Sunday, December 30, 2007

Bring on the Controversy!

Elementary History Teacher (EHT) has posted a wonderful reflection on the need to teach controversy. Controversy peaks our students interest, prompts them to look at ideas from various perspectives, and engages them in critical thinking. EHT's recent post serves as a wonderful reminder that good teaching is controversial!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Grading Woes

I'm frustrated with grading.

I'm exhausted by the process of tallying points and calculating percentages. It pains me every time I must write a letter grade at the top of a student's paper. Because regardless of how well they did, my students use grades to punish themselves for what they did not learn, or worse, they use grades to punish each other. I spend hours each night adding up mistakes, circling errors. It is a disheartening task - for both me and my students. And even though I deliberate over the comments and questions I will write on each student's essay, I know that most students will only quickly glance at the grade and stuff the offending paper into the black hole that is their backpack. I find it a futile exercise. Has a student ever learned anything from a grade? No. Students don't walk out of the classroom at the end of the day and declare, "Well, I think I internalized about 86% of that lesson" or "I think I'll retain 76% of that lecture for later use in life."

Students want to learn.

Grading kills learning.

The grading process is a form of punishment. Author Alfie Kohn has written a great deal about this. At its least harmful, the assigning of letters, points, and percentages is the carrot we use to bribe our students into performing. Students learn that they must look for the reward. We train them out of being self-motivated learners by placing that constant carrot in front of them. We reward those who learn to jump through our hoops. We punish students who seek to learn outside our perimeters. Students are not encouraged to learn for the sake of learning. Learning becomes something we undertake only when extrinsically motivated. At its worse, the letter grade looms like a machete, hacking down a student's potential, opportunities, and self-confidence. Bad marks typically do not act to motivate a student. Instead, low marks reinforce a student's sense of shame, worthlessness, and hopelessness.

In talking with a colleague today, I declared that I would be a much better teacher if I didn't have to grade everything. He agreed and shared his guilt over the growing stack of papers piling in his apartment. I nodded. I, too, have a growing stack of essays and poems at home to grade over the break. But my original comment wasn’t really about the amount of work. I enjoy reading my students' essays. I learn a great deal about how they think, how they make connections, and about who they are as individuals. I enjoy giving students feedback, talking with them about their writing process. However, it is the act of assigning a number value that I am frustrated with. It is so formal, so final. The letter grade marks an end to a particular lesson or unit where I do not think an end point always belongs.

I think this is why I have been so interested in incorporating more formative assessment techniques into my teaching. I find it incredibly valuable to think about assessment not as mere data collection but rather as a tool for learning. For that reason, I've stopped grading every draft, and instead have switched some of my assignments over to comment-only grading. No letters. No numbers. Just comments. Assessment should be for learning, not simply of learning. Students don’t stop learning how to craft their writing once they’ve received a letter grade on a particular essay. Writing, like learning, is a process. Is it fair to assign grades in the middle of the process?

Some students learn this process faster than others. Where one student might struggle with understanding organizational structures for expository writing, another might learn quickly. So does the 100% we give the fast learner on that particular essay mean that she has mastered the writing process? Of course not. So what does the percentage measure? Do we grade students on how quickly they are able to pick up a skill? I don’t think most educators want to think about learning as a race.

I did not enter teaching to grade students on how fast they can perform. Learning should be about helping all students practice and improve on their skills. Some will be able to master a skill quickly and move on. Others will need quite a bit of time and practice. It just seems to me that numbers and letter grades set artificial deadlines for learning.

But, what are the alternatives?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

More Than a Number

As the tenth grade honors English teacher, I have an interesting mix of students. And although I teach only honors this year, they are most certainly not a homogonous group. Within the honors courses I have a variety of levels in terms of student maturity, preparedness, discipline, and understanding. In talking with my students, some of them have very definite ideas about what they would like to do with their lives – writer, book editor, fashion designer - while others are still trying to figure out who they are, let alone what they would like to be doing ten years from now. Some of my students have a very narrow path laid out before them: I will get a 4.0 (unweighted), graduate valedictorian, go to Princeton, then to Harvard to become a doctor or lawyer or writer.

Lindsay, over at Students 2.0, recently posted a poignant reflection on what it means to be a student competing in our high-stakes testing, standardized educational system.
“The further into my high school career I go, the more my face, name, and personality gets traded out for a couple of numbers. It seems as though modern high school is becoming less about personal growth through learning…”
Since when did education become all about the numbers? My students take the PSATs, SATs, ACTs, the Pennsylvania state tests (PSSAs), and four times a year they take the district administered 4Sight tests. With all this testing, it seems as though we’ve lost sight on the individuals that sit in our classrooms.

But as responsible educators, I don’t think any of us stay awake a night worrying about what sort of numbers our schools are producing. I teach fifteen and sixteen year olds. I am concerned about the people that leave my classroom. I want my students to be critical, self-motivated, self-aware, questioning people. I don’t see my job as one that prepares future numbers. My job is to prepare thinkers. I want my students to be successful people, not just statistics on a page.

There is a growing divide between how we (students and teachers alike) are judged and current educational philosophy. Districts provide teachers with the “eligible content” from state tests to teach, while teachers struggle to find ways to incorporate authentic assessments and problem-solving opportunities to make learning meaningful. We are told by NCLB, state standards, and school boards that we need to teach “critical thinking” skills to help students reach adequate yearly progress. However, the criteria for evaluating whether or not students have attained said critical thinking skills often comes in the form of a multiple-choice bubble exam. Since when did it take creativity and problem-solving skills to bubble in a scantron?! The divide between how students (and more recently, teachers) are being held accountable is at odds with the skills that we say we want our students to have. The philosophy of education is at odds with its reality.

Our newspapers are filled with numbers comparing this district to that one, leaving our students caught in between. It is no wonder that Lindsay writes,
“…I plan to take my own future in my hands, all the while retaining who I am—not my numeric representation.”
I wonder how we will bridge the divide between who we want our students to be and how we judge them.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

I Know I Don't Know

I have relearned a very important lesson this evening: I know I know nothing.

Okay, perhaps nothing is a bit extreme. But after being directed to the recent EduBlog Awards list by Anne Davis over at EduBlog Insights, I am overwhelmed: so many wonderful blogs, so much information, so many ideas. I’ve only recently wandered into the edublogosphere; I’m still learning the language, figuring out the netiquette. Perusing the list of nominated blogs, I am awestruck.

I haven’t made it all the way through the list yet, but I thought I would share a few of my favorites:

Best Research Sharing Blog nominee - edte.ch

Most Influential Blog Entry of 2007 nominee - “Did you know?” by Scott McLeod and Karl Fisch at Dangerously Irrelevant and their related wiki site, Shift Happens, and ”The Ripe Environment” at Discourse about Discourse

Best Teacher Blog nominee - Clay Burell’s Beyond School

Check out the list for yourself!

Monday, December 10, 2007

Typewriter vs. Blackberry

I am a digital immigrant. I remember typing my first high school essay on a typewriter, plunking down each key hard enough so the ink would leave its indelible mark on the bright white page. My ninth grade science teacher returned my essay on chlorofluorocarbons filled with red ink and asked me to revise the piece. I remember dreading the process of retyping the essay, my fingers slipping between the keys when I would miss the letter and having to dig through my mother’s desk drawer for the white-out because our typewriter did not have a correction ribbon. It was 1994 when I got my first PC; it had 386k of RAM.

In fifteen years, we’ve gone from typewriters to being able to type messages into phones, from white-out to auto-correct. In those fifteen years, the face of public education has changed dramatically as well. Teachers are not simply finding new ways to integrate technology into their classrooms, but are also rethinking how and what we teach. Today’s classrooms look very different than those of fifteen years ago or from those just five years ago.

Take for example my classroom. Five years ago I was teaching ninth grade English courses and an elective called Information Technology (Info. Tech.) where students in a special computer lab developed their skills using the various Microsoft applications. Students created tables and web pages in Word, spreadsheets in Excel, pie charts in Database, and learned to animate pictures and transitions in PowerPoint. Compare that to my classroom this past week where students working on laptops in my room used Google Docs and USB flash drives to save the research essays they started in class, took their Gilgamesh quiz online, responded to our reading of Elie Wiesel’s Night in an online discussion forum, and pulled up our weekly schedule and handouts from our classroom website. My classroom has gone digital.

The digital age has opened the doors of education. Students can access their grades at any time on the web, their homework, their schedule, they can email their teacher with a question at any point during the day or night. Technology has helped the classroom become more transparent. However, it is not without its challenges. With the ease of access, our students have become accustomed to the instant gratification lifestyle. Why struggle with a problem when you can look it up on Wikipedia. Today’s students are digital natives, used to fast-paced, easy solutions. So although teachers need to find ways to help students become fluent with technology, using applications to their fullest capacities, we also must find ways to help students become more critical and creative thinkers. We cannot afford to let technology take away from teaching our students to think critically. As philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote, “Many people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so."

Technology is obsolete the minute it enters the marketplace. Therefore, we must be concerned with teaching students the skills they need to adapt to a constantly changing world. If we focus on teaching students to be better problem-solvers, to be better creative and critical thinkers, we will equip them for the modern marketplace, whatever that might look like. Students need to feel comfortable experimenting with technology and ideas alike. So although the face of education may have changed as a result of technology, the heart of teaching has not. Just like teachers centuries before us, our goal is to teach students to be independent, self-motivated, critical thinkers. It doesn’t matter if we use a typewriter or a Blackberry, the key is teaching students to think beyond the surface.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Technological Divide

When I returned from the annual National Council for Teachers of English conference last month, I was energized by the myriad of ideas for integrating technology into my classroom. I am fortunate enough to work in a district that encourages its teachers and students to explore meaningful ways of utilizing technology in the classroom. I am fortunate in so many ways. Recently, along with 18 other teachers in my building, I was awarded a technology based grant which will put 30 laptops, a SmartBoard, web camera, digital camera, and all sorts of software in the hands of my students. I’m excited by this opportunity, but also deeply troubled.

I teach a non-Western literatures course. My students spend a semester reading, writing, analyzing, and reflecting on the literature of people and cultures all across Africa, the Middle East, South East Asia, East Asia, and Latin America. The focus of our studies is not to make world outside the walls of our small community more exotic, but to share the lives of human beings – we all fear death, we desire connection to others, we all need to be understood. Regardless of the culture, traditions, and beliefs that we are born into, we all share a common humanity. As individuals we are more alike than we are different.

I have the luxury of exploring this theme with my students. It is easy for us as we sit in our heated classroom (or air-conditioned, depending upon the time of year), with VCR/DVD players and LCD projectors and laptops and books. But at times, many times, it feels dishonest. It is easy for me and my students to spend time contemplating what we share with others when we have a roof over our heads, food in our bellies, and the luxury of attending school each day. My students don’t worry in the same way that a child from a developing nation does about where the next meal will come from or whether war will take away our home and family.

My students spend part of our semester researching an issue currently facing a non-Western culture, and as a requirement of the project, they must find a way to share that research with an audience outside our classroom; they must find a way to make a difference. But it is only because of such privilege that we are able to study what we do. And now I’m rewarded with more technology, widening the gap between the cultures we study and how we do it. It doesn’t seem honest to have my students explore what connects them to students in Liberia when the technology we are using to undertake that study is one of the very things that divides us. The divide between those with access and those without is widening. Is technology loosening our grip on our humanity?


So when a colleague started telling me about the Give One, Get One laptop program, you can understand why I was a bit skeptical. How will giving students in developing nations a laptop change oppressive governmental regimes, unequal distribution of wealth, or lack of clean drinking water? And that’s when it hit me: laptop = literacy. I don’t mean literacy in terms of teaching a child to speak, write, or read English, Swahili, or French. Instead, the power in giving a child a laptop is that it helps that student become technologically literate. Yes, it will also increase her traditional literacies, but even more, a laptop connects that child to the world outside her immediate community.

Paulo Friere and Stanley Fish both wrote about this very idea: When you know the word for something, you own that thing. You have power over it. You can describe it, you can manipulate it, you can use it with conviction. Literacy equals power. The same principle applies to technology. A child with the knowledge of how to navigate the Internet has power. He or she is able to enter into the realm of the privileged class. Education is not just the playground of the elite when everyone has the opportunity to enter into the discussion.

And, so I encourage you to check out the One Laptop Per Child Project like I did. What a wonderful gift for the child in your life - each time your child connects to the Internet, you’ll know you’ve also helped to empower another child not so different from your own.