NCTE 2008 “Shift Happens”

Posting from San Antonio, here are some big questions that have been rattling around in my head lately (thanks to CSU Professor Louann Reid and Tech Genius Bud Hunt for talking these out with me last night):

  1. There seem to be two schools of thought about the role of technology in the English Language Arts classroom: The first is that students’ cognitive functions and the world of technology have evolved into something very different from the linear textuality we are familiar with, and that this change in thinking requires a revolution in the classroom, so that teachers can engage and teach students communication and deep thinking; the second school of thought seems to be that technology allows us to hold carrots out to students that reward them for working through more traditional English assignments.  Many people in the second group say things like, “Just make sure they write the paper first,” or, “The text must remain primary.”  My question is, “Do we need a revolution in the classroom?”

    I’m inclined to say yes.

  2. Is text still primary?
  3. How do we define text?
  4. How do we divide our instructional minutes to address written texts, visual texts, technology instruction, critical thinking, reading and writing skills, philosophical/humanistic issues, etc.?
  5. How much technology do we actually need to be familiar with to teach the students?

    I think we need more expertise than most of the presenters seem to believe. We can’t expect our students to use tools well that we are completely unfamiliar with, even with the model of “Teacher as guide.” Knowing the tools will also help us negotiate and explore the discourse rules so that we can guide students into making good decisions about the most effective ways to communicate across new genres.

  6. What will the role of traditional texts be in this new world that our students will work in?
  7. What should the role of traditional texts be?
  8. Is our text changing for better or worse in the foreseeable future as a result of new communication technologies and genres?
  9. Is our world changing for better or worse as a result of new communication technologies and genres?
  10. Cumulatively and specifically, what role should English (and other content area) teachers play in this new world.

There are more questions, but, for me, the biggest ones focus on how much our teaching should change and in what directions/ways.

I think each of those questions probably deserve their own blog post.  So–following Bud Hunt’s advice–that’s what I’ll write about for the next couple of weeks to keep my reflections active and ongoing.

It IS the plate…

A student who recently attended a class on critical thinking with Dr. Richard Paul apparently had a revelation in class that went something like, “I didn’t want to take on critical thinking because I didn’t want something else on my plate.  But I realize that critical thinking is the plate!”

I couldn’t agree more.  Whatever else we do as educators, we must teach students how to ask good questions and find the answers.

This week I found out that our school–like every other school in the country–is trying to figure out what to do with the federal mandates related to RtI.  It seems like someone finally realized that public schools have to address a broader range of students than ever before and we ought to figure out what’s working and what isn’t.  I’ll address my perceptions of RtI in another post, but I think most teachers would agree that the ever more diverse needs of our students are getting harder and harder to fit under one roof.  No one even knows what a high school diploma is supposed to mean.  Does it mean the student is ready for work?  For school?  For wandering around trying to find herself?

But no matter what else I teach a student in high school, I know that everyone does better when they learn how to walk all around a problem (in math, art, or relationships) and think about it with intellectual honesty and humility.

It seems like everyone nowadays–at least across the short span from Thomas Friedman to  Daniel Pink–is looking for the future direction of our economy so that we can prepare for it.  Teachers like me are reading a lot of books to see what innovations should be integrated into our instruction.

But having read The World is Flat, and A Whole New Mind, I think it’s clear that the strongest performers in the future will be people with the same skills that made the strongest performers in the past.  I want a doctor (like Jack Eck M.D.) who cares about me as human beings and goes beyond a flowchart when diagnosing my illnesses.  I’ve always looked for that.  I know that someone who comes from poverty–in any culture–is often more driven to success than his middle-class counterparts.  That has always been true in basketball and business.  And yes, I need a teacher (like Pat Phelan) who sees his students as unique individuals with diverse needs and who really knows the content that he’s teaching.  People like that have always been the best teachers.

Those statements have always been true.  Perhaps what’s really happening is that there is now more room at the top.  To succeed as a teacher in America, I may have to get more students to that summit, but the same skills that made Clarence Darrow, Einstein, Da Vinci, Edison, Curie, and many other great men and women so great are those that we need to teach our students.  Imagination and knowledge.  Compassion and ambition.

Let’s not pretend we’re reinventing the wheel when we see that the plate we’ve piled so much on is the most important and basic skillset we should teach.  I don’t know what a high school diploma will mean in the future, but it should at least mean that a student knows how to think about what is in front of her.

Graduation Conflict

I went to my first high school graduation as a teacher. Some things are a little different from when I graduated 15 years ago.  I believe I witnessed a conflict between the need for a profound ceremonial reflection and the needs of the students to own their graduation experiences as individuals.

In addition to the frequently seen–and just as frequently confiscated–beach balls bouncing among the graduates, there were also a number of students who were barefoot, a brief volleyball game with a blow-up sex doll, and two girls who unzipped their robes to reveal scanty clothing underneath: one was wearing low-rise shorts and a bright green bikini top.

In their speeches students also mispronounced the names of Yeats and Ovid, whom they quoted, but that only bothered the English teachers like me.

I happened to be sitting next to 2 teachers who retired this year. They both noted the irreverence of ceremony in these actions. But, while I agree with their observations, they failed to note the need of students to make an individual mark.

I certainly don’t support these students’ actions, but I think that graduation ceremonies are generally mishandled, and the few ceremonies we subject students to in school are thin facades for control. Students see through the school ceremonies of bell-regulated schedules, desks in neat rows, no talking/texting/drawing/eating/drinking/individual thinking, and they conclude that all ceremonies are probably as meaningless to their lives as most of the artificiality of school. Since most students don’t attend strictly structured religious services, or come from traditional cultures with long-standing traditions, there is little other exposure to any other ceremony.

And students need to be individuals. They don’t want to be recognized just as a class; they want to shine. They want to be Leigh, Kodi, Cody, and Alan. Putting all the students in maroon and white gowns and caps and having them sit in neat rows according to the letter of the alphabet does not impart profundity to my students, it screams Maoist oppression–not that any of them know who Chairman Mao was.

As a result, the conflict between an (adult?) need for a profoundly ritualistic ceremony and the (students’?) need for individual expression became not a conflict at all. the students were in control.  Individualism wins.

I wonder how other teachers use ritual and ceremony in their classrooms. Is there any purpose behind it? Do we have metacognitive, explicit conversations about the value of ceremony? Do we show the students of ceremony or tradition? If not, do we believe that there is a value in these ceremonies?  Or do we just cling to tradition like old codgers, without reason?

Scheduling and Looking Forward

While considering a few different items I had a thought about schedules…

1) I was reflecting on the shift of my own thinking from concentrating on what I taught this year to how I would change my curricula for next year (which seemed to occur right around Spring Break).

2) I was thinking about how destructive to instruction it was for my district to postpone Spring Break for several weeks so it couldn’t interfere with our CSAP tests;

3) and I was listening to many teachers complain about the scheduling of professional development right before the start of classes each year in the fall–there’s no point in teaching us something we can’t integrate because we see kids in 48 hours, and PD in June is too late, teachers are all burned out.

The soup I made from all these ingredients is that we should have an extended Spring Break. The students would have an additional 1-3 days off each year during which the teachers would come back, refreshed and looking toward the next year more than the remainders of 4th quarter, and it would help us ease back into school after vacation. We could move the PD days from August without complaint.

I have suggested this, but each person I mention it to nods his or her head with a “Yes, that makes sense,” and an implied, “but it’ll never happen.” The teachers believe (accurately) that they occupy a separate universe from the District Administrators. Whereas most teachers consider how each decision will affect students’ learning, most administrators seem to consider… everything else.

Even in our faculty meetings, I am bothered by how rarely someone says, “How will this help our kids?” Although, as a newbie/probie/schmuck I concede that this thought may underlie many of the comments veteran teachers make, I also think it would benefit everyone to address it more explicitly.

Now that I’ve identified that problem–and now that I’ve been offered a position next year–I think that voice will have to come from me.

Purpose of the Blog

I’m a first year high school English teacher in northern Colorado. I am 33 years old and have had more jobs than I care to count, mostly in Video and Film Production.

I have realized that many of the difficulties we face in education are the result of too many forces pushing us in too many directions. We struggle to incorporate great literature, critical thinking, higher order thinking, technology, counseling, state standards, and standardized testing preparation in ways that are somehow relevant and engaging to our students. After many conversations with veteran teachers in several different schools, I know that what we need are some clarifications of priorities.

I don’t know exactly what those priorities will be, or even a good method for figuring them out yet, but professionals who blog seem to be headed in the right direction. So I thought I should join the conversation…