Education


It seems to me that one of life’s great ironies is that the grass always seems to be greener somewhere else. Don’t get me wrong, the grass is plenty green in my field right now; I love what I do and I’m challenged by my students to be a better teacher. And since I seem to thrive under such pressures, I really couldn’t be happier. However, every once in a while I miss the luxury of thinking for selfish reasons.

Heather, Justin and I have rolled out a new unit for the seniors using Laurie Halse Anderson’s Twisted as the central text. The goal of the unit isn’t to teach literary analysis, or literary techniques, rather it’s to challenge the students to think about what books do, what they’ve done, how they’ve altered the face of our society and culture and how each of us is influenced and impacted by what we read. The final assessment for the unit is a Howard Gardner styled project that asks students to take action, to do/create/change something as the result of their reading.

Creating the opportunity for them to think in this fashion has reminded me of all the subjects that I’d “do” something with, if only I could find the time. First is to reply formally to David Brooks’ Op-Ed piece in published online today in the New York Times. I’m a fan of David Brooks. He writes about education although it’s not his area of expertise, nor is it his job. As someone who believes fervently in education, I’m grateful for the exposure even though, like many pundits and politicians who dabble in educational criticism, Brooks makes several common mistakes. He (and they) equate test scores with student learning and believes that awarding merit pay to individual teachers will somehow magically solve the problem of troubled schools. So if I had more time, I’d ask the following questions: How did NCLB policies fail? How can those failures instruct our federal government’s next approach at educational reform? What discrepancies exist between the reports and my own, real classroom experience? How can the classroom teacher use this data to shape her own practices?

I’d also research the Facebook phenomena. It has been really weird to “see” people I haven’t spoken with in twenty years. Of course, I’ll see many of them at my twentieth–that’s a tough pill to swallow–high school reunion this summer, but that’s a one-time thing. As someone who deals in high school drama on a daily basis, it’s not a little ironic that I’m once again immersed in the social fabric of my own adolescent years. I’d like to think that we’re all above drama, but are we? Is Facebook really nothing more than a digital record of our place in the social pecking order? I’m sure sociologists are already madly conducting studies on this, so I would like to read their analyses about how it’s changing our social fabric. Does Facebook bring us closer together, or is it a poor substitute for more in-depth person-to-person communication? What human interactions does it replace? What human interactions does it supplant? With the advent of social networking, I assume there are whole host of anthropological implications being rewritten on the fly also. Has the structure of what we call “community” shifted? Because I’m now ostensibly in touch with people I haven’t spoken with in twenty years does this expand my community, or is Facebook little more than window dressing?

Well, I had more to say about that than I thought. I could keep going (technology in education, the gender gap in education, the implications of a flat world), but in the interest of keeping the one reader I have–love you Stan–I’ll call it quits now.

This is a variation on Nancy Atwell’s Writing Territories. Writing Territories are just that, a list of territories or areas one might write about. However, instead of just listing writing topics, Heather Fowler, Justin DiLoro and I are encouraging our students to think outside of themselves and begin to make connections between their interests and the larger dialogue on those topics. Therefore, this writing territories list includes not only my interests, but those places (print or digital) where I might find additional information about those topics. The purpose of this list is to act not only as a writing prompt, but one that encourages me to deliberately include and acknowledge the ideas of others in my reflection and writing.

Triathlons

http://www.buffalotriathlonclub.com/

Training Plans for Multisport Athletes: Your Essential Guide to Triathlon, Dualthlon, XTERRA, Ironman, and Endurance Racing by Gail Bernhardt

Politics & Current Events

http://www.nytimes.com/

Blogs I read

Well: Tara Parker-Pope on Health

Think Again: Stanley Fish

Domestic Disturbances: Judith Warner

Swimming

http://www.usms.org/

http://www.usaswimming.org/usasweb/DesktopDefault.aspx

Newspapers I read

The New York Times

Literature & Fiction

The New York Times: Books

http://www.salon.com/

The New York Times Book Review

Whatever I’m currently reading.

Backpacking

http://www.backpacker.com/

Outside Magazine

The Adirondacks

Climbing Mount Marcy

Walking Treks in the UK

http://www.hightrek.co.uk/snowdonia/walking.htm

http://www.lakeswalks.co.uk/walks/

http://www.walkingbritain.co.uk/walks/walks/walk_a/1169/

http://www.walking-routes.co.uk/

http://www.ramblers.org.uk/

Education

National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Blog

Dana Huff’s Blog

The New York Times: Education

English Companion ning

Technology

2cents Worth

Film

http://www.imdb.com/

The New York Times: Movies

Films I’ve watched

Music

Buffalo Summer Concert Series

Ron Hawkins

Wilco

Red Hot Chili Peppers

Janis Joplin: Buried Alive by Myra Friedman

Scar Tissue: Anthony Kiedis

American Literature

Romanticism: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott

Realism: Elizabeth Phelps, Mark Twain

Naturalism: Edith Wharton, Theodore Dreiser

Modernism: Virgina Woolf, Willa Cather

Beat Generation: Jack Kerouac

Postmodernism: Kurt Vonnegut, Hunter S. Thompson, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace

Feminism: Marilynne Robinson, Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Multicultural: Louise Erdrich, Sandra Cisneros, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Bharati Mukherjee, Zora Neale Hurston

World Literature

Slavenka Drakulic, Manju Kapur

Non-Fiction

Jon Krakauer

Favorite Contemporary Writers

Louise Erdrich

Barbara Kingsolver

Making jewelry

http://www.firemountaingems.com/

http://www.artbeads.com/

BeadStyle Magazine

Reflecting on this process, I think this list is interesting in that it’s a snapshot of me today. I’m reading The New York Times a lot. I’m actively preparing to compete in a triathlon. I’m planning a vacation to the UK. I’m trying to extend my breadth in American Literature to include postmodern writers. I am learning to make jewelry. If I were to repeat this process in two years, I’m sure the list would look completely different.

I’ve been really remiss about posting on regular basis lately. It’s not that I didn’t think about the blog, but I just wasn’t feeling it. Thanks to a whole lot of English education and a brief stint in the field of journalism I can pretty much write on demand, but my thought process went somewhere along these lines: it’s summer and there are no looming deadlines, so why force myself?

I have been reading a lot this summer, however, thanks to a muscle tear in my calf that occurred the day before school ended. This meant shelving our plans to hike the the John Muir Trail and left me in a foul mood for most of July. Thankfully in that regard, summer is winding down and I’m starting to look ahead to a new school year (one where I’m not doing double duty as technology facilitator either, yay!) and after meeting with Heather and Justin to hash out some new additions to the English 4 curriculum, I’m inspired to write again. Thank you both!

I’m starting off easy, which as any good writing instruction will say is the place to begin. What follows are some new additions to my Writing Territories list, an assignment we ask the seniors to complete as they are setting up their blogs. The list is intended to give them a place to go when they come up empty-handed for ideas.

So, here are my additions:

1. The Dark Side by Jane Mayer. I’m about halfway through this book about how the Bush administration’s war on terror lead to the erosion of the civil liberties we’ve championed at home and abroad since our inception. Even though I knew this was happening, I’m nonetheless appalled by the details I’m reading. If you want to check what compelled me to read it, check out Alan Brinkley’s review for the Times’ Sunday Book Review, Bob Herbert’s mention of it in his Op-Ed column, and Jennifer Schuessler’s review for Books of The Times.

2. Hunter S. Thompson and Gonzo journalism. I read three works by Thompson this summer and became slightly addicted to his out there brand of writing and reporting. I was especially intrigued with Fear And Loathing: On The Campaign Trail ’72 and what I learned about the inner workings of a national election.

3. Mountain biking and big bruises. I’ll let you guess on this one, but the bruise was so impressive I had Stanley take a picture.

4. Home improvements. Since we didn’t get to hike the John Muir Trail this summer, we worked on our house. Joy and happiness. I did get to use a nail gun though.

5. Interdisciplinary instruction. This is my latest foray into the world of professional development. I’m looking forward to working with five English and Social Studies teachers to explore the pros and cons of this approach.

6. Gender specific instruction. The Boys’ Literacies study team will consider whether the changes we’ve implemented have been effective and whether gender-specific classes are advisable.

7. All of the other books I read this summer. You can check out my Shelfari page if you want a sneak preview.

8. What I am going to do next summer…especially considering how academic this list is. I mean, good grief, I need to get a life!

Until next time.

I feel a little funny broaching the topic of the war in Iraq because I’m not sure that I’ve done anything to earn the right to weigh in substantively. It’s easy to approach such topics from an academic standpoint (and I’ve done so myself in a previous post on The Bourne Supremacy): issues are cut and dry, not confused by emotion, personal opinion or those sticky moral questions of right and wrong. Even when someone on the outside has the foresight to acknowledge things in shades of gray, theirs is still only a two-dimensional view. The following article about the U.S. death toll in Iraq published in the New York Times reminded me of the distance that always exists between writer and subject.

Only this time, things are a little different. Reporters Lizette Alvarez and Andrew Lehren didn’t take the usual route to mark the new U.S. death toll high in Iraq. Instead, the authors chose to focus upon four U.S. servicemen who died while on duty in Iraq. And rather than tell their stories for them, Alvarez and Lehren integrated the words of these men right into the body of their own report. This had two impacts: first, it was a painful and effective way of reminding the reader that although these guys were in some way speaking, their words were all that remained of them. And second, the integration of the men’s voices into the piece communicated the significance of the number 4000 in way that resonated so much more clearly than a traditional straight news story ever could.

I’m going to include an excerpt here, but I would really encourage you to read the story in its entirety. It’s incredibly powerful. The first paragraph is written by the reporters, the second is taken directly from Myspace and incorporated into the body of the news story.

For the soldiers in Iraq, reconciling Adhamiya with America was not always easy. One place was buried in garbage and gore and hopelessness. The other seemed unmoored from the war, fixated on the minutia of daily life and the hiccups of the famous. The media was content to indulge. …

I was amazed, truly dumbfounded wondering how we as Americans have sank so low. To all Americans I have but one phrase that helps me throughout my day of constant dangers and ever present death around the corner, “WHO THE [expletive] CARES!” Wow America, we have truly become a nation of self-absorbed retards. … This world has serious problems and it’s time for America to start addressing them.

Ryan Wood, Myspace blog, May 26, 2007

The other reason I’m struck by this particular story is that it reminded me again of the ways that our social, cultural, and educational landscape is rapidly changing. I have spent the past couple of weeks preparing for a presentation on integrating blogs into the language arts classroom. As far as my content area goes, this is kind-of a no-brainer: I teach writing, blogs are a vehicle for just that. But they would hardly be worth going to all the trouble of using if they were little more than journals. What makes blogs blogs, so to speak, is the ease with which they allow the writer to synthesize ideas from various sources and provide a digital record of that thought process through links.

What does any of this have to do with a news story on U.S. death toll caused by the Iraq War? The reporters supplemented their story with excerpts taken from texts written by the soldiers themselves, including letters, emails, and Myspace. The Myspace accounts written by the soldiers are particularly interesting because they mark a dramatic shift in the way we communicate and receive information. Previously a soldier’s personal thoughts on the war would have been known only to those people close to him, but with the advent of Myspace, those opinions are accessible to anyone with a computer. In this particular instance, they have been transcribed from Myspace into the body of news article published on the New York Times.

Before Myspace, could this have been accomplished in another way? Certainly. The reporters might have interviewed Specialist Wood and then integrated his comments into their news story. However, Woods’s words are especially poignant this time because he can no longer share his thoughts with the reporters personally.

Besides the tremendous emotion and power that the soldiers’s words carry, what strikes me most about Alvarez and Lehren’s choice to include block quotes from the soldiers themselves is the way that they are mimicking the way that Web 2.0 has revolutionized the web in their print news story. I applaud their choice because I think it makes for interesting reading, and as an educator I must also take note of the way that the digital revolution is changing the way information is exchanged, even in print.

Writing does not receive the credit it deserves. (I mean, it’s not like it’s rocket science. You’ve been doing it since you first put crayon to paper in kindergarten, right?) But in my experience, the words rarely seem to lay themselves out on the page in a way that’s coherent–read, lots of backspacing, cutting and pasting, and rewriting–but writing is easy breezy, right? I’ve come to recognize this awkward struggle to find a way to say something is writing. The stuff that finally makes its way into being, well that’s the finished product. Writing is the struggle.

HF and I conceived the blogging writing assignment at the end of the’06-’07 school year. I’ve been teaching Senior English for three years and had yet to find a satisfactory method of preparing students for their final exam–an eight-page senior thesis. No matter how much hands-on assistance I provided or how carefully I staged the assignment, the overall results were lacking. Naturally there were exceptions, but by an large I always came away disappointed. Another person might have walked away conceding that it was unrealistic to expect much from students on their first major research paper, but I concluded that the disorganized, poorly executed, sometimes just plain awful writing was the result of my failure to adequately prepare them for this task. Which brings us to today. Blogging is writing, but with a twist. In a blog it is easy to connect your ideas to someone else’s, because rather than relying on an antiquated system of creating a Works Cited page that would have the reader scurrying off to the library to find your source–don’t worry we’ll get to do one this Spring anyways–the writer simply provides a hotlink that takes the reader immediately to the text in question. Guess what? This (without the fun hotlinks) is what writing a research paper is all about.

I know what you are thinking: Yippee skippy. Who gives a hoot (or something less savory) that I can provide some stinkin’ digital link to some other page on the world wide web? However, as far as educational theory is concerned, by reading, understanding and analyzing or evaluating what someone else wrote and then incorporating their ideas into your own to form something new and original, you have reached thought processing nirvana. In 1956 an education researcher, Benjamin Bloom, devised a schema (pictured below) to describe the types of intellectual behavior important in learning.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Here’s the scary part. He also discovered that over 95% of the questions students encounter prompt them to think only at the lowest (easiest) level of the spectrum. I don’t know if he speculated why, but here’s my take. It’s easy on the everyone involved. If the students can spit back the information the teacher, they are happy (good grades and that nice warm feeling of getting the answer right) and the teacher is happy (she must be good at her job, the students know all the answers = more warm and fuzzy feelings). Unfortunately warm and fuzzy doesn’t equal education that’s worth anything; after all, a parrot can repeat back information it hears.

So, what’s my point? Blogging is a challenge because to do it well you must engage at least three of Bloom’s levels of understanding: comprehension, analysis and /or evaluation, and synthesis. Notice how you’re not spending much time at the bottom of the pyramid? That’s good news for your brain, not so good news if decided to loaf through this year. But if I were you, I’d be pissed at anyone who didn’t challenge me to stay at the top because they’d be wasting my time.

Sources: The image of the Bloom’s pyramid came from this website. And if you want to read more about Bloom’s theories, see the following paper by Mary Forehand from the University of Georgia.