Friday, July 29, 2005

Getting Parents Involved

I have to admit that one of the aspects of elementary schoool teaching that never appealed to me was dealing with parents in the classroom on a regular basis. It just seemed that there was too much that could go wrong in these situations. Plus, as the parent of a ten year old, I've heard enough bus stop conversations about certain teachers to be thankful that I teach high school. Still, although teens certainly need to become more independent, I've come to believe that parents are extremely important element in their child's education even in high school. It's a time that while giving them more freedom they can get involved in other ways. A lot of research on the subject is summarized here, and while much of it concerns elementary school students, there is a considerable number of studies that show that high school students (especially before senior year) benefit as well. According to one study, "parents' educational expectations and encouragement were by far the most important type of family pratice" (Catsambis 93). Another found that schools who contacted parents about how they could get involved or help their child were view more positively (Sanders, et al 162-163) and they all seem to point to parent-school partnerships as a largely untapped and important resource. But none of them seem to examine a more direct approach to parents and the classroom.

I tried inviting parents to contribute their experience and expertise last year in my American Studies class that combines Sophmore English withUS II (American History from1920 to the present). The idea was to get both students and their parents contribute to the content of the course and have a voice in what was happening in the classroom. Although my teaching partner and I know the material very well, I'm sure the 27 students and their parents have interests and experiences that could have greatly added to the content. At the same time, we were hoping that this would lead to the students being more engaged in the content, and their parents being more involved in their school work as well. Unfortunately, as I've refered to in other posts, only a few parents actually participated. I would like to try and approach this in a slightly different way. First, we could introduce the weblog and the idea at the beginning of the course (rather than in the middle) and explain it further at back to school night. And although idealistically, I would like to leave participation in the weblog as voluntary, I might have to require students to participate to some extent.

Finally, perhaps each student can be responsible for presenting a lesson on a topic that they have an interest in or their family has a unique relationship to. Maybe they have a grandparent that was present at a battle in WWII, or their grandmother worked in a factory during this time. They could conduct an interview and show pictures and artifacts. Perhaps the student is a musician and would like to present changes in the electric guitar and it's impact, or one of their parents grew up in Levittown (like me) and can present pictures and artifacts to illustrate it's importance and impact. This could also end up relating in some way to their research paper. We could get kids thinking about this early on by completing a survey on the interests and experiences of themselves and their family members.

Has anyone tried anything like this? Does it seem worthwhile? Will the involvement of parents serve to limit the participation of some kids or will it be a positive thing? Are most parents interested in being this involved or do they think it better to let the kids do things on their own at this age?

Alternatives to teaching to the test

This article in the New York Times has created a lot of discussion on the Teachers and Writers listeserve. It illustrates how reliance on the five-paragraph essay, as mandated by testing, is leaving little time to work on other important aspects of writing, such as developing voice, and is in fact killing the creativity and sophisticated thinking that a good writing program encourages. Some on the listserve go so far as to call for teachers to take action and fight NCLB testing practices. They point to websites here and here that have gathered support to make changes.

Here's some excerpts from the ongoing listserve discussion:
Fostering individual creativity will do much more to move our society forward than any homogenization of the whole.
While I am not blind to the merits of a well conceived brief essay, it seems that the form has become prized out of all relationship with its actual function. In my mind, it has become an academic model, nothing more.
I feel the pain of my students EVERY DAY--it is really doing a lot of psychological damage.
The idea of prewriting on something I care nothing about, drafting on something I care nothing about, revising and editing ON MY OWN WITHOUT PEER INPUT, and then publishing a piece I care nothing about on a topic I care nothing about, with improvements I literally had no time to think about making (giving a writer minutes to edit and revise amounts to no time at all), etc. all this is mind boggling to gifted writers.

These are all excellent points, but I do believe it is possible for talented teachers to infuse real writing practices and techniques into the curriculum and then relate them to the five-paragraph essay. Writing with authentic voice, developing short scenes (including characters and dialogue), and using vivid details are all techniques that should contribute to an excellent essay. The problem of course is the time limit and formula kids have to work within. At my school we've done an excellent job teaching the essay, and now it's time we moved beyond it. I admit this can be difficult especially with everything else that must be covered Freshman and Sophomore years.

Here's one interesting approach (posted on the listserve) to writing and the essay that might have potential, especially for my interdisciplinary 10th grade course.
This year in my seventh-grade language arts classes, we took a conversational approach to literature and writing from a democratic perspective focusing on social justice. We began the year with conversations about life, who they were, how they are known, and what perpetuates this identity of groups and individuals. Discovering it was language that helps construct our identity, we began to look at how it does this. Conversations of students in small groups were taped and later analyzed using a conversational analysis. Students transcribed parts, identified key components of the conversations, noted patterns, and observed vocabulary.

In the meantime, our conversations and readings focused on topics such as freedom vs. equality, maturity, school issues, etc.... These were then related to the conversations to see if our class was democratic or not.

While analyzing transcripts, students observed how they sound in a conversation.Realizing they didn't speak in "formal" English, they transformed their conversations in to formal. This gave us ample opportunity to discuss grammar, word choice, etc... that spilled into their writing.

Overriding all of this was a focus on the language (vocabulary) of our trade. We needed to understand the meanings of the terms we used, not just memorize a definition and repeat it. We re-learned what a sentence was, what a verb was, what a subject was, and what characteristics made them that. Students were asked to analyze words and sentences, and explain the answer they gave.

We spent two weeks reviewing for the spring standardized tests. Only the county test for promotion has been scored and returned. Only one student out of 120 did not pass the LA section. Students in special ed., ESOL, and "regular" ed. classes all performed with phenomenal scores.

What do you think? Any other ideas or responses to the effects of testing on student writing?

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

What they want; what they need

Read this article in my local paper recently about how parents are overscheduling their kids' lives. What really caught my attention was the headline (Experts Say It's OK for kids to be Bored) which I put on the refridgerator for my 10-year old son and his friends to see, and this quote from a parent: "So much depends on the child, what they want and what they need," she said. Her daughter, Jacqueline, 12, is scheduled to be tutored five mornings a week during the summer but reserves the afternoons for fun. "I want her to get a jump-start on school. I think a lot of parents want that for their kids, especially in such an academically competitive area like this."
She's right. The area I live in and teach in are academically competitive. I certainly see this as a classroom teacher and adviser for the school newspaper. Most of the kids who join the paper do so for their college resume not because of any real interest in journalism. Don't get me wrong, most of these kids are very committed, as they are to everything. They have schedules crammed with AP courses, they do community service, many are in the band or plays, and are members of other clubs or sports. They do this all to serve the goal of getting into one of the colleges of their dreams. And I guess this starts with things like being tutored in the summer when you're 12.

I just wonder what we're doing to our kids. Yes, they are developing tremendous work ethics, and are being challenged in some ways, but some of them have become so competitive that they won't do anything if it doesn't serve their goal. They weigh whether an assignment is worth their time by how it will effect their grade. And of course if credit isn't being given they don't put any real effort into it, which brings me back to the quote. Yes, as parents and teachers, we should be concerned about "what they want and what they need." But what is that? Is it giving them the tools so that they can get into that college of their dreams? Is that all it's really about? Because from my experience, and from the responses I've received from kids, that's the way they view most of what they do in high school. It's an obstacle course they must navigate to get to the real race. And what about the majority of high school students who are not as academically competitve? How do we motivate and better involve them? How do we make school more relevant to them? This has become a major theme here lately and one that will continue to be explored. Any ideas or experiences would be greatly appreicated.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

One Last Excerpt ..with reflection

Although I had read most of his articles, Marc Prensky surprised me with these suggestions.

We need to find ways to integrate the kids into curriculum development and lesson plan development. Ask them, “How would you teach this?” When we’re developing a game, every day we take that game and we put it in front of people and ask “what sucks?” And then we change that. Have you ever heard of a teacher doing that with a lesson plan? Imagine if we really had this idea of interation. And we need to do that because that’s the speed at which everybody’s moving...
Do you think the kids are equipped to give curriculum advice?
Well, not all of them are. Supposed you took the top kids in the school and formed a committee or offered an elective in high school called curricular design or teaching design. And then take the top kids in one school and multiply that by all the schools in the world and you’d have some pretty smart kids working on this. Obviously not every kid would do this, but most kids will have an opinion and it would be the job of the committee to run it by them, but you want to get the kids who are most interested in this.

These are great ideas, ones I tried working on myself last year. Unfortunately, I had limited success, but I think it is definitely worth another try. In the middle of a year long interdisciplinary course (English/US History) for 10th graders, I was inspired by the idea of transparency, discussion, and working with a student teacher to try and open up the lesson plan process to my students. Darrell (my team teaching partner) was nice enough to humor me and go along with the experiment. It started with this post which we asked them to respond to in the computer lab. Only some of them took it seriously, as you can see by reading the comments, but a few of them continued to provide feedback over the next few weeks (read the comments at the bottom of any of the posts.) We also sent letters home and invited parents to contribute their thoughts, experiences, and expertise. Only a couple of parents took us up on this, but the dialogue that ensued created a better partnership and helped us to understand thier son or daughter better.

The results from this experiment were mixed at best. I need to find a way to better involve a larger protion of students and perhaps parents. I resisted offering any kind of credit for this believing that it wouldn't be genuine feedback if students were getting credit for doing this, but given the limited amount of feedback we received (when students were expected to do this on their own outside of class) perhaps I need to rethink this. I'm also not sure how the kids feel about having their parents particpate in this. I know having parent involvement is important, but I'm not sure if this is right the venue. It might work to stiffle the kids' own feedback. I guess I'll have to talk with them when I try this again in the Fall.

If anyone has experience with doing anything like this please let me know. I'll be working on revising this for my new class. I also really like Marc Prensky's idea of having a course (or committee) in which students have a say in lesson and unit planning and curriculum development. We have an Early Childhood class in which students develop lesson plans. Why not have students do it at the high school level where it will really have an affect on their education? Does anybody know of a school that has explored this?

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Prensky, Part 2

Here's excerpts from Part Two of the interview. Enjoy, and please feel free to agree, confirm, or take issue with any of the topics discussed.

TMc: How do schools need to adapt to the "digital student?
...They’re inventing because they have this new digital technology, (what I think is going on and I wrote a piece about it called the “Emerging Life of the Digital Native”) they’re inventing a new way of life which involves online stock. Even your clothes for school you get through eBay; the answers to your test you can get through your cell phone. What’s that going to force? So either you can take away all the cell phones, and that’s not going to work in the long run, or you can decide open book tests aren’t so bad after all. They still learn the stuff.
I think kids are very aware at some level of what they’re going to need in the future. They know their not going to be laborers; they know it’s about mind work. They know that the jobs that pay anything are going to be in the fields that require you to have strong technological skills. And they also know that school is not giving them any (with great exceptions). They’re smart enough to get it on their own. I think of it as kids training themselves for life after school. A lot of learning is going on in there and if we would only look at it, and we would think about it, as how can we help them. Like the whole ethics and morality thing. Instead of screaming, “Don’t play ‘Grand Theft Auto’ because you can hit people with a baseball bat!” we could say, “OK, you play ‘Grand Theft Auto.’ Now just because you can hit someone with a baseball bat, does that mean you should?” And we would take some of the things that kids are interested to do anyway and turn it into learning moments.
My new book that is coming out, it’s called Don’t Bother Me Mom, I’m Learning. That’s really what I try to tell people. Listen to your kids. Value what they know. Try to help them along. Try to integrate with the things that you know. And the best teachers are trying to do this. It’s the one’s that are totally overwhelmed and are getting the pressure because they don’t know how to do it at all, then what the government said with No Child Left Behind, in my view is that “look if you don’t know how to help kids get better test scores we’re going to spell it out for you.” Of course kids should get good test scores because the tests aren’t that hard.

TMc: What is the role of the parent as far as video games goes?
MP: The role of the parent is to help kids lead a balanced life. There’s nothing that they should do in excess, and I know plenty of kids who are 'A' students and they’re athletes and they play a lot of video games and they do many things because kids can and do many, many things. There are cases where it goes overboard and you have to pay attention, but the real important thing is that you don’t blame the game for something that is caused by something else. I know a lot of kids as well who play a lot of games and do poorly in school and their parents are convinced that it’s the game’s fault. And I can tell you for sure knowing these kids quite well that they are very intelligent game players and they are very intelligent kids and they have social problems that have nothing to do with the games. It’s like in the Sixties when they were blaming rock and roll or blaming reefer madness. ... I have very little problem with kids’ game playing if the parent knows what’s going on. It’s hard. Because if you’re a parent and you worry about what your kid reads, then you go read it, if you’re worried about the films they go to, you go to the films with them, if you worry about the games they play, what do you do? You can’t play those games probably. So we try to help them and part of my book is going to be sites for parents: so if your kid plays these games here are some intelligent questions you can ask him or her, how you can get more information, how you can watch and go shopping with your kids, look at what’s out there, look at the range of choices...

TMc: What is your vision of the classroom 20 years from now?
Well, there’s a question of whether we have to have classrooms because classrooms are a form of what I call herding. What we know is that kids learn really well when they’re in groups that are self-organized. That is, they get together and they say I’ll do this and you do that and they’re working with their friends and working with people they like. As opposed to, “Guess what you’re in Mr. Smith’s class.” So maybe we’ll be able to get away from herding, and yet we still have this obligation to keep our kids safe and busy and hopefully learning during those hours of the day. Then what I’d like to see is that we choose our teachers not on their knowledge of subject matter at all, but on their empathy with kids. Because those are always our best teachers, those are always the teacher we remember the one’s who say, “You were really good in math you should consider going and doing this, or you’re having a tough time today I’ll cut you a little slack.” The teachers who care enough to understand and see students as individuals. And what those teachers need is to be supported by enough technological methods of learning that they can point all the kids in the most promising direction. And that doesn’t mean that the kids are going to learn by looking at a screen all day because all lot of this will be technology mediated stuff, it will be outdoors, it will be kids with their cell phones doing projects and taking pictures and videos of bugs and leaves and whatever, but it won’t be the teacher telling the story to the kids. In fact it will be the opposite where the kids do their primary learning outside of the classroom technologically and the classroom is reserved for what it should be; which is asking questions, having discussions, thinking things through, helping individuals that would be a whole lot nicer than having the opposite which is having the time taken up by a lecture rather than kids getting any individual help wherever they can.

TMc: This sounds very different from the direction No Child Left Behind is dictating things to be.
: Right, but No Child Left Behind is a stop gap because so many people were not doing it well. And so many of the things that No Child Left Behind is doing…rather than say give 15 teachers very specific instructions on how to teach this reading, why don’t we just build that into a game? Why don’t we have the game before they get to school preferably teach them reading and math and whatever they need and the teacher be there to give them additional help either by pointing them in more advanced directions or to give them some remediation or whatever it is. That would be a whole lot smarter. Then we wouldn’t have to force the teachers to do what No Child Left Behind is trying to do. It some sense you can argue that we don’t have an option. It isn’t getting done and because the people can’t do it we have to help them do it. And the people who are doing it are the people that really find this obnoxious.

TMc: Are you recommending that we move away from the requirement of “highly-qualified” teachers with so-many credits in their content area and more accountability?
I don’t know that we need that. Now, we do. But it’s because we have so few alternatives. We don’t have the technological basis - my algebra game and other people’s algebra games aren’t there, but they will be soon. Once we have that then we don’t need the teacher that happens to have a few more credits in math. What you really want is the teacher who is the empath. Things can get very repetitive (as you know if you’re a teacher) and you better love those kids, if you come in each year and say, “God, another group of kids I’m going to get to know. Let’s see how we can find out about them and tech them new things and learn from these kids.” People that have that attitude and think that way are fabulous teachers.
If you say what in a teacher’s job is most important: to teach the curriculum, to teach the subject matter, relate to the administration, keep good records, or relate to the kids? Most will say, “relate to the kids.” There’s this great line from Will Wright, “Once a kid is motivated, there’s no stopping him.” You can put all the barriers in the world in front of that boy or girl and she would learn. A nephew of mine doesn’t do particularly well in school, but he wanted a pet lizard, so he went out on the internet and he found out everything there possibly was to know and he wrote a twenty page report. He would never do that in school. Never. But he was motivated.

MP: What do you teach in high school?
I teach journalism classes, an 11th/12th grade English class, and American Studies which is an interdisciplinary 10th grade class.

MP: Have you ever considered Game Journalism as a topic?

TMc: What do you mean by Game Journalism?

MP: There’s tons of people writing about games at many different levels. There’s the game journalism that happens in the game magazines, and then there's Charles Herold of the New York Times. The reason that’s interesting is that the subject matter then becomes very interesting to the students.

TMc: I never did it with the whole class, but I normally require the kids to choose a beat (a topic of interest to them) and kind of follow the news and write on that as part of the course, and I’ve had a few kids choose games and gaming as their beat. Our course is all internet based; each of the kids has his own weblog. So, in that way I’ve seen them do nice work with that. I don’t know if every kid as a whole class would be interested in that.

MP: Yeah, you don’t and if you did it that way, you would be doing it as just one in a series of things where you would be putting out topics for kids to grab along the way. One of my favorite teaching lines is from Richard Feynman, who was a Noble prize winner at Cal Tech, and someone asked him at the end of his teaching career what he had learned and he said, “All I’ve learned is that you throw the things out their in as many ways as possible and hope that each kid hooks onto something.” And everybody gets grabbed by something else.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Relevancy or Rigor?

While I'm not suggesting we need to choose between the two, apparently our governors have. In an article published in the New York Times, it's clear that the National Association of Governors, that is meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, believes that they've found the answer to the problems of our high schools. If we only make the material more challenging our problems will be solved. The issue of finding ways to make the curriculum more relevant to kids' lives is given very little mention in the the Action Plan the governors' published last week. Beyond increasing the communication between colleges and high schools, there seems to be little in the way of a radical redesign going on here. The support for this plan stems in large part from a survey they conducted of high school students that is presented in a slide show here.
It's interesting that in drawing their conclusions, they ignore some interesting findings. Although 9 out of 10 students say they have "learned a great deal or some in high school, and that it has been very or somewhat useful" the report dismissed this by saying that "students are unaware of the level of preparation they need to excel in college or in life." Even more interesting is the finding that 71% of seniors in high school believe the last year could be made more meaningful if they were allowed to "take courses related to the kind of job they want." This is as close as they get to exploring the issue of relevancy in schools. The only other responses that even remotely touches on it are the 2/3 of students who agreed with the statement: "I would work harder if school offered more demanding and interesting courses," and the 62% who felt that schools did a fair or poor job "holding my attention." I guess the governors decided that demanding and interesting were the same thing.
I predict more jumping on the AP bandwagon which Newsweek and their ranking of US high schools has certainly thrown their full support behind. I certainly don't have a problem with challenging students further, but my experience teaching at an upper middle class high school that I believe already does a good job of this, tells me this isn't nearly enough. The issue is the competition schools face from all of the interesting educational experiences that are avaiable to kids through the internet and other technologies. The issue is that students have very little input in their educational experience. The issue is that many students find the content offered to them in school irrelevant and boring. I hear this everyday in class even after the reason or goal behind an assignment is explained to them. Many students who have high goals for themselves have turned off to learning, seeing school as a necessary (but irrelevant) step towards what they want. They do what they need to do to get a grade in an increasingly academically competitive atmosphere. Raising the bar will make these students work harder, but it won't make the content any more relevant or interesting to them.
As Marc Presnsky said in the interview below: "If time that they spend in school becomes wasted time in their day, the only time that's wasted from their perspective, we'll see what we do see which is a lot of kids doing badly not because they aren't smart or they couldn't do it, but because they are not given the opportunity to be in an environment where they could do it." This is exactly what I see happening. Except even the kids that do well, see school as wasted time in their day.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Marc Prensky Interview

Below are excerpts from an interview I conducted with Marc Prensky on July 13, 2005 for an article to be published in the September issue of Technology & Learning magazine. Marc speaks and writes about educating today's student. He is also a designer of game-based learning software. His books include Digital Game-Based Learning (McGraw-Hill, 2001), and the forthcoming Don't Bother Me Mom, I'm Learning. His articles include the classic "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants", "Engage Me or Enrage Me", and "What Can You Learn From a Cell Phone? - Almost Anything!" Marc presents a future of education that I find exciting and challenging. I'll be discussing other excerpts from the interview in upcoming posts. Your comments and reactions are welcome.

How is today's student different from the one 25 years ago?
The main difference, for me, is that they've had digital technology surrounding them from the time they were infants. Wherever they get it, even if they don't have a computer in their house, they get it. They get it through the TV, the stores and game machines, GameBoys, it's everywhere - on their cell phones. They understand that they live in a digital world and that digital world has many things that it affords them that the previous world didn't.

How does that make them different as far as school goes?
Well, for one thing, as my friend Mark Anderson says, they all realize they can go far beyond what their teachers know. It means that in terms of content they're not limited anymore by their teachers. They can access the web; they can access the world.

How have schools attempted to adapt to this?
The schools have been having a struggle. The main thing that's happening is we're seeing a bifurcation. We're seeing school and we're seeing something called after-school. School has stayed with, for the most part, what I call the legacy curriculum. It's not that that stuff isn't important; it's really half of what kids need today. The other half, which is the future curriculum, everything from nanotechnology to bioethics whatever it may be that is happening in the future, this is all happening by the kids teaching themselves. It's happening by searching the web. It's happening by playing games. I think of this generation as training themselves for life in the 21st century because they realize in school they're not getting any training or help with that.

So what do schools need to do?
Part of what they need to do is learn from the best. You look at a place like Lemon Grove School District in San Diego. They have taken grant money and they have developed one to one lap tops for the kids that the kids can throw around the room because they're so well padded. They have a network that serves not only the schools, but the homes, and the fire department and police department as well. There are people who are doing things and I think the most important thing that schools could do is to really try to adapt best practices... Basically what goes on in schools is they ignore the kids' out of school life. If they were able to find more ways to bring the out-of school life (what's really at the heart of kids' interests) into the schools and the curriculum they have to teach, then hopefully they would succeed with that.
There's one other thing - talk to the kids. One of the things that's happening in school that's frustrating like hell to the kids is that we're giving no value to everything that they learn out of school. So kids come in and they say well you don't care about me why should I give a damn about you and what you're trying to teach me because you don't care about anything that I know.

What do you think the consequences will be if schools don't adapt to the "digital student"?
We have a strange situation in that kids go to school not primarily to learn. Kids go to school primarily so their parents can work. What's going to happen is there's going to be huge pressure from the students (and it's already happening). They'll want to drop out, or they'll act out, or they'll do whatever they do, and yet they have to be there. So something is going to have to give at some point, unless we make that time worthwhile. If time that they spend in school becomes wasted time in their day, the only time that's wasted from their perspective, we'll see what we do see which is a lot of kids doing badly not because they aren't smart or they couldn't do it, but because they are not given the opportunity to be in an environment where they could do it.

Was that different 20 years ago? Did kids see more value and relevancy in school?
Twenty years ago kids did not understand engagement the way kids do today. Intellectually, life was boring. School was the one place where there might be something interesting intellectually. But now with the internet, kids aren't bound to this stuff: they download music, they download movies, they list things, they do extreme sports, they follow all sorts of things, they make machinima, they make games. Every kid at some level has something really engaging him. And so they understand what that means and I think that's one big difference. So they're looking now to find engagement in school.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Academic Integrity?

I just finished watching a rebroadcast of an ABC Primetime Special entitled "Caught Cheating." As the title suggests, it was an in depth look at how students at the high school and college level are plagarizing in order to reach their goals. There's even a DVD and teachers guide for the show available. The thinking of the students was familiar enough since we've had similar problems at my school and are even instituting a new policy in which we will keep academic integrity violators in a "secret file" which will document their cheating. Still as I listened to the kids and the disgusted adults, a few points really struck me.

At one point Charlie Gibson asks an expert: "How do we keep these kids from going on to create a nation of adult cheaters?" What country does he live in? For a very long time now, America has been about celebrating the achievements of successful people. Sure we love a good story about someone who overcame unbelievable odds to achieve their goal, but what we're really interested in is the accomplishment itself. If it's proven that someone cheated than we will cry foul (see Bernard Ebbers, the steroids scandal in baseball, etc), but up until that point we like to look the other way. "Just do it," baby, we don't care about the how and why. So when it comes to insisting kids have integrity, it seems to me we are asking them to rearrange the priorities that our society teaches them.

Even more significant to me, was the number of kids who said that what was important to them, the school, and their parents was the grade and that they really didn't care about the course material anyway. One college student repeated a line a professor had told her: "Only about 3% of what you learn will ever be used in the professional world." This attitude that it's all about the grade and that much of what they are asked to learn is irrelevant to them is something I've been struggling with in my own classroom. In an increasingly competitive academic environment, how do we get beyond the culture of grading to instill a love of learning? And how do I present the curriculum in such a way that students find it relevant to their lives? These are the questions that I am seeking answers to. Does anyone have ideas or experiences that might help?

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Memoir Writing

One of unit that I particularly enjoy teaching in my Critical Issues in Literature course is the memoir. In fact the last year we were able to build towards this unit through a number of short pieces and quicky writings. This proved to be especially successful.

What surprized me about this type of writing was that it seemed to be a great equalizer in this class. Critical Issues is a junior/senior level course that is heterogenously grouped (which is becoming less common in my school, but that's a whole other post). It draws kids that have learning disablilties and are in need of in class support along with honor students. Some of the work that students who had disablilties with written language ( according to their IEP) produced was remarkable. The contained were finely drawn scenes with reflections. They may have had some gramatical problems, but they were able to recreate characters, settings, and events in their lives and have something to say about them. This involves complex writing skills that unfortunately we don't seem to be concentrate on that much in high school. On the other hand, some of my higher level students who were adept at more academic writing had difficulty with genre at first. They weren't sure what "we wanted" and complained that nothing happened in their lives that were worth writing about.

This year I'd like to do a better job communicating the importance of writing as a way to make sense of the seemingly meaningless events in our lives and the importance of doing so. This has certainly becopme more popular as Philadelphia's First Person Festival, NPR's StoryCorp, and much of reality TV has shown. For what is reality TV, but an attempt to create a story out of people's everyday lives? They choose interesting characters, put them in exotic settings, add a little conflict and see what unfolds. Then through creative editting, presenting scenes and reflection, they have an (hopefully) interesting story. I'm hoping by presenting these sources, and perhaps involving a recent graduate of our school who was a contestant on Beauty and the Geek, I can help my students better realize this. I'd also like to find ways to infuse this in my other courses, and help students better use the skills they develop through memoir writing in other more academic styles of writing.

Getting Serious

It's been an interesting and exciting school year and now that it's over, I'd like to do some serious blogging (writing, researching, reflecting, thinking) that will serve a number of purposes.

First and foremost will be work towards my culminating project for my masters degree program at Arcadia University. This allows me to draw from the courses and work I've completed and apply it to my career. I will link and comment on research related to memoir writing, assessment, journalism, interdisciplinary teaching, and technolgy in education. I also hope to use this space to begin a coversation with others in the field who have experience and expertise in these areas.

A secondary, but related, use will be to chronical the work I'm doing towards an article for Technology & Learning magazine on the digital student. Although I won't be able to post the article here due to publishing restrictions, I will present the research and interviews and my thoughts on it's implications. Again, I hope to generate discussion on these topics which are of great interest to me as a teacher in a rapidly changing world.

In fact all of these topics are of great interest to me which is why I am looking forward to what might unfold in this space over the next couple of months. I'm hoping that this practice continues into the school year as I believe regular reflection is essential for quality teaching. My experience with blogs (here, here, and here) has shown that they are an ideal medium for this kind of work.