A Teacher's Writes

by Geoffrey Sheehy

Category: On Education

Is the ideal product of 21st Century learning a robot?

Our great universities, with their vast resources, their exhaustive libraries, look like a humanist’s dream. Certainly, with the collecting and archiving that has taken place in them over centuries, they could tell us much that we need to know. But there is pressure on them now to change fundamentally, to equip our young to be what the Fabians used to call “brain workers.” They are to be skilled laborers in the new economy, intellectually nimble enough to meet its needs, which we know will change constantly and unpredictably. I may simply have described the robots that will be better suited to this kind of existence, and with whom our optimized workers will no doubt be forced to compete, poor complex and distractible creatures that they will be still.

That is from Marilynne Robinson’s essay “What Are We Doing Here?” and her observation that the optimum results of our current approach to education are to create computers less capable than the robots we’re building should chill teachers who have grown used to hearing advocacy for “21st Century Learning.” Do people really advocate for what Robinson suggests they do? Here’s a typical jargon-filled example, from Karen Cator, former Director of the Office of Educational Technology for the U.S. Department of Education:

Success in the 21st century requires knowing how to learn. Students today will likely have several careers in their lifetime. They must develop strong critical thinking and interpersonal communication skills in order to be successful in an increasingly fluid, interconnected, and complex world. Technology allows for 24/7 access to information, constant social interaction, and easily created and shared digital content. In this setting, educators can leverage technology to create an engaging and personalized environment to meet the emerging educational needs of this generation. No longer does learning have to be one-size-fits-all or confined to the classroom. The opportunities afforded by technology should be used to re-imagine 21st-century education, focusing on preparing students to be learners for life.

It’s that last line that most clearly grasp’s Robinson’s point: “learners for life” means “intellectually nimble.”

10 Ways for Rapid City to Decrease the Cost of Public Education

My town is set to vote next week on whether to increase our property taxes in support of our public school system.  Many in my town have suggested that my district’s financial woes are due to mismanagement rather than an actual financial crisis; they imply that a more strategic and prudent use of public funds would solve our dilemma better than a tax increase.

They’re right, and I would like to propose a few ways we could decrease the cost of public education in my city.

1. Lower the drop-out age to 14. A few years ago our state increased the drop-out age to 18, but that was exactly the opposite from what they should have done, as it increased the number of students present in our classrooms. If we were to decrease the drop-out age to 14, we could nudge kids out of the system before they cluttered up the high schools, severely decreasing the need for expensive teachers.

2. Cut the number of requirements for graduation. The state mandates a wide number of classes that every student must take in order to earn a diploma. This includes four years of English and even fine arts credits. Cut out everything except for basic literacy and you can axe a plethora of pointless teachers who cover unnecessary topics like civics, geography, and algebra II.

3. Eliminate electives. If you want to cut costs, don’t let students take things that do not explicitly meet graduation requirements. Instead, allow them to take those classes in college, where people can foot the bill themselves and give taxpayers a break. That will eliminate the need for a wealth of teachers who teach extraneous courses like AP chemistry, AP physics, and calculus.

4. Have students buy their own materials. When you go to college, who is buying the books? The tissues? The printer paper? The students. If we’re going to send kids to college and prepare them for the next level, we should train them now by having them buy our textbooks and supplies. Sure, some kids can’t afford it, but that might encourage them to make a more affordable decision for all of us (see #1 above).

5. Online classes.  Colleges and other institutions are surviving by using online education, like MOOCS. Why can’t our teachers offer online courses? Sure, the instructional quality is low, but picture this scenario and try to comprehend how much money it could save. For one of my preps, I, an English teacher, run a ninth grade English course with 200 students enrolled. I the make sure the rigor is high and watch the work roll in. The grading can be easy–student aides could read most of it to verify that it is completed at a high school level–and as a teacher my primary duty will be data entry.  Sure, 120 or so of the students won’t be able to complete the course, but that means that 80 will have completed it at practically no cost to the district. The 120 failures can re-enroll in a face to face course and try again. Or they can explore option #1 above. It’s a win-win for everyone.

6. Increase class sizes. While teachers are quick to trot out studies about large class sizes hurting students, we all know that’s not how it works in the real world. When more people are mailing packages at Christmas, does UPS decrease the routes for their drivers? No, they hire some dimwit to ride shotgun with the regular driver and tell that driver he or she can’t afford to walk up that sidewalk. Have you ever seen your USPS mail carrier running up your sidewalk? That’s why USPS is going broke and UPS is asking what Brown can do for you. So English teachers need to take a lesson from Brown and start sprinting through that student writing. They can even hire a student aide or two to grade the essays. Ultimately they should realize that no one cares what a teacher is writing on that paper anyway, so why does it matter what the teacher is writing on there as long as it has a grade attached?

7. Eliminate grades. Actually, that paragraph above sounds cold-hearted, but if you want teachers to stay, you have to offer them incentive and make their jobs pleasant, so that’s why I suggest eliminating grading. Instead, base students’ credit upon a final test for each course. Students can even take the test anytime, so if they feel that, halfway through a course, they have learned enough to pass the end of course exam, they can “opt-out” of the rest of the course and test out of it. Teachers can feel free to teach to the test and have students all take it early if they want. That would allow the teacher either to begin summer vacation early (at a discounted rate, of course) or get another job in the school district, like security guard.  That’s an opt-out everyone can get excited about!

8. Have teachers clean their own areas. If we ran our homes like we run our schools, we’d all have personal maids. Having teachers take responsibility for their own instructional space will increase ownership of the school and decrease all the tension that can arise between custodial staff and faculty. Students can assist with these duties as well. And if they don’t like it, there’s always option #1 (see above).

9. More community involvement. One of the great indicators that a school is succeeding is if the community is participating in the education of their youth. That is why students should spend their sophomore years interning with community businesses. They could learn important things right in the workplace and the school district would not need a single teacher for the 10th grade. Obviously a student or two would be upset that their internship was with the inmates sorting trash at the dump, but do you see the inmates jumping for joy that they’re stuck there working for a dollar an hour? Those are the lessons life teaches, so it’s better for students to learn them early.

10. Advocate for homeschool. As it is, most homechoolers are children of highly involved families, where particularly Mom is guiding  the process from home instead of working outside the home. But that doesn’t mean it has to be that way. If our school district were to take a cutting edge stance and encourage everyone who wants to sleep in until 10:00am to sleep in until 10:00am and work on some school work whenever it feels good, that would reduce the need for hundreds of teachers. To seize the technicalities of state law (which won’t give the district the per student allocation if the student is not enrolled in the district) the school could “supervise” the homeschooling process, providing materials (well, a link to a website, since #4 above)  that would be equivalent to enrollment. This option would be very similar to the online courses described earlier, but with even less teacher supervision needed.

These ideas are not difficult to produce. I thought of them all while my wife was out for coffee with some friends. That our school district has failed to consider even ONE of these ideas before now is clear evidence of their gross mismanagement of public funds. I can only hope that when it comes time to vote for the opt-out, my fellow residents make them pay for their negligence.

Asking Student Writers to Keep a Commonplace Book

First, an admittance: I’ve never liked Nancy Atwell’s “writing territories” method for coming up with ideas for writing. I see how it works but having been employed outside of education a little and written a bit myself, I have never recognized its similarity to what writers do. Maybe some writers have the liberty to pull from such lists for topics, but I can’t envision people who write for a living–say a marketing or PR employee or even David Brooks or Marueen Dowd–checking their writing territories for ideas about what to say.

More often I see writers entering into or attempting to begin a broader conversation. (This is one reason I so value Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say I Say, a book that frames academic writing as participation in an ongoing conversation.) In this regard, writers are not exploring personal territories so much as responding to ideas they have discovered. That is why for years I have given my high school students more direct prompts to which they need to respond. Each prompt has flexibility and usually I offer multiple prompts, but I am convinced the act of responding to a concrete idea is more “authentic” to what writing in life is like than diving into writing territories. It also, I find, offers students more opportunities to stretch beyond the personal narrative.

Happily, a personal experience of my own has pushed me into a new way of exploring writing ideas, one I hope will combine the positive aspects of Atwell’s writing territories with the relevant conversation-framework of Graff and Birkenstein. For Christmas a student of mine gave me a notebook that reads on the front, “Shakespeare never tweeted a sonnet,” which is of course a cute knock on my penchant for playing with Twitter. I wanted to use the notebook for something I’d treasure and decided I’d take my informal commonplace book and move it offline (I used to use a tumblr but later merged it with this blog).

Allow me to pause to explain the commonplace book. A commonplace book is more scrapbook than journal. Most sources, like Wikipedia, observe that it is “filled with items of every kind.” In this sense a writer of a commonplace book gets to choose entirely what goes into it. Most commonly people place quotes, ideas, reactions to passages (with portions quoted), poems, or more. Alan Jacobs observes that “a book full of such passages would be a treasure-house,” which means that it is filled with materials “that you expect will repay repeated consideration.” That is, it contains passages, quotes, and ideas you’d want to look back on and reconsider.

Using my new notebook for this commonplace book purpose struck me as a good idea because when I come across great passages in my reading I usually do not transfer them to the computer and thus rarely write them down (hence the relative infrequency of posts here). Plus, I never return to browse my old entries online, though I have searched for passages in my blog when I know they’re there. This behavior misses the purpose of the commonplace book and falls under the warning of Jacobs’s nicely aphoristic point: “wisdom that is not frequently revisited is wisdom wasted.”

Shortly after rejuvenating my own (and loving the process), it hit me: why not have my students keep a commonplace book, if only for a time? Through the process they can not only see how writing is engaging in a conversation but they can learn how to enter one. Plus, the process will encourage good reading habits, like reacting to particular passages and noting key ideas.

So my juniors are keeping one for a month to enable them to discover what the process is like. At the end of the month, I’ll ask them to write an article using some of the material they’ve collected in their commonplace books. I’d like to see if we can roll the task over and convert that article into their research paper (and why not, since the commonplace book is in part a way of tracking research?), but exactly how to do that will take some additional time and thought.

To begin, I’ve created a handout explaining what commonplace books are and am encouraging students to read whatever they want (I do have a nonfiction reading list to give folks some ideas in case they need one). They seem amendable to the idea, perhaps since it gives them so much freedom and because “just” jotting quotes and passages is less straining than composing journal entries.

It’s a “we’ll see” project this year, but I am excited, because it mirrors the process “real” writers are using. Consider how much it echoes Kevin DeYoung’s process, as he describes it in Crazy Busy:

I suppose every writer has different routines for writing. When I know what my next book is going to be, I start reading for it about a year in advance. I collect articles and blog posts. I jot down stray thoughts. I usually read twenty to twenty-five books before beginning to write.

DeYoung and others like him may have writing territories that invisibly guide them to their choice of topics, so I acknowledge such territories may have a place in our teaching of writing, but since his process so clearly mirrors the keeping of a commonplace book, I get the sense that in assigning one, I as a writing instructor am exposing my students to a proven process for writing intelligently and substantively.

And that’s worth noting.

Thanks for reading.

Four things I cherish about teaching

Four things I cherish about teaching and have been privileged to enjoy this week:

Helping students choose a good book to read. Though I hesitate to recommend a book only on the basis of my liking it, I enjoy the challenge of probing for what a student might like and then matching them with a book that fits. Perhaps I would have made a decent real estate agent.

Hearing students’ stories. Today I mingled with my first block students and asked them what their greatest Halloween costumes were. I suppose a Charlotte Danielson domains evaluator might call this wasted instructional time. If so, I’m happy to be a better person than a teacher.

Helping students write better. This is the most difficult and most rewarding part of my work as a teacher. In a couple instances this week I felt like I was able to nudge students into organizing and articulating their thinking. I doubt the improvement is officially measurable, but if we keep at it, they’ll write better than they did last week.

Hall duty. I consider hall duty social time and people watching time. I say hi to current and former students and on Halloween I have seen Mario, clowns, witches, Pooh Bear, and more.

It’s a great job.

Wherein I pause to consider why so many education initiatives SO frustrate me

At one time or another I have grown passionately frustrated by a number of things in education. The implementation of the Charlotte Danielson framework for evaluating teachers, the development of student learning objectives (SLOs) in a very particular manner, data team cycles, Smarter Balance testing, and pacing guides all make the list of items I have had to mentally walk away from before I lost my cool.

I am convinced one reason that these ideas and priorities in education drive me crazy is that while all of them have been mandated for me to use or engage in, none of their implementation has been paired with familiarity with me or my classroom. SLOs will focus teachers on students’ learning and growth, helping guarantee the curriculum and holding the students accountable, so we all have to engage in that process. But what was wrong with what I was doing before someone decided SLOs were the only way to go, before we had to engage in data-team cycles, utilizing common summative assessments, adhering closely to particular pacing guides?

“Well,” a defender of these initiatives might reply to me, “we are not saying you need to change anything if what you were doing is great. We just want you to incorporate these methods into your way of doing it.”

Okay, but do you have any data that suggests my way was not working? Have you ever been in my classroom and seen what I do? Have you ever read my syllabus? Do you know how many students I have in my classes? Do you know how I relate to students–whether I’m quiet or loud, funny or serious, ironic or straightforward? Have you ever spoken to my former students? Have you ever asked me about how I teach writing? Have you ever looked at the kind of feedback I offer students on their writing assignments? Have you asked me why I arrange my desks the way I do? Why I ask students to read the books I have them read? Do you have any idea who I am?

I am an imperfect teacher. I am more than imperfect; on many days I would not even call myself good. I make a lot of mistakes and have a lot of room for improvement. Yet I have been at this for ten years and I have worked very hard to improve myself over that span. I have trouble with these initiatives, which fall upon me in a seemingly increasing volume, and one reason is they never seem to accompany any acknowledgement that I might have been doing something right. They are never paired with any understanding of what I have been trying to do. Whatever I was doing does not matter because someone discovered some research that says this is the way to do it. So even if what I was doing is interestingly similar but not quite the same, I am the one who has to adjust, who has to conform to the new initiative.

These ideas that drive me mad, that kick start fantasies of my going to law school, represent one-way initiatives. And with no one listening to me, I feel inclined to holler back in whatever direction the initiatives came from, to tell them what I think of them, since they don’t think of me at all.

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.

Briefly connecting literature, depth, education, and Steve Jobs

Paul Elie, at The American Scholar, describing his first book proposal experience:

I went into his office and waited for a phone call to end. He stood. A smile, a cock of the head, a pat on the shoulder. He liked it, he said—liked it a lot. Then: “Go deeper. You need to go deeper.”

I asked him what he meant, and he explained, roundabout but in such a way as to draw clear lines between the literary text and all the other kinds of writing that washed up against the pilings of our office. What I’d written was too journalistic. It made too much of superficial connections. It was boosterish in style—it was trying to put the idea of a “school” of American Catholic writing over on us instead of trusting the material. And (again, all this was conveyed indirectly) it didn’t get to the bottom of what made these people a school, or what made them Catholic writers, or what made them Catholics at all, or why what they believed mattered to them or us.

Roger Straus liked it too—and Jonathan and FSG signed up the book. And day and night for a thousand days and nights I sought to go deeper, starting by moving my point of entry into the story back nearly half a century—to the moments where those four writers themselves turned, in their different ways, to literature and to religious belief in their own efforts to go deeper. And somewhere in the middle of those thousand days and nights, I concluded that the experience of depth—intellectual, emotional, spiritual depth—is the central literary experience. It is what makes literature literature, and what makes us read literature, and write it.

“Go deeper.” It’s not advice a writer can outgrow or set aside as unnecessary. Augustine asked, “Who understands his sins?” Likewise, what writer can truly say, “I’ve gone deep enough”?

I originally saw this quote on Wesley Hill’s tumblr, where Hill added this:

I’m reminded of the (one suspects apocryphal but wishes not) story about the Old Testament scholar Brevard Childs at Yale. Asked by a student upset over his grade on an essay how he could improve the next time around, Childs replied, “Become a deeper person.”

It strikes me that this “become deeper/go deeper” thrust is why we make students read literature in school. It’s a challenge to help students realize that their answer isn’t good enough, that they need to push themselves to see more in a text (and thus, in life). They’ll point out that their answer is right, and it’s true, it is correct. The problem is that too often it’s also shallow, obvious, and uninspiring.

I was reading Walter Jacobson’s article in The Smithsonian about Steve Jobs, and it strikes me that Jobs is a good example of how depth can work outside the world of English class. Depth doesn’t make you a good person (Jacobson says frankly Jobs was a bit of a jerk) but it does give you an understanding of people that can guide your pursuits. Jobs’s depth, gained most prominently, it appears, through his study of Buddhism, is what pushed him to understand design and its importance with computing technology–thus, the simplicity and beauty of Apple’s products.