Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Day One

On the first day of class, I have a few goals:
1. Learn students' names. I usually have about 80% success the first day and about 90-98% success by the second day.
2. Go over the syllabus to make sure they understand a few very important things:
a. Don't plagiarize
b. Don't text in class
c. Pay attention to what I have to teach you about writing.
3. Buy the book or somehow get the readings another way.

Our classes are two hours long, and we are expected to hold class the entire two hours on the first day, so I also add in some sort of group activity on the first day. For the advanced comp class, I do a "review" of the intro comp course. I make 5 copies of an essay and cut each copy into paragraphs. I put each cut-up essay into an envelope. In class, I break the students up into 5 groups, give each an envelope, and ask them to put the paragraphs in order.

I have a few goals with this activity. Once the students have assembled the essay, I ask them why they chose the paragraph they put first. They explain to me that it's an attention grabber (usually they choose a paragraph starting with a quotation), or that it tells what the author is going to do in the essay, or it contains the thesis statement. I point out that they are telling me what they expect from an introduction. I was trained in "reader expectation theory," only a few elements of which I still use in my teaching, and this is one time I do.

My other goal is to talk about purpose. I ask the various groups what they think the purpose of the essay is. It becomes obvious that their interpretation of the purpose of the essay governs the way they organize it.

Finally, I let them know that the essay was written as a med school application essay. Once they know that, it's usually easy for them to reconstruct the essay as I originally found it. But it's also a good time to remind them that there is no one right way to organize the essay; there is no "right" answer, only the answer that matches the original. Writers reorganize and revise their writings all the time, and it's quite possible this writer revised hers at a later date for a different purpose. If she had time during med school. ;)

After this exercise, I gave students a quiz on the syllabus. Yes, on the syllabus. I let them consult the syllabus and work with their groups. There were 15 questions, the last of which asked them to guess a song that's on my iPod. I was pretty embarrassed when they guessed (incorrectly!) Jimmy Buffett, Kelly Clarkson, and Elton John's "Tiny Dancer"! That was a little bit of an icebreaker moment, for them to try to figure me out. On Day 2, I plan to give students a shorter version of the quiz to see if they retained anything.

Finally, I was thrilled today to have the opportunity to share with a student information about open source software. She told me she didn't have enough money to buy Microsoft Office and put it on her laptop. I showed her the web site for Open Office and explained how to use it. I also showed her Google Documents and how easy that is to use. I don't know if she'll follow up, but if she does, it's nice to win a convert!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Argument Analysis

As I mentioned on 11D's comments section, I'm going to blog about my course on Persuasive Writing. My university has two required English courses, an intro course and an advanced course, whose focus is persuasion. I've learned a lot about persuasion from teaching this course. I slid through college and graduate school mostly on my, well, not good looks so much as my mad skillz in literary analysis, but I find myself less interested in the *teaching* of literature so much as I am in teaching the skills of writing. I am essentially quite pragmatic.

Our advanced course has several required assignments: a review, an argument analysis, a "commentary," a problem-solution paper, and a portfolio. I ... adapt these requirements to my own needs. In the past, I started with the review assignment (although Bloom puts evaluation higher on his taxonomy), asking students to review two items in any category, i.e., movies, CDs, computers, hotels, etc. This was a fun assignment that students enjoyed doing, and I had a lot of models for them to work with. The second assignment I would work on was argument analysis, and I had several essays for them to read and analyze, figuring out the author's claim, evidence, and what Toulmin calls the "warrant." We also discussed rhetorical appeals, such as pathos, ethos and logos. The so-called "commentary" is an invention of the textbooks we are required to use. Some might call this "taking a stand" on an issue. I used to have them write essays similar to op-ed pieces, but then I started doing debates (the debates would work as panels, but each student would write an individual essay). The culminating project would be a problem-solution assignment done in a group. In many ways, this worked out very well. Most groups gelled well and would vigorously research the problem and work out possible solutions. I also introduced the concept of "stakeholders" to discuss feasibility of solutions and remind them that persuasive writing always has a specific audience in mind. Finally, we would close with the portfolio, which gave them a chance to reflect on their writing all term and to write one last persuasive piece, a cover letter that, I'd tell them, should in essence persuade me to give them a good grade. They always aced that assignment. :)

Sounds like a great plan, huh. After 4 years of teaching the course, I have it down to a science. And now I'm going to blow it all up and start over. This is why I love teaching. :)

This year, a few things:
1. We will meet in the computer lab once a week.
2. We will begin with critical reading and argument analysis. How do you recognize a claim? What is evidence? How do you know if the evidence is true? Why is it that sometimes you can't disagree with the evidence but you still think you're reading a bad argument?
3. They will work on one topic through most of the term so they can really get in depth. Since our terms are only 10 weeks long that won't be so bad. They will approach the topic from different angles.
4. Their portfolio assignment will ask them to reflect on what they have learned about persuasion.

The thing is this: I like "real-life" types of assignments. And I used to combine this course with a service-learning component and work with a community partner to find real-life problems in need of analysis. But I want to work more on in-depth analysis of persuasion. Maybe I am doing more with critical thinking than with writing skills, but I want to try it this way for a while and see how it goes.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Education Reform

I was fascinated by this Boston Globe article on the way Clark University has partnered with a school in one of the poorest sections of Worcester to increase student achievement. Part of the solution is having higher expectations, but also part of it is creating a "culture of achievement."

Clark is doing a great thing here:
1. They are encouraging people from the professional/professorial class to move to the neighborhood, thus decreasing economic segregation.
2. They are allowing students at the high school to take classes at Clark and to be on the college campus. This reminds me of a community service project a friend of mine does with her oral communications class. She has her students prepare speeches for middle schools on post-high school expectations (one of the things they do, for example, is explain to these kids how very few people actually go on to sports superstardom).
3. They offer lots of support to the schools in terms of tutoring and students working as teacher aides.

It's actually inspiring and it goes to show how institutions need to make investments in the poorest communities--investments of time, attention, and money. There is no reason this has to be limited to Clark or any college. Our local governments could also demonstrate this kind of commitment. The schools themselves have to help to maintain discipline. The problem is not that teachers aren't teaching the right things; it's all the surrounding context--the low expectations, the personal issues, the discipline issues in the classroom.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Buy Nothing Day?

Tomorrow is Black Friday, and it's also promoted as Buy Nothing Day by anti-consumerism activists. Now, I am anti-consumerism. However, I don't want to not shop tomorrow. Why?

1. I am usually never free to shop on the Friday after Thanksgiving because I'm usually travelling. But this year we celebrated Thanksgiving last weekend for a variety of reasons. I am so excited about being able to go out tomorrow morning.

2. I love the idea of getting up at 4 am to shop. I AM WEIRD LIKE THAT. I am secretly hoping it won't be crowded, which is my favorite way to shop.

3. SALES! I love bargains. Why should I pay *more* to protest consumerism? I am not buying things I wouldn't normally buy because I have control over my spending. I am targeting the deals I want and taking advantage of the loss leaders that are pulling in the other customers. My husband and I will sit together tonight and make out a plan, then I will get up early and go and I will come back with BARGAINS, which are my favorite thing in the world.

I think that anti-consumerism advocates need to come up with a different strategy for combating consumerism. Christmas can be a symbol of consumerism out of control, but it doesn't have to be. For example, I also plan to loot the sales to buy toys and other items to donate to charity.

The problem isn't buying things. It's buying too many things.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Learning Center

All this talk about elementary education, particularly AmyP's comments about the education she has sought out for her daughter, have led me to reminisce about my own elementary education.

I was reading at age 3 (as background) and was doing well at a medium school district on Long Island (not Jericho, Syosset, Great Neck, etc.), but in second grade my teacher felt I needed to be moved up. I was on the older side of the class (December cutoff, February birthday), and in December I was moved into a 3rd grade class. This was initiated by my second grade teacher. The reasoning behind my being skipped is that there was a program beginning in 4th grade called "The Learning Center," and the idea was to move me into that program more quickly.

In the nine months between my skipping second grade and entering 4th grade, my mom got pregnant, we moved to a bigger house in the same school district (different elementary), and I got a new sister. :) Then at the beginning of 4th grade, the teachers struck! We don't cross picket lines in my family, so I was delayed a week or two, much to my mom's dismay (I think she was excited about getting me and my kindergarten-age sister out of the house when she had a newborn!). Anyway, in the end, I ended up in the Learning Center sometime a few weeks after Labor Day of 1974.

There were no desks in the room, just some chairs and couches. There were only 3 walls to the room, too--one side opened up to a multi-use room that had 2 walls, and at the end was another 3-walled room with another class, I think a 6th grade class. Across the hall were two other connected rooms, one with large tables that seated about 5 or 6 students each (I remember keeping Gone With the Wind in a cubby below my usual seat when I was in 6th grade). We were the only 4th grade class. There were 3 5th grade classes and 1 6th grade class, I think.

As this was 33 years ago, I am finding it hard to remember exactly what we did. I do remember that we were self-paced, with guidance. On a regular basis, each individual student would meet with the teacher and go over a plan of what to work on until the next conference. We would also set up a next conference date. Then we would do the work on our own, sitting where we liked. We could get a library pass and go to the library to get books. I think we also worked with other classes sometimes. Every day, the teacher would also read to us. I remember she read Charlotte's Web, a book I still haven't read myself.

The thing about the Learning Center was this: students weren't placed in the Learning Center based on high IQs/grades. It wasn't a gifted program. Yet high-IQ students were in the LC. The LC was specifically for students who would benefit from an unstructured learning environment. We had kids of all abilities in the classes. Some did not succeed and moved back to "regular" classes. But some did thrive alongside those of us with high IQs.

When I look back at the Top 11 students in my graduating class of HS, 6 of us were former Learning Center students (there were at least 3 other classes in the 6th grade): me, Amy, Deb, Eric, Ross, and Eddie.

Every year the Learning Center would do a musical. I don't remember the one in 4th grade, but in 5th grade, 1976, we did 1776. I was the understudy for Ben Franklin; my friend Amy was the understudy for John Adams. Both roles went to 6th graders--and girls, at that. Tony played Jefferson, and I think his voice was changing, as I remember him cracking on "Mr. Adams, leave me alooooone!" I got on stage once; my best friend was Judge Wilson, but she couldn't make it to one performance. I had the whole play memorized and filled in for her.

One of the highlights was International Day. The 6th grade class worked on reports on different countries, then on International Day had booths/areas where they would show off their reports and, if possible, bring in food from the particular country.

Another thing I remember is that one of my classmates' parents came in on a regular basis (in 6th grade) to work with the "special math group." Looking at the group, it was the highest performing kids--I think all of us were the students I mentioned above. Amy and I remember it vividly--the project was to create architectural plans for a house of our own design. Now, these weren't *real* plans, but we had to apply math to a real-life situation. The highlight was going on a trip to watch a house in the process of being built. I have loved house plans ever since.

I e-mailed my friends Amy and Deb to ask about their memories. Amy remembered how when we finished our work, we were allowed to go to the library and read, and we voraciously read biographies of famous people. Amy said, "To this day I remember absolute minutiae about Abigail Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, etc. from those kids' biographies." What I remember is that I much preferred to read about women! I still remember things about Jessie Fremont, Dorothea Dix, Jane Addams, Harriet Tubman, Phillis Wheatley, Dolley Madison, etc. that I would never have know but for those books. I also remember the ones on the figures of the American Revolution--I read lots of those. It was the time of the Bicentennial, so I was interested in the topic.

But the Learning Center ultimately failed and became less effective. Do you know why?


Parents loved the program and were so excited about it that they demanded that the younger children of former LC students be allowed in. Administration caved. The problem is this: Just because the LC was good for me doesn't mean it would have been good for my sisters. But parents didn't realize that the LC worked because it was specifically focussed to kids who would benefit in an unstructured environment--and not all kids do.

So there is no more Learning Center. It was basically meaningless by the time my youngest sister (10 years younger) reached 4th grade. It's not there now.

Yes, I am skeptical about parents. I think parents' #1 job is to let the teachers do their jobs and not micromanage them. My question is this: is the basic concept of the Learning Center today considered a good one? Is it considered old, useless pedagogy? Is it considered too touchy-feely (elementary school kids!? Without desks!!?? I bet they wore bell-bottoms too and sang kumbaya instead of the Star Spangled Banner!).

Or is this a kind of strategy that might work again? And I wonder, would it be right for my daughter? She thrives in a structured environment, but she also isn't challenged much. Would a self-paced environment provide more challenges?

I don't know. I do know I'm thinking a lot more about elementary ed--and I'm wondering about thinking ahead for the middle school years, because that is really where education seems to fall apart.

Friday, November 09, 2007

My Daughter's Education

Work has, once again, been kicking my ass, and an uptick in traffic due to some new construction has both lengthened my commute and shortened my temper by the time I get home.

But I had a nice e-mail from my daughter's elementary school teacher the other day. Now, I live in a CorruptSmallSuburb of a MinorCity. Our school system is considered good, though not as highly regarded as the MoneyMagazineTopTen town next door. Last year's teacher was a nice woman, but I was underwhelmed by her teaching approach. My husband actively disliked her and started hinting about sending the kids to private schools (that would never happen).

But this year's teacher has been great. And to add to our pleasure, her e-mail this week was to ask about whether or not we thought our daughter needed more challenging work. Now, personally, I feel our daughter has been more challenged this year than any other. However, she is still whizzing through her homework, and she reports that she often daydreams. I've also noticed that she writes quickly and sloppily, as if she can't be bothered. But I am thrilled (and gratified, because sad it may be, but I do take incredibly personal pleasure in my daughter's academic success) that her teacher both appreciates her intelligence *and* wants her to develop further.

The upshot is that I said, yes, of course, I'd love for my daughter to be more challenged. How that is going to happen, I am not sure. I immediately contacted my elementary-ed-certified sister for advice; she feels that increasing the level of difficulty in reading and math and using more social/experiential/active learning techniques, i.e., small group interaction to solve problems and talk about them. She suggested a lunchtime reading group, or some sort of math group talking about math in a real-life context, like opening a lemonade stand.

I told my mom, who said "Too bad there's no more Learning Center." Ha, that was exactly my thought. When I was in 4th grade, I was put into a program called the Learning Center. It was approximately 5 classrooms in one wing of the school, wall-less rooms, if that makes sense. Each teacher had a class, but the students mainly worked independently, or sometimes with one of the other classes. Every week or so we'd set up a conference with the teacher to determine a plan of action for the next week. Those who could move faster through the curriculum did so; others took it slower. We did some stuff together as a class--some social studies and science, for example. Students often paired together to work on projects. I remember my friend Amy and I did a project together on Wisconsin. Then we also paired to do a project on Indonesia for International Food Day. And I remember our "special math group" that met weekly, run by the mother of one of the other students. She had us use math in the context of architecture and house plans, and the highlight was actually going to the site of a home being built. I've had a jones for house plans ever since.

It's funny to watch my daughter go through school, as she's a lot like me.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Dropout Factories

I find it a bit hard to juggle everything sometimes. Even now I don't quite feel like I have a grip on everything. But I've been voraciously reading all the commentary on the vouchers debate.

The Johns Hopkins "dropout factory" study has intrigued me. After much searching, I finally found a way to access lists of the schools here in an interactive map. You can read the report here.

And this is an excellent document with suggestions for how schools can reduce the dropout rate.

Would love to discuss. Anyone?

I'll try to edit in some key excerpts, but right now, family and work duties need my attention.