truth that is fairly timeless (if timeless counts as the early 1800s). Horace Mann, widely recognized as the father of the American public school, wrote in his 10th report all about why people should fund public education. These reasons are the same ones we emphasize now: youth are occupied, communities are safer, and the country becomes more affluent. The only difference is that in Mann’s day, nobody wanted a public school. They didn’t mind paying a tax; just don’t spend it on that wasted institution. Mann argued, enough people relented, and the American public school was born. Now, nearly 200 years later, everyone wants everything public schools can offer for every child because it is those children’s right to go to school. Even the UN says so. They formalized it as a human right.
While education may be a human right, it cannot be forced upon people or used to promote or shape a particular political view of a people. Yet, since the early part of the 20th century, we have tried to do both. Now, we are reaping what we’ve sown.

Students get it the worst. I can think of at least one ethnography (Ain’t No Makin’ It) that shows how social and cultural dissonance can bring groups down and keep them there (feel free to check the book out; the research and argumentation are so solid, it is hard to disagree with MacLeod’s assertion that schooling can hinder as much as it helps). The children in the film are not alone in their struggle. Whereas Guggenheim, the filmmaker, holds folks like Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee up as heroes, I ask what kind of heroic policies shut down public schools and offer only charter school raffles as an alternative. The crying faces of those left unselected by the lottery make an excellent platform from which to proselytize the blasé American public; however, it does us all well to remember upon whom we are standing.

This preachy, self-serving rhetoric really leads me to administrators. These middle-management folks seem to have come a long way from the classroom. I know that, as of August of this year, the combined teaching experience of one administrative team in my county was a whopping 20 years (among 5 people). I’ve been teaching longer than 4 years, I must have more knowledge of my job than my administrators; however, we continue to labor under the false pretense of principal educators and not principal managers. I bet many of my administrators wish they had time to devote to studying the content which they oversee. They are not envious of ignorance. They simply do not have the time given all of the accounting they must do to keep the school “accountable.” They, instead, spend those summers that teachers supposedly have off going to workshops, hearing an idea, and deciding that, despite a lack of evidence, we must change tactics. I have only one question: Who provides the funding for that stuff? I mean, College Board I get; professional groups, like NCTE, I get; but these other random corporations who suddenly have the answers to educational problems? I am not so sure. So the questions about the affluence of American schools—or rather lack thereof—become less about the lack of resources than the careful consideration of how to use those resources. Why does X Corporation spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on this educational theory instead of providing the funding to schools that need it to hire and retain teachers, bolster infrastructure, and buy some books?

And then come the teachers. Yay! We are on the front line. Yay! We love children. Yay! We want to bring our expertise to bear and help these young people become adults; however, we have some demands. We must be heard complaining, fighting, and naysaying as often as possible. We must be allowed to possess perpetually bleeding hearts, but we cannot afford them because our pay is too low. We must be treated as professionals, despite the fact that some of us act like we never graduated from the grades we teach. We, as teachers, cannot absolve ourselves from responsibility; and yet, Guggenheim’s film will have exactly that effect on some people. They’ll get their rear-ends up on their backs and parade around as though they are blameless, as though they speak for all teacher-kind. And for the most part, we’ll let them. Not because we agree, but because we are tired.

In all seriousness, color commentary aside, the whirlwind on the media has been about this coherent. So, I did some digging. And it all goes back to Dewey and Thorndike, an epic struggle for the hearts and minds of our children.

Thorndike, king of the quantitative, crushed John Dewey’s assertion that schools should be about experiential learning and the nurturing of learning experiences, or teachable moments. You think that is not true, just look at the plethora of standardized tests students are required to take anymore. This clash is also why we are constantly asking about preserving the teachable moment. Daft administrators will try and tell you that you can still do that; however, Thorndike would disagree. Thorndike believed that “whatever existed at all exists in some amount. To know it thoroughly involves knowing its quantity as well as its quality” (Lagemann, 2000, p. 57). Thus, a new era in education was born. This era was one driven by quantifiable IQs, measurable standards of achievement, and paced instruction. The motto was learn it or lose it. On top of that, nothing measurable was worth doing. Training students to become better people? Show me a measurement. Training them to appreciate literature, art, and music? Pshaw. Show me a measurement. Teaching students that they could grow beyond their basic capabilities? Liar. Show me a measurement. Thorndike refused to accept that all things in education could not be measured quantitatively (Lagemann, 2000). If the lesson involved anything outside of the “simple variables” of the educational process, he could not be bothered; “observation within naturalistic settings” was a waste of time (Lagemann, 2000, p. 59). In the 1906 text, Principles of Teaching, Thorndike boldly declared that “it is the problem of the higher authorities of the schools to decide what the schools shall try to achieve and to arrange plans for school work which will attain the desired ends” (qtd. In Lagemann, 2000). In typical administrative form, he followed that line up with “the teacher is to make these changes as economically and as surely as is possible under the conditions of school life.” Ok, Eddie. How does one do that? Thorndike never had those answers. Thus, a myth was born: the teachers are the ones who mess it all up.

And so, it falls to the English teachers of the world to help set the record straight. Why us? We teach critical thinking more than any other discipline. Really. In science, math, and history, they are so busy learning the basics of their subjects, that students don’t have the time, or inclination, to read critical writing about those topics. They come to us to read Hersey’s commentary on the effects of the atomic bomb, to write about the history of the Civil Rights movement in America as portrayed in To Kill a Mockingbird, and to critically view documentaries on the application of math to complex social problems like public schools. If we don’t teach students to question the motives behind Guggenheim’s inclusion of the post-lottery meltdown, we haven’t taught our students. Furthermore, when they turn as an angry tide of parents and try to beat us down, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

And then we let it get away from us. Since the media frenzy following, and sustaining, Waiting for Superman, I have not seen a single public forum dedicated to bringing frustrated parents, bedraggled educators, consumed administrators, and broken politicians together to discuss the schools in their areas. Why? Let me provide you with an excerpt from one of the articles provided in September 28th’s NCTE Inbox newsletter.

Parent Renee Cooper, whose son is an 8th grader at Hudson Cliffs PSIS 187, said the film, "used real-life situations to provide a holistic look at the problems that plague our education system.
"With the resources we have as a country, there is no reason why every child should not receive an excellent education in a state-of –the-art educational environment.
"I liken the work of the director to the heroism of Harriet Tubman — it helps bring awareness of how we might escape the problems, and thereby, it contributes to the solution.”
As for her son’s school, "my view of the faculty is that, by and large they have the highest professional standards."

Within the same quotation, we go from righteous indignation, to uneducated analogy, to the familiar education-is-broken-but-my-school-is-fine response. So, while the article in question may start out saying that the audience was “seething” or “in tears” after viewing the film, our inability to think critically will create the same stagnant pool in which we currently sit. Meanwhile, a student fails the marking period and there is an unholy reckoning the likes of which has not been seen since Torquemada and the Inquisition.

While the Inquistion rages on at a theatre near you, what can we do to really open up a dialogue on this problem? Can teachers really get involved and make a difference, or is the frenzied mass simply too eager to dump this problem on the shoulders of a few bad teachers and wash their hands of it? Has Guggenheim’s film really accomplished its reformist goals or has it simply swollen an already festering sore in the social conscience of the nation?
I for one look forward to seeing the film, but I think I’ll reserve my judgment until then. Maybe I’ll even discuss it with my neighbors. Who knows?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The 5 Minute Recap

by Tara Seale
Recently, I used a flip video camera to create a quick recap of what happened in class. I messed up a few times, but I kept going. I knew that if I could quickly create and post short video clips as reminders for students who need additional explanation or students who are absent, then I would make it a part of my routine, but if I spent hours editing and making it perfect, then I would become frustrated with the time involved.
The short video clip below did not take long to create. After I finished recording, I connected the Flip Video Camera to a macbook and imported the video into iMovie. I uploaded the movie straight to YouTube from iMovie. It took less than 15 minutes from beginning to end to have this video on YouTube. I also put a link for students and parents on my Teacher Google Site page.

If you are interested in the directions for the essay, you can view the assignment at The Most Dangerous Game Mood Essay and the rubric is at The Most Dangerous Game Essay Rubric.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Precis Writing

by Tara Seale

At the June 15, 2010 Common Core Standards meeting in Arkansas, Dr. Sandra Stotsky from the University of Arkansas discussed several areas of the new National Common Core Standards for English Language Arts. As part of her presentation, she discussed precis writing and shared an article by K. D'Angelo titled, "Precis writing: promoting vocabulary development and comprehension" Journal of Reading. Dr. Stotsky emphasized the importance of summary writing as a key writing and comprehension assignment in classrooms of all ages.

Last year, I incorporated precis writing into my 9th grade English curriculum, and I believe it helped my students develop reading comprehension and writing skills.
Kelly Gallagher in his book Readicide addresses the problem that English teachers struggle with when they try to balance literature and nonfiction. Gallagher has a weekly reading assignment that he calls "The Article of the Week." This assignment addresses real-world writings and forces students to consider ideas that affect them today. You can access Kelly Gallagher's suggested articles at: Gallagher refers to Ed Hirsch's Cultural Literacy as a reason students must read nonfiction in addition to literature. Students need prior knowledge of texts that are part of our culture to understand allusions that will appear on standardized tests and throughout their lives. Kelly Gallagher, on page 50 of Readicide, lists several ways to create assignments that evaluate student reading comprehension of nonfiction Articles of the Week.

For Example:
After reading an interesting article, create a t-chart. On the left side, bullet the key points of the article. On the right side, list what the article doesn't say. What has been left out?
Pick three articles and rewrite their headlines. Explain why your headlines are better.
I incorporate nonfiction article reading into my classroom, but instead of using a variety of methods to test reading comprehension, I have introduced my students to precis writing. In four well-written sentences, students demonstrate that they comprehend the big idea, the tone, the audience, and the purpose of the article.
If you Google precis writing, you will read several versions of precis or summary writing. I adapted what I could find from teachers and professors on the World Wide Web to my classroom.
Because most 9th grade students are usually confused when they read a satirical piece, I decided we would all read an article from The Onion first, and then we would write a precis together. After reading the article (see below), I realized I wanted to use it, but I also wanted to edit out some of the words that were inappropriate for my 9th graders. I took the liberty to do so, and here is a Google Doc (G version) of The Onion article, "Underfunded Schools Forced to Cut Past Tense from Language Programs."
Next, I walked my students through annotating the article and answering important questions, such as, Who is the audience? What is the author's purpose?
Finally, we wrote a 4 sentence precis together and used it as a model for further nonfiction articles. See the yellow highlighted model sentences: Precis Model Sentences and Directions.
I was surprised by how many assignments students returned in which they adequately wrote out four well-written sentences that demonstrated their understand of the text. I used this assignment for homework during the 2009-2010 school year, and I plan to use it again this year.

Some of the articles I used during the 2009-2010 school year are below:

"Cassandras of Climate Change"

"The New Sputnik"

"Is Your Baby a Racist?"

"The Teen Brain: It's Just Not Grown Up Yet"

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Resources for teaching English

by Tara Seale
An earlier NCTE Secondary Section blog post titled "On your mark...," by Dan Bruno discusses books and resources to use throughout the school year. Definitely a great blog post to start out the school year, and I completely agree with the titles Dan suggests. Check out the link to read the post.

Building on Dan's awesome idea, I have decided to share my favorite resource books below:

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
This is a great book for teaching students how to close read a passage. Not only does Prose delve into great classics and even some lesser known works, she discusses how to slowly appreciate each word and line written by the author. Prose provides reasons to slow down and really understand an author's craft instead of rushing through to get to the next required read.

They Say, I Say by Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein
This book teaches students how to embed quotes by building on the ideas of others to enhance their writing. I use this book to provide my 9th graders with templates for their own writing. My students begin 9th grade by reading Edith Hamilton's Mythology. They Say, I Say helped me create a handout for my 9th grade students: Embedding Quotes handout.

Readings for Writers by Jo Ray McCuen-Metherell and Anthony Winkler
We all have our favorite anthologies, and this is mine. I would love it if you left comments about your favorite anthologies in the comments. I have found this one to be a great collection of writings with thought provoking questions.

The Writer's Journey by Christopher Volger
If you focus on archetypes, the heroic journey, or Joseph Campbell's monomyth ideas in your class, then you need this book. The explanations are easy to understand and relate to pop culture, so students really appreciate and connect to the ideas presented in this book.

Readicide by Kelly Gallagher
I can't imagine a resource list for English teachers that could be complete without a Kelly Gallagher book. Everything Kelly Gallagher writes is applicable to all English teachers. Readicide explains how to elevate the reading experiences of all students. I particularly like chapter 4: "Finding the 'Sweet Spot' of Instruction."

My favorite way to share books that I enjoy reading or using as a teaching resource is through Google Books. To look through the online Google Book library I have created, click here: Tara Seale's Google Books Library. If you have a Google Book library, please consider sharing the link in the comments of this post.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Rhetoric, Logic, and Argumentation

As a teacher of AP English Language and Junior-Level English, composition is a huge part of my curriculum. Last year, I began experimenting with using information from the AP English Language Curriculum (information on types of arguments and rhetoric) with my Junior-level classes. At this year's AP Conference, I was looking for a resource that would help my AP students get into rhetoric quicker and help my Juniors develop a sense of what rhetoric is and how writers use it. I found that resource (link in the title): Rhetoric, Logic, and Argumentation: A Guide for Student Writers.

This guide, published by Prestwick House, is very useful for any level of composition. It is a slim volume, running no more than 107 pages. It is well-designed, featuring blocks of text that introduce new terms and a summary definition of those terms between the first block of text and the next one. The text seems to be designed around the 10-2 rule of teaching: for every ten minutes of teacher talk, there needs to be at least two minutes of student summary. Once the student is done, there is also a handy glossary at the back defining all of the terms found in the text.

The book has a lot going for it, but it still has its flaws. The text does not get very deep into rhetoric, nor does it discuss the various types of arguments; however, that is why school districts hire us. This resource proves valuable for introducing the topics of rhetoric and argument.

The real gem in this text is the exercise set-up. For each unit in the guide, there are four final exercises. These exercises should just be labeled "climbing Bloom's ladder." In each sequence, the first exercise is called "Identification." These exercises ask the students to identify information that they have just learned. Next, they are asked to provide "Explanation" for something they have just learned. The third exercise calls on students to "Imitate" sound arguments, etc. Lastly, student's are asked to "Evaluate" certain examples based on their learning. Like I said, climbing the ladder.

The imitation piece will be the best part of the text for my students. As a composition teacher, getting my students to try new compositional techniques is difficult. The more chances I provide for them to imitate advanced composition techniques, the more likely they should be to try them out when it comes to essay/paper time.

All in all, I am pretty excited to try and integrate this resource into my classroom repertoire. I found this resource fairly helpful and I couldn't help sharing.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

On your mark...

It is almost here (and for some it is here). The school year is getting ready to begin.

When I first started doing this blog, I thought that it would be cool if there were an entry at the beginning of the school year where people posted either titles or links to some of the resources they use the most during the year. That is exactly what I am going to post here.


The English Teacher's Companion by Jim Burke:
A great resource for any level of experience. Chock full of great ideas and great tools for thinking and teaching.

Reading Reminders and Writing Reminders by Jim Burke
Two books that are very similar to The English Teacher's Companion, but broken down into between classes, at the copier, or after school chunks. Learning on the go.

Cohesive Writing by Carol Jago
I used to think good teaching of writing was hard. This book showed me just how easy it can be if you approach it systematically and in smaller steps.

Deeper Reading by Kelly Gallagher
If your students have trouble scratching the surface and looking beyond the text, this book has the strategies to get them into that deeper meaning. Very readable and instantly usable.

Voice Lessons and Discovering Voice by Nancy Dean
Goodbye pesky fears about helping students identify what makes an author's voice. Each exercise focuses on a specific facet of voice, has students answer questions about the effect of the specific facet, and then asks them to imitate the example. Instantly usable.


The People's Education website has a lot of materials for AP and non-AP classes. It can be found here.

The Applied Practice company has many supplemental materials to prepare students for just about any external assessment from the SAT to the AP exam. It can be found here.

There are a bunch of other good places to find resources. These are a few of the ones I've used extensively in the past. What resources do you run to when you are planning or are just plain stuck?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Argument and Teaching for a Democratic Society

In the latest installment of the Indiana Jones series, our unflappable archeologist tangles with a couple of South American grave guards, saving the life of his sidekick, Mutt Williams. Mutt, a rebellious youth, turns and looks at Jones in surprise as he surprises and kills one of the attackers. In his shock and awe, Mutt stammers, “You’re a teacher?!” “Part time,” Indy nonchalantly replies. We cannot all be globe-trotting archeologists who must constantly save the day, but we all must be just as tenacious in our pursuit of scholarly purpose as we are in the instruction of our students. After all, if I am simply a person who teaches the mechanics of writing, I am neither worthy of a pilgrimage nor ecstatic about my life. Our purpose may not be the stuff of cinematic epic, but that does not mean it isn’t important.

Too often, we are not active critics of ourselves as a community of scholars. This spring, I heard President of the University of Virginia John Casteen deliver the commencement address during the ceremony on the lawn at UVA. What President Casteen said was the lesson of two decades at the University of Virginia was that knowledge cannot exist without action. In the case of American education, our greatest action is the shaping of our democratic culture. When we are not careful, we destroy our democracy rather than improve access.

American education can be said to have the furthering of social justice and democratic equity at its core. In order to improve and defend democracy, we must understand what we mean when we refer to it. “Democracy,” as a term, is often the victim of warping and deliberate tampering. Democracy is about one undervalued thing: knowledge. Knowledge is power in the United States because our entire way of life is built upon the idea that power comes from language, specifically, the language of the American Constitution. Like a cruel joke, our founding fathers set us up with a system of government based on contention, competition, and constant adversarial conflict. Thomas Jefferson, one of the earliest proponents of public education said it best:

“The basis of our government being opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

This oft-quoted idea is the key to the convergence of the teacher as monk and minister. We must seek to reach our students from the perspective of the expert of knowledge; like a monk in medieval monastery, we must dedicate ourselves to constant scholarship. We must also interact with students, guiding them to an understanding of how this content can help them direct and shape their lives. The result of this approach to teaching is the capability that Jefferson refers to above. We teach students so that they can become models of democratic citizens, citizens whose need and love for equity encompasses not just who they know, but what they know. The strength in our way of life is the strength of our schools, a universal and well-rounded educational program that equally engages all the interests and needs of a person.

John Dewey said that “Education…is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” In a democratic society, that living is based on its deepest and most strongly held convictions. There can be no understanding of these values if the student lacks a wide base of cultural knowledge. Math, science, English, and Social Studies are all essential, but they are not enough. Small Engine Repair, Graphic Imaging, Choir, and Visual Art are also essential, and necessary to draw complete pictures of ourselves. John Dewey realized that “education proceeds by the participation of the individual in the social consciousness of the race”; thus, an education cannot take place where the individual has not been given the ability to access the social consciousness of the society at large. If the individual has no means by which to engage the corps of society, then that corps remains sacrosanct, untouchable, unimpeachable.

The single largest unifying element of American culture is our unique Constitution; however, as well-known author and scholar Neil Postman said, “the American Constitution is not a catechism, but a hypothesis.” Consider the recent economic collapse. Newspapers, magazines, and books have addressed the murky economic moves that led us to this mess because we, as a democratic society, have a social duty to understand the problem and repair the damage. I don’t know the differences between economics and accounting, but I do understand how to read. In reading about the economic collapse, I have learned what went wrong, where, when, why, who was involved, and how it grew from the first moment to the inevitable fall. Am I an expert? No, but I have let them inform me and I have made my own opinions. Most importantly, I can structure a persuasive argument to convince others of the correctness of my position.

Democratic society exists to pursue the common interests of those who live within it; that pursuit suggests argumentation because we must come to some consensus of what those common interests are. These societies only work when these ideals are considered more worthy than the people who argue about them. If Ad hominem is more enticing than the reduction of poverty in our cities, then we have lost sight of the spirit that makes US society so unique. If we spend time bickering about the virtues of this politician over that, as though we were preparing for a fantasy legislation league, then we have belittled the aspirations of those audacious statesmen who entrusted us with an experiment in cohabitation that has not yet been equaled in human history. If we allow our emotional response to cloud our rational humanism, then our society of law ceases to keep us safe and sets us up to become the victims of the shadows in our cognitive processes.

So, we must seek to teach the critical nature of every subject we teach. The history teacher must teach historical inquiry, not the recitation of facts. The math teacher must teach mathematical reasoning, not just how to get an answer. The science teacher must teach unrestrained curiosity, not just what is already known. The English teacher must teach the pursuit of knowledge, not just how to read a novel or write an essay, and the best ways to express that which we believe to be true. We must ask ourselves if the ways we teach serve the critical development of the student, and, if not, how we must change. Democracy is about placing the ideal above the individual while respecting as many individuals as we can; people cannot learn to respect something larger than themselves if no one ever teaches them that these things matter, or how to tell the difference. If we are to teach to serve our democratic society, we must teach as both monks and ministers, guiding our students on the path to being proficient learners and rhetors.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Toulmin and Howard Zinn

This most recent issue of English Journal is chock full of Toulmin. Many of the articles use Toulmin, others reference his name, but it seems like he is somewhere on every page. With a theme like logic and critical thinking, Toulmin is a natural choice for discussing how we can get our students to approach logical thought. Last year, my colleague and I came up with a great lesson featuring Toulmin and their summer reading, A People's History of the United States by the late Howard Zinn.

There is a bit of deep background on how we came up with the lesson. The year before this past year, a parent in the community raised an objection to the use of Howard Zinn's text as assigned summer reading. This person cited Zinn's wearing-my-Marxism-on-my-sleeve approach to history as offensive. My colleague stated that this attitude is essential for students because it is so very contrary to what they have been taught in the past; or, as Vygotsky would say, the students were being placed in a zone of proximal development. They came back from the summer, primed and looking for an intellectual fight.

The trouble was...what would they fight about? Were they focused on the point-of-view Zinn was putting forward, or were they simply miffed about some of the things Zinn said? More often than not, especially considering our proximity to Washington, D.C. and Quantico, the students just saw Zinn as an "unpatriotic jerk." What about his service to his country? What about his years in the classroom, educating American students? The questions start flowing back at us. the inevitable question is: "Well, who's right?"

That was when we decided to do a lesson called, with apologies to Capital One, "What's in Your Wallet?" Students are broken out into groups of about 4-5. They are given a sheet of paper with details on it, such as:

Brown Leather
Pictures of a woman and two children
Pictures of a Porsche
Pictures of a beach house
Three $100 Bills
Two $50 Bills
Ten $20 Bills
Business Card for Accounting Firm
Three Credit Cards from different companies

They are then asked to interpret the contents of the "wallet" and tell the class about the person who owned it. This is where Toulmin comes in. Students usually want to say something like this guy is a stuck-up business man who cares more about his possessions than his family, or something very similar. We ask them to provide the data that support this claim. Then we ask them to provide the warrant that links the data to the claim. When they do this, they suddenly realize how pre-programmed they are to jump to conclusions rather than look for what they can actually see. Looking at the process of stating a claim, examining the data, and analyzing the warrant helps students to go back to the Zinn book with a critical eye.

We build on the concept after that, but this gets the students thinking in terms of what can be proven to be true with the data, but also what else can be proven true. They begin to view history as the interpretation of a set of data that can be interpreted in radically different ways. This realization increases both their willingness to read history and their ability to read critically.

How do you encourage critical thinking in your classrooms? What connections do you try to emphasize when you teach logic? I look forward to the conversation.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Education vs. Training - To Think, Learn, or Both?

As teachers of English, we know words have power. The two that lead this post are two I have been thinking about a lot lately. Let me explain why.

I did not have TV for a number of years. My wife and I had trouble with our cable provider and, since no resolution could be reached, we turned in our equipment and said see ya later. That was two and a half years ago. (I find it interesting in a country run on a "free market system" that we could not get cable from any other provider unless we moved miles from where we were. Just a side thought.)

In any case, when we moved into our home in May, we had TV connected. (This was mainly for guests. You won't believe, when you have not TV, how many people will come visit and ask about the TV. "You don't watch any TV?" "Some DVDs." "No cable?" "Wow." [Insert shaking head].)

Since the box has been back on, I've been distracted, not by gratuitous sex, violence, and police procedurals, but by commercials for the University of Phoenix online. The crux of many of these commercials has been that the University of Phoenix has technology...and they know how to use it. Oh, and they have professors who still work in their field. (Feels a little bit like the old "can vs. do" argument.)

Believe it or not, I started asking myself questions about these commercials. I know what you are thinking: This stuff gets this guy thinking...whatever. The commercial goes on and emphasizes the University of Phoenix's ability to make people ready for careers in the 21st century. That is what got me. Is that why we get an education? We learn Shakespeare, the quadratic equation, the scientific method, and Pearl Harbor so that we can get that cubicle with the view?

If we look at an education as solely job training, we serve a false idol. The student who will become the CPA for Microsoft probably doesn't need Shakespeare. The student who works as a preschool teacher probably doesn't need the quadratic equation. The student who will stay-at-home probably doesn't need the scientific method. The student who will do research on non-Hodgkins lymphoma probably doesn't need to know about Pearl Harbor. I only have one question: Who are we to decide that students should not be exposed to certain cultural capital?

On the TV today, I saw an episode of Cash Cab featuring two of the most vapid people I have ever seen. When asked what "level-headed pamphlet" Thomas Paine wrote, the gentlemen in the cab were stumped. They used a "mobile shout-out" and called a friend of theirs who had Dr. in front of his name. What did these three gentlemen give as the answer to that question? You guessed it...The Declaration of Independence.

This all leads me to what I think I will use as a theme for the month of August. As we get ready to (duhn duhn duhn) go back to school, I am going to make each of my posts focus on the relationship of content knowledge to critical thinking.

Education has, at its heart, the goal of encouraging critical thinking skills. Training is about knowledge alone. If I am training for a certificate, I am not being educated; rather, I am being inducted into a set of terms, ideas, and concepts related to a specific field. When I am receiving an education, I am learning to seek knowledge and do something with it. When I say "do something" I mean in a way that will affect that body of knowledge. I worked at a school once where a colleague's nephew, a lawyer, was published in a prominent legal journal. The article talked about a particularly difficult legal matter; he used a literary allusion to Scylla and Charybdis in the title. Not only did he communicate his point, but he did it with style.

On the other side of the issue, there are people who say that we don't need to teach knowledge, but how to think. If we follow this logic, the thinking becomes very difficult. What are we to think of if we have not learned what things are. But seriously, the argument on this side is that students graduate with a lot of facts, but no context. The context and the abilities to synthesize and evaluate information are the hallmarks of higher-order thought. Teach those skills, they say. Who can argue with that.

So, as we get ready to (duhn duhn duhn) go back to school, I will ask this question: How much of our content do we give up to focus on critical thinking skills? What should our focus really be? If we teach thinking skills instead of knowledge, can we blame anyone but ourselves for the shallow thoughts that result? I don't know, but I look forward to the discussion.