Saturday, February 23, 2008

Killing Them Softly?

It all started with Billy Collins’ poem “Introduction to Poetry.” I read the poem to my third block class, and then asked them to spend a few minutes writing a response, reflecting on how they encountered poetry in school. They started their written reflections, but I couldn’t hold this conversation back. They wanted to talk. Students are taught to analyze poetry for rhyme scheme, meter, and literary devices. They’ve been asked to list countless metaphors, similes, and lines of alliteration. They’ve circled and defined vocabulary words. A few teachers have asked them to memorize Shakespearean sonnets. Some students suggested that poetry always seemed to be left for the end of the year, squeezed in during the last week - only if it fit.

The conversation changed directions when one student raised her hand and timidly suggested that school killed poetry. She has learned to hate poetry because she thought it was all about “digging for the hidden meaning.” Her voice was joined by an echoing chorus of agreement. The conversation grew as we started to talk about their experiences with reading in general. English class was all about “over analyzing” a work of literature, ripping apart the text, leaving it dissected on the page to expose some secret innards. Students thought their teachers saw secret symbols everywhere. When I asked the students what they thought the purpose of such activities were, a few voices volunteered the answer they thought I wanted to hear: “Because it teaches us to look at a text more critically.” And then one shy voice near the back of the room called out, “School’s not really about learning but more about adapting to particular teacher’s expectations. I interpret a text like my teacher tells me to.” My students felt that the purpose of school was to train individuals to be good at jumping through hoops. And this is where the real discussion began.

Their pent up frustration came flooding out, and the 10 minutes I had planned to spend on using Collins’ poem to introduce the need to balance glossing with an appreciation of literature, turned into a very meaningful 45 minute discussion on what my students felt about their educational experiences. The students felt that the purpose of school was to pump students full of expectations and discrete facts without encouraging any real learning to take place. They weren’t asked to come up with the problems; they were given them. They weren’t asked to discover any new solutions; they were told the answers. When I asked students how they could advocate for real learning opportunities in their classrooms, a girl who had been attentively following the conversation but hadn’t yet spoken volunteered that she thought honors students didn’t know how to rebel against such a system. After all, they had proved they were very good at working within it. It broke my heart to hear such frustration and sense of powerlessness.

Arthus Erea, a high school student in Vermont, expressed a similar sentiment in his recent post over at Students 2.0:
Frankly, I think schools are becoming far too business-like. Many of my peers often think of school as unpaid work. Of course, professionalism is continually emphasized as the highest principle for which students must strive. Schools even use the same reward/punishment system as the workplace: good grades = good job = $$$ and failing school = unemployment ≠ $$$. I think this is the core of what is wrong with schools: all students are expected to be professional students. That is, it is expected that we will only learn if we are forced to do so either because we desire the reward (grades) or fear the punishment (failing). In fact, this is setting up students to hate learning.
Many authors have written on the dangers of an educational system based on such bribery. Alfie Kohn's book Punishment by Rewards declares,

When we repeatedly promise rewards to children for acting responsibly, or to students for making an effort to learn something new, or to employees for doing quality work, we are assuming that they could not or would not choose to act this way on their own. If the capacity for responsible action, the natural love of learning, and the desire to do good work are already part of who we are, then the tacit assumption to the contrary can fairly be described as dehumanizing. (26)
Are schools killing our students’ desire to learn? In an educational system so focused on standards and high-stakes tests, teachers find it difficult to balance their required curriculum, already packed with multiple 500-page classic novels and units on every culture in Africa, with student-chosen reading materials and self-directed learning opportunities. Very few students have the opportunity to seek out information. They are given it. How can we encourage students to be life-long, self-motivated learners in a system that is not based on developing problem-solving skills but instead rewards students for regergitating facts? When the time crunch of the semester bares down on us, it is easier and faster to teach students functional knowledge (information that is memorized and repeated) rather than promote a conceptual understanding of the themes and ideas we are teaching. Our students know our curriculums, but do they understand what they have been taught?

The conversation with my students has me contemplating how much conceptual, self-motivated learning really takes place in my classroom. How much of a say do students have in exploring issues, developing questions, and searching for solutions on a daily basis? Even though I have been incorporating more student choice into assignments and using formative assessment techniques to guide how I teach, I know that I also rely on what might be considered traditional methods of teaching – give students the information on auxiliary verbs, ask them to memorize it, and test them on it. I struggle with my role as a teacher, attempting to find a balance between being a coach and being a conveyer of facts.

I believe there are somethings that we must just know (e.g. our times tables, that potato does not end in an "e", etc.). These are the functional bits of knowledge that students must know. However, I believe the learning that sticks with us is more concept-based, that is, a type that provides the broader conceptual framework holding together the various knowledge-bits. For example, in talking with a student not long ago, he explained that last year his math teacher not only taught students how to use pi in mathmatical equations but also had the students do experiments with a number of circles to prove that the ratio of the circumference to its diameter was indeed the same number, pi, each time. "I just thought it was a number that people memorized, but now I know why." It's the difference between knowing something and understanding it. When students in my class select an issue currently facing a non-western country to research and present to an audience outside of our classroom, they understand that particular issue and how it affects the culture in a much deeper way than I would ever have time to teach. The student poses the problem, seeks out the background research, proposes solutions, and presents the information in the hopes that change begins to happen on that issue. Students are engaged and invested in these types of learning opportunities. And in talking with my students the other day, they seem to be begging for these types of experiences.

Photo credit: dro!d on Flickr

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

I've Flipped!

I love my Flip! I first heard about the Flip at last November’s NCTE conference, and was later inspired by Bob Sprankle’s post titled "Caught of Video," which offers a number of intriguing ideas for using the camera in the classroom. So, I flipped for one (I couldn’t resist the pun) last week as my students were adapting their “This I Believe” essays into speeches. Last semester I video taped student speeches so that they would have an opportunity to critique their presentation skills and set goals for later presentations. Although the now classic VHS camcorder is nearly extinct (and I had the hardest time finding a place that still sold VHS tapes), it still is the easiest way to hand students a copy of their presentations the same day they complete them. Student gives speech, I video tape it, hit the eject button following the speech, and hand the student her tape. It takes a matter of minutes.

However, this semester I not only wanted to give students an opportunity to see their presentations, but also play around with presenting to a wider audience via the internet. The Flip camera made this easy. Student gives speech, I record it, plug my Flip into the USB port on my computer, and email the student a copy of her speech to both review and edit. Using this Flip, my students now have an opportunity to edit their video, adding music, text, or images. The students will then post their speeches to our Ning page where other students and our pen pals in Morocco, Liberia, and India will be able to view their speeches.

I’m not requiring this of every student. As the technology is still a bit new to me, I wanted to test it out first (and I’m not sure how I would email 80 or so student videos in one day). In addition, many students were hesitant to post their speeches on the net, with a majority opting to complete the critique of their speeches using VHS tapes. As today was the first day of taping, I’ll be curious to see which format students prefer most.

However, I see a great deal of potential in using this camera in the classroom. I see the use of video as a way for students to get more involved in the assessment process. Providing students with more opportunities to review their own performance will help them not only reflect on their progress but also make adaptations to their learning. As students watch videos of their speeches, or class discussions, of their group presentations, or writing conferences, they can reflect not only on their preparation for such tasks but also on their skills at communicating their ideas. This is especially important in an English classroom, where we often times focus intensely on reading and writing strategies to the detriment of communication skills. I see video as a way to help engage students in their metacognitive processes. So, needless to say, I love my Flip!

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Creating an Authentic Classroom

My second semester students are revising the third drafts of their “This I Believe” essays, adapting them into speeches. Earlier this year I decided to spend the first few days of class on something besides hokey introduction games and diatribes on my syllabus. Inspired by NPR’s weekly broadcast of short essays on the theme of belief, I created an introductory lesson that not only gets students talking and writing about their core beliefs, but they also start our class by exploring the values and ideas that separate and connect cultures.

Reading through their drafts over the last few days, I am again surprised and appreciative of just how much my students put of themselves into these essays. They open themselves up, expose their hearts, make themselves vulnerable, knowing full well that I will be asking them to share their writing with their classmates. My desk is scattered with hand-written drafts about the betrayal of a first love, neatly typed pages about the loss of a beloved pet. Students write about their faith in their fellow human-beings, their joy at finding happiness in even the smallest moments. I have a student who shares a heart-wrenching story about how she learned to trust again following what seemed insurmountable family problems, and another who writes of the debt we owe to the mentors that have lit our path.

This semester, I’m trying a few new twists with the assignment. Last semester, I had students not only present their essay as a speech to the class, but I also video-taped each student as a way to have students reflect on effective verbal and non-verbal presentation skills. I encouraged students to submit their essays to NPR and rewarded them with extra credit. And while both of these opportunities gave students a way to adapt their writing to a specific audience, they received limited feedback. This semester I’m going to give students a couple of options for how they present their essays to a specific audience.

Students will have an option of either presenting their speeches to the class or recording their presentations for a video podcast. Either way, the students will have an opportunity to review their presentation skills and set goals for later presentations. Additionally, for those that opt to complete the podcast, I’ll have the students post them to our Ward’s World Ning, where others in our class can view and comment on the presentations, allowing for even more feedback on their writing and presentation skills. The added incentive will be that these podcasts will also act as an introduction for our pen pals from Morocco, India, and Liberia who will also be accessing our Ning.

My goal is to find more ways for students to write and interact with authentic audiences. I feel very fortunate to have access to technology in my classroom that makes it possible for me to facilitate connections between my students and those all over the world. I see these connections as a way for students to put a face on their world, increasing the potential for future connections. And not only are my students making those connections, but so am I. We are learning together, and isn't that what an authentic classroom should look like?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Earth Hour

Recently, a friend fowarded me information about Earth Hour, a simple idea for reducing our environmental footprint. Last year people in Sydney, Australia, took a stand against Global Warming by dedicating one hour when everyone turned off their lights. Major landmarks, bridges, businesses, communities-2.2 million people turned off their lights for an hour. In just that one hour, 10.2% of the city's energy use was reduced-the equivalent of taking 48,000 cars off the road.

This simple act of turning off the lights for one hour caught the world's attention. As a result, on March 29, 2008 at 8pm millions of people in some of the world's major cities, including Copenhagen, Toronto, Chicago, Melbourne, Brisbane, and Tel Aviv will unite and switch off for Earth Hour.

We need to promote awareness about climate change, and this is a wonderful way to start. Find out more at Earth Hour. And spread the word!

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Good Deed, Good Search

GoodSearch: You Search...We Give!

One of my students passed this to me, and now I’m passing it on to you. is a search engine with heart. You select from a large collection of non-profit agencies (or add one of your own), and with each search item you enter or item you purchase via the site, you are donating to your designated charity. Change your search habits and change the world, one search at a time!

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