Cold Call

Are you willing to put your students on the spot?

A reader, Damommachef, has asked me to discuss a problem that can arise with classroom dynamics: the Constant Commenter.  She says, “Some kids want to constantly comment, but the smartest are often the quietest. How can we get them more involved? How do we subdue the chronic commenters?”

One solution is the cold call.  We call on students randomly (or perhaps not so randomly, but it may appear random to them.)  If students raise hands or call out, we say, “I’m cold calling for this one, so no volunteers.”

A few years ago, a Masters teacher of mine said that she never cold-calls students because when she was a student, the idea of being “picked on” without warning made her sick with anxiety.  She never put her students through it because she hated it so much.  At first I was puzzled by this – Really?  You never ask students for answers unless they volunteer? – but I then realized that I rarely cold-call in its strict sense.  I often call on students, but usually they’ve had a chance to prepare responses beforehand, often with a partner or group so they don’t bear sole responsibility for their answers.

I’ve been reading Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov (thanks to my friend Sarah for the recommendation!) and he believes in real, honest-to-God cold-calling, asking students to demonstrate in no uncertain terms that they are mastering the skills and content they’re being taught, at a nanosecond’s notice.  This technique, he explains, has several benefits.

…it allows you to check for understanding effectively and systematically…increases speed both in terms of your pacing…and the rate at which you cover material…[and] allows you to distribute work more broadly around the room and signal to students not only that they are likely to be called on to participate…but that you want to know what they have to say.

Lemov also encourages teachers to use techniques like “No Opt Out,” in which a student who answers with “I don’t know” must eventually give a correct answer, and “Format Matters,” meaning that students need to respond in complete, grammatical sentences whenever possible.  In Lemov’s world, there is no escape: you need to be present, engaged and ready to respond at any time.

I am more inclined to Lemov’s view than my former teacher’s.  At the beginning of the semester, I use the excuse that I need to learn their names, and call on them randomly from the attendance list to answer questions.  As time goes on, though, I find myself getting soft, and allowing a few eager students to dominate discussion.  And, as I said, I rarely ask students to think on their feet – if they’re nervous, they can just read answers they’ve prepared with their group, although they may have to stretch themselves if I ask for further explanation.

I feel like I should do it more.  I believe that if students know they can be called on at any time, they will be more engaged and feel more responsibility for the material.  I’d like to create an atmosphere in which students feel that it’s safe to make errors, but that they at least have to take a stab at things, and that they need to be ready to do so at all times.  But I don’t want students to sit stewing in fear, petrified that they may be asked to speak.

Do you cold-call in your classroom?  If so, how do you make students fell okay with that?  If not, why not?  Does cold-calling improve the classroom dynamic, or is it a detriment?  I want my students to rise to the demands cold-calling creates, but I don’t want to poison their learning with terror.

Image by Sigurd Decroos

What If They Don’t Do the Required Reading?

It’s a perennial problem for teachers.  You plan a great lesson around today’s short story, but it turns out two-thirds of the students haven’t read it.  What do you do?  Do you kick out the slackers?  Give them class time to read it?  Give up and do something else?  As a follow-up to last week’s post on how we can teach students to be willing, if not enthusiastic, readers and writers, I’d like to throw a question out there from frequent commenter CrysHouse.  She asks, How can we use class time effectively if students don’t do the reading before they come?

I have a couple of techniques.  I have them do some written homework based on the reading, homework that they must then use for the class activity.  It counts for credit, they have to show it to me before we begin, and if they haven’t done it, they have to leave class, because they can’t do the day’s work.  Of course, I’m in a privileged spot here – most teachers can’t throw students out of class – but you could have students work on their own to complete the homework, and receive no credit for the class work they miss as a result.

I have been known, if it seems like no one has done the reading, to designate today’s work as a graded test.  They have to work alone to answer some questions or write a short response.  This, of course, makes more work for me, because then I have to grade the things.  It also doesn’t sit well with my most idealistic principles about separating grades from behaviour issues.  However, it’s pretty effective in impressing the importance of the reading on them, and at least then we can do some work with the reading the following class.

I don’t like the coerciveness of either of these approaches.  What’s more, because we do a lot of group work, the fact that some students haven’t read is often obscured, because their group mates cover for them and resent both them and me.  If all work were individual, it would be easier to allow natural consequences to reveal themselves – you won’t get much done if you haven’t read before class! – but this is not always possible, and I hate structuring all my lessons around the contingency that some students aren’t pulling their weight.

Do people have other techniques?  Is this problem solvable?  I wrote three papers on Robinson Crusoe in high school and college, and to this day, I haven’t read the damn book and don’t intend to – so who am I to fault them?  Is it possible that this is one more thing  we’ll just have to let go?

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Image by Davide Guglielmo

Willing to Read and Write

Yesterday, I told my college students that they need to read the next 150 pages of the novel we are studying, Life of Pi, over the next seven days.  This is not news – they got a reading schedule on the first day of class, and were told to read ahead.  Nevertheless, there was a collective gasp and more than a little laughter.  A few moments later, during a close reading exercise, I asked them to talk about a passage with a group and come up with a point that they might focus on “if you had to write a couple hundred words about this piece.”  Around the room, students looked at each other with horrified amusement.  A couple hundred words?  About this?  What does she think we are, writing machines?  There were quiet snorts and groans, subtly and not-so-subtly rolled eyes.

It’s early in the semester, and I still have reserves of patience that I won’t have in a few weeks’ time.  By October, I may break down and say something like:

“If you’re not sure you can read one hundred fifty pages of clear, simple prose in a week, or if you’re not sure you can write two hundred words about a two-page passage, that’s ok.  It’s not a problem if you don’t know how to do it – you can learn.  However, if you don’t want to learn how to do these things – if you don’t want to practice and get feedback and meet that challenge, and if you resent me for asking you to – then college is not the place for you.”

The previous class, I’d asked students to interview each other about their reading habits, and write a paragraph about their partners’ reading lives.  A predictable number of students said that they don’t like to read, never read for enjoyment, and last read a novel in the ninth grade, because it was required.  (The number was predictable to me, that is – anyone who doesn’t teach college might be astonished by the number of college students who have absolutely no interest in reading.)

I would like at some point to ask similar questions about writing, but they seem redundant – surely people who don’t read also don’t write?  However, “writing” has become a much more complicated phenomenon in the age of digital communication, and many would argue that our students “write” all the time, although a middle-aged fuddy-duddy like me might be reluctant to call much of the texting, messaging and Facebook posting they do “writing,” any more than I’d call a to-do list “writing.”  Maybe what I’m talking about is long-form writing: long emails in the spirit of “letters,” diary entries that go on for pages and pages, poems and stories and even stabs at novels, blog posts.

A few weeks ago, an article appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education called “We Can’t Teach Students to Love Reading.”  In it, Alan Jacobs explains that

“‘deep attention’ reading has always been and will always be a minority pursuit, a fact that has been obscured in the past half-century, especially in the United States, by the dramatic increase in the percentage of the population attending college, and by the idea (only about 150 years old) that modern literature in vernacular languages should be taught at the university level.”

Jacobs points to the American GI bill, and the influx of soldiers into American universities after WWII.  From then until now,

“far more people than ever before in human history were expected to read, understand, appreciate, and even enjoy books.”

 Once, only a tiny minority of people were expected to get a post-secondary education; now almost everybody is.  However, it is still unreasonable to expect everyone to enjoy reading, even though a university education – at least a traditional one – is difficult to pursue if you don’t.

Jacobs divides people into those who love reading, those who like reading, and those who don’t.  Universities, he says, are full of

“…often really smart people for whom the prospect of several hours attending to words on pages (pages of a single text) is not attractive. For lovers of books and reading, and especially for those of us who become teachers, this fact can be painful and frustrating.”

Jacobs says this is genetic – such people are “mostly born and only a little made.”  A furor has arisen around this assertion – here’s one post that takes it on – but I think he may in part be right.  But if readers and writers are at least “a little made,” what can teachers do to help make them?

According to Jacobs, maybe nothing.

“[The] idea that many teachers hold today, that one of the purposes of education is to teach students to love reading—or at least to appreciate and enjoy whole books—is largely alien to the history of education.”

Now, I’m ok with the fact that a lot of people don’t like reading and writing.  I think they’d be better off if they did, but I also think I’d be better off if I liked playing team sports, going to parties full of strangers, and drinking wheatgrass.  And I’ve written before about the wisdom or lack thereof of pushing your children to love writing.  If it’s possible for me to help my students like reading and writing more than they do, I’d love that – and I dedicate a lot of thought and time to this end.  But if not – if many students will never like to read or write no matter what I do – I can accept this reality.

I do, however, want and expect my students to be willing to read and write.  I want and expect them to see college as an opportunity to practice these activities, and to even be open to enjoying them.  I know that teenagers are not usually “open” by any measure.  Much of their energy goes into defining themselves as “this not that” – athlete, not reader; gamer, not writer.  However, I’m irritated at the prospect of another semester of complaints about being expected to read a lot and write a lot in English class.

Are there things we can do to make our students willing, if not eager, to read and write?  We can try to give them “books that interest them,” but in an extremely diverse class of 42 students, coming up with books that will please everyone is not possible.  We can give them choices about what they’ll read and what they’ll write about, but if reading and writing are themselves the problem, even making such choices can be difficult and frustrating.  By the time they get to college, is it too late?  Do I just have to grit my teeth and say, “I know you don’t like it, but you’re in college”?  Or is it time to start asking less of them?

Jacob believes that we should ask, if not less, then at least different.

“Education is and should be primarily about intellectual navigation, about…skimming well, and reading carefully for information in order to upload content. Slow and patient reading, by contrast, properly belongs to our leisure hours.”

If this is true, then there is no place for the study of literature at college, at least not as core curriculum for readers and non-readers alike.  Can we extrapolate from this that there is no need for “deep writing” either?  That asking students to write longer pieces – which is not to say two hundred words, which they would call long, but perhaps one-thousand-word essays – is asking too much of most, that the ability to do such a thing can only “arise from within,” as Jacobs puts it, and cannot be explicitly taught to anyone?

I would argue that the skills of deep reading and deep writing can be taught to anyone.  The caveat is that students must be, not necessarily enamoured of these activities, but simply willing to engage in them.  They must open to the possibility that they may enjoy them more than they expect, but also to the possibility that they may not.  They need to be prepared to keep stabbing away at them even if they find them difficult, boring or even infuriating, in the hope that they will get better, and with the faith that they will learn something.

Is this skill – openness, or gameness, even in the face of obstacles and possible failure – something that can be taught?  Because if we can teach our students (and ourselves, for that matter) how to be willing, how to relish trying, then we will all truly be learners.

Image by Peter Galbraith

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Late Penalties?

Throughout the years, I’ve heard a lot of arguments against giving penalties for late student work.

Back in February, Tom Shimmer outlined some of the arguments against late penalties in a post, and they reflect the main argument I’ve heard again and again: students should be evaluated on the learning they can demonstrate, not punctuality.  I don’t, in principle, disagree with this argument.  It would be ideal if I could get a direct measurement of a student’s learning without any interference from other factors.

However, I’m not sure this is ever possible.  Can the learning of specific skills and material in a specific domain be separated from everything else?  This has always struck me as weirdly compartmentalized.  Yes, I know the student is supposed to demonstrate the achievement of competencies – for example, she can identify a specific theme from a text she’s read, or she can write a sentence that correctly uses the present perfect.  But in most evaluations, these skills are inextricably bound up with other things.  For example, if a student can identify a clear theme in her own mind but can’t state it in a way that an intelligent reader can understand, how can she get full points for that criterion?  If she writes a paragraph in which the present perfect is required, and uses the present perfect correctly throughout but botches all her other verb tenses, does she get 100% for the paragraph?

Maybe.  The question becomes murkier when we talk about evaluating skills and behaviours that cross disciplines.  If I am a history teacher, do I evaluate my students’ ability to write correct English in their history papers?  Should this count toward some portion of their grade?  Yes, many educators will insist, because literacy and clear communication are cross-disciplinary skills.

Aha.  In that case, could it be argued that carrying work out in a timely manner – as one will inevitably have to do in any job, whether it involve writing memos or changing diapers – is also a cross-disciplinary skill?  Should this be one of the competencies addressed in their course work?

I would argue yes.  However, it occurs to me now that a late penalty is not the same as an evaluation criterion.  Instead of imposing a penalty, maybe I should dedicate 5 or 10% of the grade for each paper to “punctual submission,” much as I do for MLA formatting.  Students who submit papers on time will get the full 10%.  That way, punctuality would be evaluated the same way as all other competencies.

But then, what do I do about a student who comes to me at the end of the term and wants to submit several assignments, when the assignments are cumulative and completing them all in a short time will minimize their benefit?  What do I do when the grade submission deadline rolls around and some students have still not submitted all work?  Do I argue that the administration give me an extension too, or give incompletes (which are not given at my college except for medical reasons) on pedagogical principle?  Schimmer says that he doesn’t receive a “flood” of assignments at the end of term even though he doesn’t impose late penalties.  However, he also doesn’t explain how he deals with individual stragglers (except to mention that students who struggle with deadlines need to be “supported” – how? – and that he contacts parents – not an option when you’re a college teacher.)  How does one run a class without firm deadlines?

How do you deal with late work?  Do you agree that there is no place for late penalties in learning?  Do you have ways of making things run smoothly even if students don’t feel that it’s essential to hand their work in on time?

Image by Chris Gilbert

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What Have You Been Thinking About?

Whether you’re a teacher, a parent, a student, or just a citizen of the world who believes that learning is important, you may be thinking about new problems or dwelling on old fears or puzzles as the school year begins.  Maybe you’d like to hear what others have to say about your burning questions or personal philosophies about teaching, learning, and living in the world.  Maybe you’d like me to write about a specific topic and solicit input from others.

Are you a teacher who has a concern as you return to the classroom?  A parent who’s been pondering a new situation your child is encountering in school?  A student who often wonders how teachers think about a particular experience?  A blogger who would like to hear more about an educational topic you’ve been writing about?  A career waiter or CEO who is thinking of returning to school and has a lot of concerns?

If there’s a particular topic you’d like me to write about on this blog, get in touch with me.  You can leave a suggestion in the comments; visit my contact page to send your suggestion via a contact form;  or visit my Facebook page, “Like” it if you haven’t already, and post a suggestion on my wall.

My goal this semester is to post every Monday and Thursday.  We all know what good intentions are made of, and this is a goal, not a rule!  However, the more suggestions I receive, the more I will have to think and write about.

Thanks so much for your continued readership.  I look forward to hearing from you!

Image by Svilen Milev

“Either You Can Be a Teacher or You Can Be the Plagiarism Police”

As the new semester creeps nearer, I’m starting to think about plagiarism again.  My use of Turnitin.com, a plagiarism-detection software, is helping me relax a bit – last semester, the software made discovering plagiarism, and talking to students about it, a lot easier.  However, cheating is a perennial source of anxiety for most teachers, and a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education is causing me to re-think my approach yet again.

In Toward a Rational Response to Plagiarism, Rob Jenkins asks if it’s necessary for us to focus so much of our energy on student cheating.

“Of course I care about plagiarism, and I certainly take steps to deal with plagiarists once I have sufficient proof. But I don’t spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about plagiarism or trying to catch students at it. I’d prefer to direct my time and energy toward something more positive, such as actually teaching the subject I’ve been hired to teach.”

Jenkins then goes on to list steps he uses to deal with plagiarism, most of which are common-sensical: put your plagiarism policy in your syllabus, talk about plagiarism on the first day but not only on the first day, design assignments that make plagiarism difficult.  I do all these things.  It’s his final point that really makes me think.

Let it go. If some students take unfair advantage of the fact that I let them do most of their writing outside of class, or that I don’t use Turnitin, so be it. It’s not that I don’t care. I do…  When I say ‘let it go,’ I mean that in the metaphysical sense. I’m not saying you should ignore clear cases of plagiarism. But the truth is, there aren’t many clear cases of plagiarism. Most cases are borderline, at best. It’s also true that, no matter what you do to deter cheating, some students are going to find a way around it. You can go crazy thinking about that all the time.”

I’m almost ready to embrace that philosophy.  Unlike Jenkins, however, I find that Turnitin.com makes relaxing about plagiarism easier.  Jenkins says he doesn’t use it mostly because it creates an atmosphere of mistrust, but talking about plagiarism at all creates the same problem.

I used to get complaints from students about the fact that I mention plagiarism more than once and have them sign contracts stating that they understand what constitutes cheating and what will happen if they do it.  I think these complaints are warranted, and now, I always reiterate several times that I know most of my students would never cheat, and that they have every right to be insulted by the implication, but that I need to do everything I can to protect people who do their work honestly. That includes having them submit their papers to a program that will help me identify plagiarism.

Turnitin allows me to stop obsessing over every line that is atypically erudite or awkwardly shoehorned in.  If the program doesn’t find something, I usually feel like due diligence has been done.  Also, simply having students submit through Turnitin makes them less likely to copy things, so I feel I can relax a bit about the whole problem.

What’s more, there’s something about the use of a software program that allows me to step away from cheating and take it less personally.  I know, intellectually, that it’s not personal when they cheat, but I can’t help feeling outraged and hurt, especially when I need to waste my valuable grading time looking for plagiarized sources or comparing two student papers line-by-line.  A student who submits a plagiarized paper to Turnitin is not so much saying that he thinks I, the teacher, am a dupe.  He is saying that either a) he believes his cheating skills are invincible (and who knows? He may be right this time) or b) he  feels this is his only recourse, so he’s going to cross his fingers and take his chances, or c) he somehow still doesn’t understand what cheating is or what’s wrong with it, or d) he just doesn’t give a damn.   It’s hard to take this personally, and when I call him into my office, the printouts covered with highlighted “matches” usually head off any attempts on his part to make it so.

A perfect solution?  No.  There are those who object to the fact that Turnitin stores student work, and others who will have noticed that it doesn’t catch everything.  For now, though, I’m grateful for anything that, as Jenkins says, lets me worry less about cheating and more about doing my job.  “Either you can be a teacher or you can be the plagiarism police,” he says.  Well, I may still have to be a bit of both, but I know I’d rather be mostly the former, and the latter only when it’s unavoidable.

What are your plans for dealing with plagiarism this year?  Are you obsessed, or can you find ways to “let it go” so that it doesn’t colour everything you do?

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Yes, plagiarism can make a teacher crazy.  If you’re not convinced, check out some of my real-life cheating-in-the-classroom stories herehere, here, and here.

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Image by Manoel Nato

What Swimming Taught Me About Teaching

It’s good for a teacher to be a student once in a while.

I learn this lesson over and over as I pursue my MEd.  I have encountered all sorts of challenges I’d forgotten about, like worrying about grades and managing my time in order to get readings done and papers written.  I’ve had to examine how my (sometimes less than courteous) behaviour toward my teachers has affected their feelings and feedback.  I’ve had to wrestle with approaches that I’ve found less than helpful.  All of this is good food for thought for any teacher.

However, sometimes I find myself in a context that gives me a whole new perspective on what my students are going through.  The kind of work I’m doing in my MEd comes pretty easily to me.  I like reading, writing, doing research, participating in class discussions.  I know how to form a sentence, construct an argument, interpret a research paper.  When these tasks are challenging, I still have a strong sense of self-efficacy.  It is more interesting to observe myself when I am struggling with a task that I don’t do well.

Billie Hara, over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, has written a revealing summary of what it’s like to be an overweight, middle-aged gym neophyte and receive inconsiderate, condescending and careless training.  I loved reading this article because it says so much about effective and non-effective teaching.  The teacher-as-student can make excellent use of discouraging learning experiences, and Hara has done just that.  In her article, she lists some questions that her experience has raised for her regarding her own teaching:

Have you ever:

  • Made incorrect and negative assumptions about why a student was in your class and that student’s ability to perform the work, assumptions based on gender, race, class, age, or physical ability?
  • Told a student that she wasn’t prepared to do more even if she had the motivation and skills to do so?
  • Simplified instructions to a procedure (theory or concept) to such a degree that a five-year old would understand it (and your student was an adult)?
  • Assumed that students want to be like you (because, you know, you are so amazingly awesome)?
  • Told a student that other calls (other students, other work) were more important than working with him right at that moment?
  • Cut a short appointment even shorter because a student was late and you were insulted?
  • Used terms and concepts that were above a student’s level of understanding, without asking the student if she understood?

This summer, I have been taking swimming lessons.  To give some context: I can swim.  Sort of.  I love being in the water.  I took swimming lessons as a child – I failed my beginner’s class three times, but finally managed to scrape through and do a survival class in which I learned how to tread water, float, etc.  I took adult swimming lessons about ten years ago and discovered (or perhaps just reaffirmed) one of my  most serious limitations: I am so uncoordinated that I have often suspected that I suffer from mild autism.  (This is no joke – there are other indicators.)  Just walking around in the world is a constant gamble for me; doing one thing with my arms and another with my legs while suspended in liquid is totally baffling.  What is more, I recently lost a great deal of weight, and learned for the first time why most people find swimming to be an excellent workout: most people don’t float like corks the moment they enter the water.

So it wasn’t a total surprise to me to discover that, in my intermediate class of seven, I was at the absolute bottom in terms of ability.  I was so much less advanced than the others that during each class, one of the two teachers took me aside to work with me privately.  Both teachers were very sweet young people.  They were in their late teens/early twenties, and were doing their best to be encouraging and helpful.

One did a pretty good job of it.  He worked with me for only one class and focused on one thing at a time.  We started with my shoulder rotation, and once he felt I’d gotten the hang of that, he got me to extend the motion to my elbows and hands.  However, I found myself unable to grasp one of the instructions he was giving me, and when I tried to explain my difficulty, he seemed bewildered and slightly impatient.  I never was able to figure out exactly what he meant for me to do.

I worked more frequently with another teacher whose approach was to get me to swim back and forth and to explain to me, at the end of each length, one thing I needed to work on.  This would have been fine, except that my problems were so myriad that the moment I corrected one thing, another problem arose, until her corrections were so overwhelming that I finally lost my cool.  “I know it was worse this time,” I explained, “because I’m trying to remember all the things you’ve told me up to now and incorporate this new thing you’re telling me and I’m still having trouble moving my arms and legs at the same time!”  Her face went a little blank, and she nodded sheepishly, and I felt slightly ashamed.  She was so young, and she was clearly doing her best.  But at the end of the next length, she said, “I see what you’re saying – I’m giving you too much to think about at once, and I can see you’re trying hard to use my suggestions.  Let’s just work on your breathing for the rest of the class.”

This really impressed me.  Do I have that kind of humility? I wondered.  If a student gets angry at me because I’m not meeting her needs, do I listen and adjust, instead of dismissing her out of hand or telling her how she should approach her own learning?

This may be the principle I focus on this year: learning can be frustrating, and frustration interferes with learning.  If a teacher can acknowledge and adjust for frustration, a student can learn better.  In the meantime, I’m going to step away from swimming classes for a while and spend some time alone in the pool trying to assimilate what I’ve learned, about both swimming and teaching.  And if anyone can give me pointers about my shoulder rotation, I’m all ears.

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Image by Annika Vogt

Should We Bid Farewell to the Academic Paper?

Is the academic paper the best way for students to demonstrate their learning?  Will learning to write papers help students develop the skills they will need later in their lives?

One of my heroes, Virginia Heffernan of the New York Times (whose Sunday Magazine column, The Medium, is sorely missed) writes this week that “Education Needs a Digital-Age Upgrade.”  She is reviewing a book called Now You See It, in which Cathy N. Davidson asks “whether the form of learning and knowledge-making we are instilling in our children is useful to their future.”

Davidson examines the roots of our contemporary education culture and suggests that we need to look back to pre-Industrial-Revolution models and forward to the murky future.  As Heffernan explains it:

The contemporary American classroom, with its grades and deference to the clock, is an inheritance from the late 19th century. During that period of titanic change, machines suddenly needed to run on time. Individual workers needed to willingly perform discrete operations as opposed to whole jobs. The industrial-era classroom, as a training ground for future factory workers, was retooled to teach tasks, obedience, hierarchy and schedules.  That curriculum represented a dramatic departure from earlier approaches to education. In “Now You See It,” Ms. Davidson cites the elite Socratic system of questions and answers, the agrarian method of problem-solving and the apprenticeship program of imitating a master. It’s possible that any of these educational approaches would be more appropriate to the digital era than the one we have now.

This is old news – education needs to be skills-based, collaborative, constructivist, blabla.  However, Heffernan focuses particularly on Davidson’s discussion of the academic paper.  After reading insightful, well-written student blogs and then being appalled by the quality of their research papers, Davidson began to wonder whether it was the form, not the students, that was at fault.  After some rigourous research, Davidson concludes that, in Heffernan’s words,

Even academically reticent students publish work prolifically, subject it to critique and improve it on the Internet. This goes for everything from political commentary to still photography to satirical videos — all the stuff that parents and teachers habitually read as “distraction.”

I am not, at first glance, convinced by this argument – we’ve all read the “work” published every day on the Internet, and in many cases its “prolificness” is one of its many problems.  That said, I have students keep blogs in some of my courses, and I love them – you can SEE the learning happening as students wrestle with course topics and literature and relate them to their own experiences.  I don’t do blogs in every course because a) I am required to have them write a certain number of papers, and it can all get to be a bit too much for me, and b) the majority of my students have not received the time-consuming training in digital communication that Davidson says they need.  However, if more space were made in the curriculum for online forms of writing, and we could limit the number of formal papers and make them an outgrowth of the online work, we might be on our way to something resembling “authentic learning tasks.”

So I need to get my hands on Davidson’s book, which is not being released until next week.  I have been saying for a while that the research paper is going the way of the dinosaurs, and that we need to develop viable academic approaches to the blog and other online forms so that students can learn to write things that people actually read.  (The fact that no one reads academic papers is not a new phenomenon, of course, but now we have an alternative that gives researchers a real potential audience.)

What is the place of the formal academic paper in the future of education?  Should it continue to look the way it does now, or is it time to ask students to do something new?

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Image by kristja

Khan Academy: What are the Possibilities?

I just today learned about Khan Academy, the online education institution whose goal is “providing a free world-class education to anyone anywhere.”  In the TED talk above, the academy’s founder, Salman Khan, describes exactly how the project works.

The site is home to more than 2400 educational lecture videos, mostly in the domains of math and science (but there are burgeoning history and finance sections as well.)  All videos are narrated by Khan himself, as we follow his main points on an electronic blackboard.  The videos are entirely free and open to anyone, and the levels range from simple addition to advanced calculus, basic evolutionary biology to “Role of Phagocytes in Innate or Nonspecific Immunity,” and beyond.  There are practice math exercises as well.

Students can watch videos and do exercises.  Teachers can assign videos and exercises as homework or use them in their classrooms.  Teachers and parents can sign on as “coaches” in order to tutor and track their students’ or children’s progress.  Peers can also tutor each other.

Khan says that, ideally, this technology actually “humanizes the classroom.”  If teachers assign the lectures for homework, this frees up classroom time for actual teacher-student interaction – students can do what used to be homework during class time, when the teacher is there to help them and they can discuss the work with their classmates.  The teacher goes from being a lecturer to a coach.  I love this idea.  I’ve never much cared for lecturing, and I feel the best use of classroom time is for discussion, practice and support.

I watched one of the videos on early American history and was immediately excited.  The lecture was lucid and easy to follow, and Khan is an engaging and funny lecturer.  I immediately wished I had nothing else to do today so I could watch more.  For an English teacher (or, to be honest, for any responsible citizen of the world), my knowledge of history is painfully basic and often flawed.  I’ve considered going back to take undergraduate courses in history to fill in the embarrassing gaps.  The Khan archive right now focuses mostly on the history of the United States, with a smattering of French and Haitian history thrown in, but it promises to be “a history of the world (eventually!)”  How cool will it be to bone up on my historical knowledge for free, on my couch, at my own pace, in 20-minute increments whenever I can fit them in?  I will then need to find my own way to apply this knowledge so it will stick, but the foundation will be there.

I’m curious about two things.

  • What are the possibilities for English instruction?  Grammar lectures, for sure.  Lectures on analytical thinking?  On important authors or literary periods?
  • Have any of you explored Khan Academy and made use of any of its materials in your classroom?  If so, I’d love to hear about your experiences.

What Young Adults Should Read

There’s been a lot of furor over the recent Wall Street Journal essay that claims that YA fiction has taken a turn to the dark side.  It isn’t surprising that my favourite commentary on this piece so far comes from Linda Holmes, editor of the NPR pop-culture blog Monkey See and moderator of my fifth-favourite podcast in the world, Pop Culture Happy Hour.  Holmes’ response aligns entirely with my own: adolescence is a dark time.  If we want teens to have some hope of emerging from it in one piece, we can’t present them only with, as the WSJ writer would have it, “images of joy and beauty.”  Holmes explains it this way:

It’s difficult to say to a teenager, “We don’t even let you read about anyone who cuts herself; it’s that much of a taboo. But by all means, if you’re cutting yourself, feel free to tell a trusted adult.”

I teach mostly seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds.  In my course on personal narrative, I prepare a list of books and ask students to tell me which ones they’d prefer to read.  When preparing the list last year, I hesitated over a couple of titles, including Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss (about the author’s consensual adult sexual relationship with her father) and Alice Sebold’s Lucky (about the author’s brutal rape and its aftermath).  In the end, I decided to include Lucky on the list, and when I presented the book to the class as one of their choices, I told them about its subject matter and my hesitations.  I warned them that certain passages were very graphic, and that they should keep this in mind when deciding whether they wanted to read the book.  True story: almost every girl in the class, and about half the boys, put it on their list of preferences; most girls put it at the top.  I assigned only five students to each book, but for their final course reading, they were allowed to choose any other book from the list that they wanted, and most girls and many boys chose Lucky.

What does this say?  Does it say that teenagers nowadays are inured to violence?  I don’t think so; many readers said that they found the book upsetting but rewarding.  Many of the boys who read it said it helped them understand the effect rape has on a woman; many girls said it allowed them to see how, after a terrible and scarring experience, someone could struggle on and make use of their suffering to help others.  But mostly they said that it was a really good read.

The reasons that it’s a good read may vary from reader to reader, but it probably has something to do with the fact that life is hard, especially when you’re seventeen or eighteen, and someone else’s experience of hardship – even if it’s extreme or, in the case of some YA fiction, less than totally realistic – can help you understand your own.  As Holmes puts it,

stopping — actually stopping — a YA reader from picking up a particular book because it describes behavior you don’t want him to emulate potentially cuts him off from something that might reach him in exchange for … nothing, really, except your own comfort level.

I think it comes down to this: kids read what they read for a reason.  They have a natural aversion to things they can’t handle, and a natural inclination toward things that speak to them in some way.  It may be that parents or teachers have to occasionally take something out of their hands or put up firewalls so they can’t stumble upon things that truly injure them, but I think the decision to do so needs to be very carefully considered.

If I had a teenage daughter, for example, I’d want to take Twilight away from her, not because it’s about vampires and has violence in it, but because it’s badly written and the heroine is a sap and it teaches teenage girls terrible things about being “rescued” by creepy men who are hundreds of years too old for them.  (Some commentary on my feelings about Twilight can be found here.)  But I wouldn’t take it away from her.  (As if confiscating it would mean she wouldn’t read it anyway!)  What’s more, I’d try my best not to make her feel bad about reading it if it meant something to her.  I’d ask her why she liked it, and I’d listen to her answers, and maybe I’d try to recommend something along the same lines that was, well, a good book.

But I wouldn’t expect her to read it.  That wouldn’t be up to me.

Image by Lauren J