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


ThePlaz said...

Hey, Ms. Ward, I had no idea you were doing this! I actually found your blog through your comment on Arthus's. (I've posted a long comment on Arthus's blog about this topic).

I've subscribed to your blog and will be reading back entries.
-Michael Plasmeier

Penelope said...

I admire what you're doing as it is to try and bring that kind of education in the classroom. It's a balance I'm having a ton of trouble finding myself...I don't know how to talk about without sounding like someone whining about curriculum, but the kids are right. They jump through hoops for 12 years and that is somehow supposed to prepare them for the real world? Not so much.

Anonymous said...

Hey, another Jennifer Ward! That's my name too, and I teach 7/8th grade social studies. I just started blogging too so I'm trying to find more resources out there!

Dawn said...

I homeschool my kids at least in part because of the issues outlined in your post. When I first started the homeschooling I thought I was a radical thinker. The more I branch out into reading teacher blogs, education blogs, parents blogs, and now accoutns of what students think the more I realize there are a whole lot of us out there that are frustrated with conventional education.

John A said...

Well... not news, I am sure the pupils of Plato had some of the same complaints.

ranting . . .
My own, reflected by your students, is the constant search for unstated meaning in poetry and some poesy): as I asked one teacher circa 1961, if the author meant that why the blue blazes did he not SAY that? It would be years before I would hear Arthur Clarke admit that he did not know what he was trying to say in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I also asked why an occasional Ogden Nash was not merely belittled but not allowed at all. And spare me the Victorian-era novelists - Hawthorne was a decent writer, but more than three pages describing the blackness of a kettle is an obvious padding for the sake of the paid-for-by-word work. And Shakespeare could be used to show some large differences society has undergone (his audience found nothing strange about Othello nor do today`s youth, but it was strange to my mother`s generation to have an African hero, even a tragic one) - and spare us the pieties about his "writing for the ages" - like Homer, his writing survives because he gave audiences what they (and the powers-that-were, as with Richard III vs Henry) wanted and did it better than 99.97 percent of authors, not because he was writing for 21st-century teens.

Jennifer Ward said...

Plaz and Jennifer -
Thanks for stopping by! Very cool to make some new connections.

I'm in the same boat. I've been trying this semester to embrace more of conversations that happen in the moment rather than move past them to keep all my classes at the same spot. I am really struggling this semester with finding that balance between what is required and what is useful, between teaching content and teaching skills. This seems to be a problem that many educators seem to be struggling with these days given how many blog posts are out there about teaching for the 21st century. Unfortunately, I have more questions than answers!

Jennifer Ward said...

Thanks for your perspective! I've actually had a number of students over the past two years who were homeschooled up until high school, but then transitioned into our district. I've had a number of interesting conversations about the differences and similarities between learning in these two environments.

I think you're right. Plato/Socrates had some similar reactions to education during his time, his students most certainly would have too. I also like how you question literature. This is my hope for students. I hope they approach literature with a critical and questioning eye. I hope they walk out of my classroom knowing that there are no easy answers to interpreting literature, it is an individual and personal process (and I also agree Hawthorne can be a bit tedious at times, but Dickens is worse!).

Jennifer Ward said...

Whew! Fellow blogger Joanne Jacobs posted part of my article on her site, and it's stimulated quite the conversation. Check it out at

Clix said...

What I'm hearing from your report of your students' discussion is that they are frustrated because schools don't teach them what they want to learn. They seem to think that mastering current facts, problems, and solution theories is not "real learning."

In this, they're wrong, but the mistake is understandable. Teachers need to be much more open with students about the work they do, the skills they are attempting to master, and the utility of those skills.

The ability to figure out what others expect of you is an important skill not only in school (and later a career), but in any sort of relationship - work, romance, friendship, family, etc. Students who try to ignore this will harm themselves.

Jennifer Ward said...

Clix - I'm not sure that the students were frustrated simply with learning information they were not interested in, though I'm sure that is in part where the conversation started. Their real frustration came out when they talked about being asked to repeatedly do the same task, in this case circle metaphors in poems, in third grade, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and so on, without taking it a step further. Their frustration came with repeating the same foundational steps year after year without moving forward and engaging in the higher order thinking skills required of analysis and interpretation.

My students seemed to be asking why such discrete tasks were important, which as you suggest, would be more meaningful if teachers shared not just their expectations for learning, but helped students make connections between the learning activity and the skills the activity is designed to develop within the student. I agree with you that it is an important skill for students to navigate the expectations of others; however, I am suggesting that this should not be the only skill developed by the activities we plan for our students.

Anonymous said...

Hey there,

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Hope all is well.


Laura(southernxyl) said...

I grew up in a very small town, one high school, 110 in my graduating class. There weren't enough of us to track, really. I remember drearily rerunning the rules of punctuation every single year from 6th grade on ... and I got it the first time. Some of my classmates never did, even to the bitter end.

My daughter attended a school with a good honors program and did move past all that stuff. In her senior year her Eng. Lit AP teacher worked the daylights out of the class. They read more stuff, and harder stuff, and wrote way more essays, than I did in my college honors Eng. Lit class. She ate it up. Freshman year of college she hit the wall with a teacher who went all the way back to automatically marking off points for passive voice ... yes, even for "his work was included in X anthology". With a 5 on her AP exam, I don't know why she had to take that class except that all students have to be tortured equally, I guess.

Jennifer Ward said...


I think my perspective is very much informed by my background as well. I, too, attended a very small, almost rural high school, graduating with only 99 students. I had a very similar experience to yours.

Now I find myself teaching in a much larger high school (approximately 1800 students total) with a defined honors curriculum, which I teach in. I teach the tenth grade honors World Literature course which leads most students to an AP course like your daughter had.

I think the foundations are important (I teach grammar and punctuation throughout the semester), but what I've found is that it is important to help show students why those foundational skills are important to higher-order thinking tasks.

It's too bad that your daughter felt she was moving backward with her first college comp. class. I hope her other literature courses were more engaging. =)

loonyhiker said...

Great post! I always wondered if teachers knew what standards they had to teach, why they couldn't fit in to what students desired to learn. If they were learning something that they felt relevant, they would be more engaged. It sounds like your open discussion actually opened their minds and freed them from letting these thoughts fester and interfere with learning.

The J-man said...

Ms Ward!
I started a blog. Take a guess!

Here's your hint:
hsoj si ygrene
(read it like ada would :)

Jennifer Ward said...

J-man - great hint Josh! Where will I find your blog?

The J-man said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

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