A Teacher's Writes

One teacher's thoughts on life, literature, and learning

Explaining liberal arts or Christianity to a determined skeptic is not easy to do

This situation bears close and significant analogies to another one I find myself in fairly regularly: being asked to explain why I am a Christian, or why I think Christianity makes sense. Over several decades I have tried many responses to those folks, but I now think the best one is simply this: Come and see. Christianity is not simply a set of beliefs; what Christians believe is intimately intertwined with what they do. Christian life is a set of practices — intellectual, doxastic, social, economic — and cannot be fully defended, or even accounted for, to people unwilling to participate, at least to some degree, in those practices. To put it another way, you can’t get any return on an investment (of time and observation) that you haven’t made.

I think much the same can be said of the liberal arts. When properly pursued, they constitute something close to a way of life: a set of practices of inquiry conducted by people who share space and time with one another, whose conversations are extended and embodied. If you want to understand the value of a liberal education, in a very real sense you have to be there.

So to the parents who can’t understand why they should pay for their son or daughter to study literature or philosophy or art history, maybe the best thing I can say is something like this: “I fully understand your concern. And you have every right to know what you are paying for, and to believe that it has value. But if you want to know what value this education has, you’ll need to spend some time with us. It may not make sense from the outside; so come and see.”

Alan Jacobs at Text Patterns captures insights on both fronts.

Is “flipping” a classroom all teachers have to do?

Over at Edutopia blogger and teacher Brian Sztabnik writes about some experiences he has had “flipping” his classroom:

A reading transformation can occur in your school much like it has in my classroom, replacing fear and dread with excitement and self-expression. Students will read if they choose the books. They will write with voice and clarity if they have the ability to express their thoughts. They can change from reluctant to inspired readers if it happens on their own terms. All you have to do is flip the experience, turning the practice of reading on its head by making them the creators of their own learning.

The article is optimistic and energetic, which is good; my trouble is that I do find myself reacting to the article and many I have read like it with a bit of skepticism. Perhaps my skepticism rears up as soon as I hear the words “all you have to do”; if all I had to do could be written in a blog post, why is my district spending millions of dollars killing me with acronyms?

Obnoxious attempts at humor aside, I have a couple immediate reactions to Sztabnik’s article, which of course means I’m slightly contrarian at first, but look deeper, I have positive things to say as well–honest!

Choice and Challenge

The student quote says, “when none of it makes sense.” That captures my biggest problem with the choice many teachers trumpet as the answer to everything. When the most common reason students don’t want to read the classics is they can’t read the classics–aren’t we concerned? I had students read the Brown v. the Board of Education decision the other day–it’s about four pages long and the first page is an outline (syllabus) of the rest of it. It’s hard, yes, but not astronomically difficult; it’s boring, okay, but it’s not that long. Yet I hand it to students and if I don’t have a highly detailed response assignment built in, they shut down and don’t read it. That is, I was not able to hand it to them and say, “Let’s read this and then talk about it.” I had to have an assignment tied to it. I could have them read a hip hop song’s lyrics instead, but am I not trying to educate students so that they can read a Supreme Court decision, particularly the most important decision of the 20th century?

The Lecture Flip: Watching at Home

“Students watch online lectures at home.” My first thought is, they do? And what else is going on while they watch that lecture? And then I wonder if those who propose this have ever engaged in that kind of learning, because I personally hate watching online lectures. They are so insanely boring they make me crazy, and when you have the ability to tune out without being rude or skip ahead, well . . . guess what I do? Every time I watch an online lecture, even dynamic ones, I usually find myself wishing they’d written it down so I could move through it faster. I’m no defender of lecturing a lot in class, so if putting them online makes it so students don’t have to endure hearing junk they didn’t really need to hear anyway, great, but the idea of having people watch them at other times strikes me as wishful thinking. If I as a teacher have something important to say to students, an online video would be the last way I’d say it.

The writing flip: Writing at home

“Students blog about the experience at home.” I have students with computer issues all the time. You would think they all have the ability to do our work outside of school, but for a good number of my students their phones are the only way they connect to the Internet. If we had a guideline at school that said, “Any students without computer access at home should make sure they schedule a study hall so they can use the school’s computers” that would maybe work. On the positive side (see, I do more than just criticize!) Sztabnik’s method does something I think schools should do more of: admit that many of our students have better computing technology than the schools can provide and then challenge them to use it for educational purposes. We ask students to buy their notebooks, while not their computers? If you could balance that with ensuring that we don’t leave students on the wrong side of the digital divide, I’d be interested in the idea.

Freedom of expression

“No longer must they be told what to write and how.” I like blogs and use them when I teach summer school, but what Sztabnik is doing here is really just recycling reading journals or notebooks with a different technology, isn’t it? Now, I find reading journals to be an effective teaching method and a crucial part of my pedagogy, so I’m not criticizing the method at all. Plus, I like the ability to comment quickly with a computer when I read blogs, and I also like the ability to have students read each others’ work (See for example what I did on my wiki this summer, where I highlighted students’ articles that others should read, and then had a feed planted in the class page where students could click on them).

So there are things I like about Sztabnik’s method and much of it resembles things I’ve actually done in the classroom. I think the big things that I don’t like are 1) worshiping at the altar of choice as if that solves everything, particularly when that choice means students will avoid the difficult tasks we educators should be teaching them how to do, and 2) recycling old ideas and acting like they’re new. I don’t suggest that Sztabnik is trying to act like a hero who thought of the great elixir–he really isn’t–but there is this tendency, as many teachers know, of folks to set up all educational methods of the past as a straw man who gets knocked down easily in the introduction to an article about the new method, and the new method is frequently just an old method in new clothes. For example, have you heard that we’re starting to call learning targets objectives again?

Those are a few thoughts I have today. Thanks for reading.

Something we do well: Conditioning students for surveillance

When we develop and use educational technologies that monitor a student’s every moment in school and online, we groom that student for a lifetime of surveillance from the NSA, from data brokers, from advertisers, marketers, and even CCTV cameras. By watching every move that students make while learning, we model to students that we do not trust them– that ultimately, their every move will be under scrutiny from others. When students recognize that they are being watched, they begin to act differently– and from that very moment they begin to cede one small bit of freedom at a time….

By developing technologies that collect, track, record, analyze every move a student makes both online and off, technologists and investors and educators are ensuring that today’s students will have less privacy than any other generation that came before them, threatening to make privacy and anonymity unattainable for future generations.

Reblogged from Alan Jacobs. Post originates here.

Ta-Nehisi Coates describes how painful it is to learn

The hardest thing about learning any new skill is that beginning portion when you are forced to walk in the dark, with no map at all. It’s not just what you don’t know, it’s that you have no idea what you don’t know and when you’ll stop not knowing it. Fear then takes over. Will I ever read Rousseau? Why can’t I get that “r” right? When I will I stop embarrassing myself every time I speak? Why do I keep confusing “son” and “ton?” What is wrong with me? Do I have a brain injury? The questions—the darkness—dogs us. And so we quit. It’s hard to sit in ignorance—mostly because there are no real signs of when that ignorance will end.

I am privileged, in that I was born into a culture where no one had the right to be the best at anything. You had better dance at that party. No one cares that you can’t cabbage patch. And you had better play basketball on that crate—even if you can only rebound and play D. I’ve sucked at a lot of things in my life. I’ve also gotten better at them. At 15, I was an awful djembe drummer. By 17,  I could both play the djembe, shave a goat-skin, attach it to the head and string the drum. I was a bad poet. I became a better one. I was a bad reporter. I became a decent one. I knew very little about the Civil War. And then I read some books, and I knew much more. It’s true that I was not a scholastic high-achiever. But have always been—and expect to always be—a hard student. School never ends for the hard student. She is primarily concerned with her curiosities, not the benchmarks of others.

My expectations for French are derived from my experience. I expect to suck for awhile. Then I expect to slowly get better. The point is neither mastery, nor fluency. The point is hard study—the repeated application of a principle until the eyes and ears bleed a little. And then all of that again. In my time as a hard student, I have found that it is much better to focus on process, than outcomes. The question isn’t “When will I master the subjunctive?” It’s “Did I put in my hour of study today?”

Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic.

College Course Evaluations as a Useless Measure

Michele Pellizzari, an economics professor at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, has a more serious claim: that course evaluations may in fact measure, and thus motivate, the opposite of good teaching.

His experiment took place with students at the Bocconi University Department of Economics in Milan, Italy. There, students are given a cognitive test on entry, which establishes their basic aptitude, and they are randomly assigned to professors.

The paper compared the student evaluations of a particular professor to another measure of teacher quality: how those students performed in a subsequent course. In other words, if I have Dr. Muccio in Microeconomics I, what’s my grade next year in Macroeconomics II?

Here’s what he found. The better the professors were, as measured by their students’ grades in later classes, the lower their ratings from students.

“If you make your students do well in their academic career, you get worse evaluations from your students,” Pellizzari said. Students, by and large, don’t enjoy learning from a taskmaster, even if it does them some good.

There’s an intriguing exception to the pattern: Classes full of highly skilled students do give highly skilled teachers high marks. Perhaps the smartest kids do see the benefit of being pushed.

from NPR. When I get discouraged about how K-12 schools evaluate teachers I need only consider how universities do it. I magically feel better.

Seth Godin’s Power Point Rules

Here are the five rules you need to remember to create amazing PowerPoint presentations:

  1. No more than six words on a slide. EVER.
  2. No cheesy images. Use professional images from corbis.com instead. They cost $3 each, or a little more if they’re for ‘professional use’.
  3. No dissolves, spins or other transitions. None.
  4. Sound effects can be used a few times per presentation, but never (ever) use the sound effects that are built in to the program. Instead, rip sounds and music from CDs and leverage the Proustian effect this can have.
  5. Don’t hand out print-outs of your slides. They’re emotional, and they won’t work without you there. If someone wants your slides to show “the boss,” tell them that the slides go if you go.

from Seth Godin’s “Really Bad Power Point (and how to avoid it).” I think you can find good imagery without spending money, but you have to know how and where to look. If you don’t know what it looks like when you find it, you shouldn’t be creating these kinds of visual aids. I’ve also never been in a situation where a sound effect would have been helpful. But, oh, my, do I wish more people would understand the power of number 1.

Alan Noble sees The Road as validating faith in the transcendent

It’s difficult to express how remarkable this novel is. Modern readers expect a hopeless ending, an ironic ending, an ambiguous ending, or at best an ending that praises the human will to persevere in the face of a godless and hostile world, but McCarthy very intentionally validates the faith of his protagonist, a faith that is absurd from a secular perspective (for a lengthy treatment of this absurdity, see here).

One of the points made by Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor in his great work, A Secular Age, is that while religion remains popular, our society no longer assumes as a basic fact that the supernatural or transcendent is a reality which can affect us. Whether it is miracles in the Bible or God’s preserving common grace today, most modern people find it difficult to conceive of the supernatural. Ours is a largely disenchanted world, one in which we look inward for our hope and significance and direction, rather than outward toward a transcendent reality. And yet here is Cormac McCarthy, perhaps the foremost living American novelist, telling a story that acknowledges the weightiness of the secular vision (in the voice of the mother) and then denies that vision by validating a faith in the transcendent.

Alan Noble, describing a book he thinks every Christian should consider reading

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