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.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

This will make you laugh

by Tara Seale

It is the last week of July. Summer is slipping away, so I am sharing three videos that make me laugh and also remind me so much of my students.

This first video is a dramatic reading of a break up letter. I wonder if I could get this guy to create dramatic readings of some my students' writings. There are a few swear words in the video, so I decided to just post a link and not embed the video: A Dramatic Reading of A Real Break Up Letter.

This second video is an older SNL skit in which Jerry Senfield is a history teacher. You will recognize some of the students in the classroom, and it is sure to make you chuckle. If you have trouble viewing the video below, you can also view it at this link: Jerry Senfield SNL Skit

This last video is a funny rap about Arlington, VA. Although it really has nothing to do with students, school, or classrooms, it could be used as a project in a classroom. I can just see a funny, parody rap video of Maycomb, AL. Students would really have to understand the setting and characters of To Kill a Mockingbird to create a video like the one below.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

AP Annual Conference 2010 - Part 1

This past week-end, a murder of AP teachers descended upon the Marriott Wardman Park and Omni Shoreham Hotels in Washington, D.C. to pick over each other’s brains. These teachers were gleaning all they could from the 2010 AP Annual Conference. I attended, representing my school as an AP English Language teacher. By virtue of my focus, many of my observations will be couched in terms of that course’s sessions; however, there were many other events going on, too. I will do my best to give a fair reporting of what went on. Perhaps others who attended could reply to this posting and put forth their views on the conference.

My conference experience began on Thursday. I attended the Pre-conference session for AP English Language: Experienced. The presenter was very informative and helped everyone really dig into what a synthesis essay does and how to better prepare students for it. I’d never really considered using novels as a jumping-off point for a synthesis essay. The process was very easy.

First, you have to read the novel (I’m sure this is not surprising). Then, do the whole literary-theme talk with your students. Consider The Great Gatsby. One of its most prominent themes is the decay of the American Dream (love those cheery modernists). What you would do is select a passage from the novel, find some other short pieces that embody that theme, and develop a prompt on the theme.


“Many Americans work their entire lives to make their dreams into reality. Using the passage on page such-and-such to page what-not, develop an essay in which you assess to what extent American society still promotes the successful pursuit of dreams. Use the supplementary documents to support your argument.”

Perhaps you include Lou Gehrig’s “luckiest man” speech. The man lauds aspiration and hard work in a very humble and refreshing way; however, he is being cruelly robbed of his dream by the very mechanism that helped him attain it. The comparisons draw themselves.

The actual conference started on Friday. On the first day, I attended three sessions (which were hard to select based on the incredible selection): a session on the results of the AP Language Exam, a phenomenal session on teaching satire, and a session on teaching irony in a vertical team (Pre-AP through AP Literature and Composition).

The session on the test was helpful in recognizing the places where students are still struggling. In particular, the presenters mentioned that students need help on:

1. Archaic Prose

2. Argument

3. Writing Exam Answers vs. Writing Exam Essays

The archaic prose piece is about comprehension and analysis; specifically, if students cannot comprehend the text, they probably cannot analyze it. There was a suggestion made about using the 2006 Free Response Question from William Hazlitt’s “On the Want of Money” to help students understand what they might come up against. One of the presenters stated that a three-column chart (Headings of “Rhetorical Moves,” “Effect,” and “Exigence” (or how the move and effect tie into the overall purpose), helps his students develop a method for approaching archaic text.

In the realm of argument, the presenters suggested a focus on anticipating the “naysayer” and integrating deep examples. One presenter even said that he frequently tells his students that one deep example is more effective than three shallow ones. When anticipating the “naysayer,” writers are simply thinking about what someone else could say to the argument they are writing. The idea is that thinking this way will help students to determine if they have fully and deeply explained their ideas.

When answering the synthesis and the argument question, students need to write an essay; in other words, they must construct a strong, fully-formed composition that fully illustrates a point. The presenters mentioned that many students try to do this for the rhetorical analysis, too, but that it is not necessary. Now, that doesn’t mean throw essay writing conventions to the wind, but it does mean that students need to focus more on explaining the rhetorical moves a writer makes, the effects they have, and the overall purpose of the way the piece is written (that chart again). The emphasis for the rhetorical analysis is heavily weighted on analysis and less so on written style of the essay.

That was the pre-conference workshop and the review of the exam results. I am going to distill my notes from the other sessions and post those separately. In the meantime, feel free to post your reactions to this information or ways that you tackle writing and rhetoric in your classrooms.

And a final question I have been wrestling with from before the conference: Should rhetoric and writing be the focus in the classroom of regular grade-level courses? We don’t have these ideas in the Virginia standards, but I don’t see the point in withholding information students will be asked about in freshman composition. What do you think?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Common Core and the 21st Century Student

by Tara Seale

On June 15, 2010, The Learning Institute brought a panel of experts to the Bryant School District to discuss the National Common Core Standards. Educators and educational leaders in Arkansas attended the event to listen to Carol Jago and Dr. Sandra Stotsky discuss the English Language Arts Common Core and Dr. Stephen Wilson and Nancy Livingston discuss the Mathematics Common Core.
NCTE President Carol Jago's presentation focused on the 21st Century student. She said that webpages are teaching us to read in an F pattern. We read across the top, down the side, across the middle, and down the side again. Quick skimming works for online content, but not for great works of literature. Jago also referred to an advertisement that said, "Read Less, Know More." I Googled this ad and found out that it is the slogan for a company called Newser. I am not sure if this is the same ad that Carol Jago referred to, but it seems like it could be. Newser summarizes news stories for people who do not want to struggle through a lengthy article in the New York Times but only want to know the gist of the article as summarized by an employee from Newser. The founder of Newser, Michael Wolff, claims that he is going to put newspapers out of business, which seems to contradict the strategy of his business enterprise. You can view Mr. Wolff explaining the value of Newser in this CNBC interview below.

Carol Jago said that this generation may be too distracted to read. She provided a handout that included startling statistics from the Kaiser Family Foundation Study, such as, the average 8-18 year old spends approximately 7 1/2 hours utilizing electronic media during a 24 hour period. Carol Jago claimed that our youth is paying a "mental price" as they "twitter away their focus," but the National Common Core Curriculum may provide some hope by bringing what Mark Bauerlein called the The Dumbest Generation back into focus. Jago shared several lessons aligned with the National Common Core Curriculum that would force students to focus. For example, she used artwork from Jacob Lawrence This is a Family Living in Harlem and the poem "Those Winter Sundays" by Robert Hayden to compare the details and images used by the artist and poet. This lesson corresponds with the National Common Core Reading Standard for Grades 9-10:Literature on page 38 of the Common Core:

7. Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment (e.g. Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts" and Breughel's Landscape with the fall of Icarus).

In my classroom, I've discovered that this multi-tasking generation would prefer not to focus and would rather read short snippets and move on, but when provided direction and encouragement, students maintain concentration as they try to decipher difficult text, and the Common Core looks promising for providing a curriculum that encourages students to deepen their comprehension. Unfortunately, this skill is threatened by Newser and other 21st Century distractions. If Newser has its way and manages to change an entire generation into skimmers who let others do the heavy thinking, I wonder who they will employ to condense those lengthy articles?

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Podcast Interview Script

by Tara Seale

Have you ever asked a student to write a script for a podcast or a video? I have, and most students want to get started now and avoid the actual script writing process... you know... they wing it.

Winging it rarely works, but occasionally, it is best to let 9th graders learn from mistakes. Well, maybe more than occasionally since doing it on their own and creating a mess seems to be what most teens choose to do regardless of directions and advice; of course, the students who see the value in script writing always perform better and receive a higher grade. Usually students who do not spend time creating a worthy script will ask for a re-do after they have viewed better presentations from more prepared groups, and I assure them that they will have a future opportunity in my classroom. I always hope it becomes a learn from mistakes lesson, but sometimes lessons have to be repeated.

Recently, I decided to join a trio that includes myself and two co-workers in a podcast about technology and education. We are still working on our first podcast idea, but I decided to write out a script for what I would contribute. As adults, we realize the value of script writing as opposed to winging it. We are in the process of merging our ideas for our first podcast and creating a podcast name that includes something catchy, hopefully with alliteration.

I thought I would publish my rough script contribution here so that the readers of this blog would see what I consider worthy to contribute to our first podcast. This script is my first attempt. I haven't merged my co-podcasters' ideas with mine yet, so I know I will revise. The final script may not even resemble what I have shared, but I see value in the information below, so I wanted to share it with all of you.

Name: Tara Seale

Employed: Bryant Schools - high school English teacher & part-time tech specialist

Credentials: GCT, NCTE Blogger, wrote an official Google Blog post, & recognized in an edu magazine: NEA Today.

Why am I doing this podcast? To help Tait and Mark because they haven’t published an official Google post or been recognized in any magazines. Ha! Actually, they are the people who keep Bryant technology up and running & I couldn’t do anything cool or 21st Century-isc in my class without their support and expertise. Behind every great teacher is an awesome tech department & Bryant has an awesome tech department, and we just owe it to the world to share our awesomeness.

Why am I excited about web 2.0? I started investigating Web 2.0 to understand the world that my students are a part of, and I guess I am a part of it to. Actually, all educators are a part of the new Web 2.0 world even if they understand it after the fact or never understand it at all... regardless... it is the reality of the 21st Century.
As I realized that the education system as a whole was an after the fact system, I wanted to be a part of the educators who anticipated the latest web 2.0 tools as they happened or even before the app or next web feature was invented, so I knew I needed to connect with educators who were out there finding out the latest information.
I knew I had joined the Web 2.0 Educator Geekdom Society when I tweeted out a great new web find and 20 people re-tweeted my tweet, and I yelled, “Yes!”

So what would I consider the best web tool for a 21st Century teacher? When I searched my brain for the best of the web, I immediately thought of all of the free Google tools available for my students and myself, but if I really wanted to explore how I learned about all of the free Google apps, I would have to say Twitter played a large role. So picking just one tool right now, although it is difficult, I would have to tell teachers, get a Twitter Account.

Why? Twitter is the one connective device that has allowed me to get to know other teachers across the globe. I can even remember the first time someone from another country commented on something I posted. It was an amazing moment for me. An Australian teacher told me that she liked my last tweet and had also read my blog. I had to take a double take and think about it. Was that teacher really from Australia? Since then, I have followed and communicated with many teachers from Australia and other countries. I can remember the first time I responded to something Sue Waters tweeted, who is probably one of the best known Australian educators (she is the Edublogger), and Sue Waters responded back to my Tweet, so cool.
Twitter is an incredible tool, but it is just a partial tool that really requires tweetdeck, seesmic, or another advanced twitter feature in order to operate efficiently. When I talk to a teacher who is new to Twitter and trying to connect and communicate with other teachers on twitter, I realize that Twitter alone is just not enough, but I also know that baby steps are needed. First, an educator needs to understand the basic principals behind Twitter, the Web 2.0 tool before they can venture into adding a twitter app to their iphone and start re-tweeting, shortening URL’s, etc... Probably the best starting point for a teacher on Twitter is to read the Twitter Teacher’s Guide by Donna Cox from Queensland, Australia. I obviously have a fondness for Australian educators.
Teachers tell me all of the time... who has time for that (Twitter)? And, I know they are correct because it took a good month for me to understand and begin to tweet effectively, but once I realized how Twitter worked, I knew I had a gold mine. The secret is not to let it take over everything. I see it as a river of incredible information. I jump in when I have time to swim around, and then I head for the shore and dry off when I need to get back to my husband, kids, and personal life. I know I am missing the great ideas circulating out there in the Twitterverse, but I also know the ideas are endless. They will still be there the next time I jump in.

Who do I follow? If someone follows me, and he or she is a teacher, I follow them back. Occasionally, I am on vacation or busy with school, and I do not have time to shift through the people who are following me, but I do try to follow every educator who follows me. It is impossible to read all of the tweets of the people I follow, so I use twitter lists, groups, and hashtags to shift through all of the tweets coming my way. For educators new to Twitter, I would suggest going to: and following teachers or educators in the area you are most interested in teaching.
My Twitter ID is @tseale

Dan Bruno's Twitter ID (the other NCTE Blogger) is: @Daedalus605

Click here to Follow Carol Jago on Twitter

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Future is...Overcast?

The future is usually portrayed as a dystopic nightmare of oppression and limited freedom. In Max Barry’s novel Jennifer Government, the future is dystopic, but very livable. You see the government, that stalwart body of justice, law, and order, is now privatized. Nothing can be done unless the revenue is raised to do it. Someone kills your loved one; you better have the money to mount a trial. Of course, the power in this world has become vested in those places that have the most money, corporations. So the battle-lines are drawn—the government takes on the corporations with unadulterated fervor.

And they need to be opposed. The corporations, bearing their actual names (a genius device), gives guerrilla marketing a whole new, almost literal, meaning. From the murder of fourteen teenagers to sell shoes to the attempts to assassinate the government president, the corporations will stop at nothing to gain that niche market. There are even alliances of companies that use the NRA (yes, that NRA) to wage war on each other. Amid all of this corporate chaos, Jennifer Government emerges to restore order, or at least snag the bad guy behind it all.

The names are where Barry’s genius really emerges. As I said before, Barry uses actual corporation names. Nike sells shoes, the NRA sells its services as corporate mercenaries, ExxonMobil launches a computer virus to cripple Shell. The list goes on and on. And the characters…Jennifer Government? She works for the government. John Nike. Violet (She is unemployed). Billy NRA. Claire Sears. Whichever corporation you work for is the last name you adopt; even if you transfer jobs. One minute you are Bob Nike, then you are Bob Wal-Mart. The eeriest aspect of this naming device is the schools. Schools are owned by corporations as well. Kate Mattel (Government) is Jennifer’s daughter.

This balance between our admiration for the larger-than-life heroes and our wariness at a society that owns our children is masterfully maintained throughout. One minute, you are rooting for Jennifer Government and her partner, Calvin. Then you are sympathizing with Billy NRA as his quest for finding a good skiing destination leads him further down the path to becoming a NRA assassin.

Perhaps the most chillingly balanced scene in the entire novel is near the beginning during the massacre at the Nike Town store. One of the characters, Buy Mitsui, a stockbroker, attempts to save a young girl who has been brutally shot in the back of the neck, all in an effort to sell more Nike shoes. As he tries to heroically staunch the bleeding, everyone else ignores his calls for help. Then the real scare starts. Buy dials 9-1-1 and tries to get an ambulance. He can’t get an ambulance mobilized unless he pays for it. Buy is more than willing to do so, but the operator requires pre-payment. The scene ends with Buy futilely reading his card number into the phone as the operator continuously messes it up while the girl bleeds out on the floor.

That darkness emerges frequently, but not nearly enough. One of the flaws of the novel is its tone. It is a satire, but, unlike Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, it never brings us to the edge of the abyss to let us sneak a peek. The latter portion of the novel gives way to raucous action sequences that bring up the ghosts of Riggs and Murtaugh more than Yossarian and Orr.

For all that distraction, we still get a smart critique of the culture of “capitalism” that seems to predict the real-life horrors we’ve seen in the past 4 years. Villains like John Nike are nothing more than fiction-clad Bernie Madoffs, bringing destruction through their own personal quests for more. As you turn the last page, you realize, with sudden satisfaction, that you’ve read a satire of capitalism that is willing to give that system a chance. The usual down-with-capitalism-socialism-will-save-us shtick gets old after the fifth time you teach 1984. Jennifer Government is a rollicking, fast-paced read with a smart economic bent. You’ll like it, and I bet students will, too.