Writer’s Eyes

The first year I taught Creative Writing, I was frustrated with students who didn’t use dialogue and had no concept of a scene. It didn’t matter how many times I explained the difference between showing and telling, their stories were still mostly telling.

So I created exercises, presented examples, wrote feedback on their stories: more description, use dialogue. They improved a bit. They made their characters talk to each other and described what they were wearing in great detail.

But many of them seemed to lack any idea of what a story ought to be. They were non-readers and reluctant writers who had been placed in my class to fill a hole in their schedules.

Anyone can tell a story. Believing this, I set out to bring out my students’ inner storyteller. Under the pen-name Anonymous, I wrote terrible stories for them to critique. They could tell when a story was bad, even point out what was wrong, but they had no idea how to fix it. In the lab I sat with them and asked them about their stories, praised what was good and made suggestions for improvement.

And I improved my lessons.

Their stories were short, so they wrote Flash Fiction.

Their stories lacked theme, so they wrote fables with morals.

The protagonists of their stories were all the same – beautiful, popular, and incredibly lucky – so they invented unlikeable characters with major problems.

We discussed why a character must have a problem to solve, why it can’t be a foregone conclusion that Kayla wins the scholarship or Trey gets the girl.

The following year I decided the problem was that they didn’t write enough. More

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Grades and Economics

Should teachers use grades as incentives?

In school, several things are going on:

Teaching = preparing lessons, conveying information to students, assisting their acquisition of knowledge and skills.

Managing = taking attendance, keeping track of grades, writing kids up for various offenses.

Of the two, I want to say that the teaching is more important, but in reality, my immediate responsibility is to run a safe classroom, keep the kids out of the halls, keep them from fighting or doing other bad things.

There is a hidden side of school that idealistic reform rhetoric doesn’t acknowledge. School has become an economy of points. Students, like the rest of the world, work for rewards — in their case, grades. Teachers shape their behavior by using grades as an incentive. We justify this by telling ourselves that we’re only trying to get them to do what is really good for them. Does it matter how we achieve that?

Part of me says yes, it matters. Education should be about learning, not points. Kids should be curious about the world, themselves, other people, the past, the future.

Another part of me knows that the world doesn’t work that way. It hisses, “Accept reality – kids grub for points, not understanding. Use their greed for grades in ways that provide some benefit.”

In the real (i.e. adult) world, people don’t always do the things that would benefit them most in the long run – eating right, exercising, saving money, reading good books, eating organic food. The rewards for these activities are so distant or require so much effort that many people, though desiring them, don’t change their behavior to make them happen. The immediate reward – the brownie, the couch, the reality show, the video game – is right at hand and provides instant rewards.

Why should kids be any different? More

New Math

A few weeks ago I was summoned to the principal’s office to discuss my failure rate.

I knew it was high. When the first grading period ended, of 22 my students were failing English. Things got better, though. By the end of the fourth quarter, only 13 were failing — still too high, but only unreasonable in the fantasy land where we achieve 100% proficiency by the year 2012 — right before the apocalypse takes place.

But the conversation we had was a wake-up call for me. I explained what I had done to improve things – calling parents, cutting deals with students, etc. I didn’t explain how ridiculously easy it is to pass my class; that would have been defensive. But you can be sure that anyone who is failing my class has exerted very little effort.

The awakening happened about three minutes into the interview. I noticed that his data did not include all my classes. My total failure rate is not 36%, as he said, but 31%, because the class he overlooked had only two students failing, a 10% failure rate for that class. 31% is nothing to brag about, but I pointed out the omission.

“Hmm,” he said, shaking his head. “Well, if we add in the 10%, that gives you 46%. Nearly half of your students are failing.”

I was stunned. Was this some kind of New Math? The same kind of math, perhaps, used to calculate other things – graduation rate, adequate yearly progress, proficiency test scores?

Before I could think of anything to say in reply, he stumbled on. “Well, make sure that you’re calling home, etc., etc…”

This was the moment when I knew that all was lost. More

Final Days

 The world didn’t end. May 21 has passed — and we’re still here. I know 9 million bloggers have already pointed this out, but I thought it might make a good segue into my topic: Finals Week.

It is the week before the last week of school, just a few days until we get down to the serious business of deciding who passes and who fails. As always, both students and teachers are sick of it all, ready to be done with the tests and go home a week early. This would solve a lot of problems – papers to grade, whiny kids, water balloons, and whatever else bored teenagers can dream up.

But we have been commanded to wait. If we give finals early, we will have more food fights, more water balloons, more flip-flops being worn against dress code. (Why do they even make rules about flip-flops? Those who make such decisions have bigger things to worry about that what kids are wearing on their feet.) We will have less academic seriousness, fewer students highly educated and ready for life in the 21st century.

Why is it that kids never want to learn anything new the week before the most important grades of the year? They should be working their buns off, knowing that summer break is almost here. Instead, they say, “Can we have a free day?” or “Can we play a game?”

Why do I even bother to try to teach?

Teenagers never want to work. Mondays are out; they’re too tired from the weekend. More

Minds Like Sieves

My Greek teacher used to tell me, “Your mind is like a sieve!” – usually because I’d put the wrong kind of accent on a word. He was a meticulous man, and expected the same from his students.

Though he never said so, I suppose he wanted our minds to be like stopped-up sinks, filling up and never losing a drop. It’s an imperfect metaphor (think about all that Greek flooding onto the floor), but I’m pretty sure this is how our governor understands teaching and learning.

A teacher’s job (perhaps his thinking goes) is to pour knowledge into those eager little sinks, making sure that the drains are properly closed and that there are no leaks. A bad teacher doesn’t keep the tap open, or allows the water to leak away, or maybe fills the sink with potato skins and banana peels so the disposal gets clogged and the sink fills with yucky gray water.

Here’s where the metaphor breaks down. Having a brain full of useless facts is just as bad as having a sink full of stagnant water. A student can pass a standardized test without ever really learning anything important. We graduate them; when they get to college, they realize how little they’ve learned.

Teaching is not just dispensing information. There are facts kids should know, but without critical thought, information is worthless.

Most teachers understand that we have to clear out the garbage before we can pour in anything new. Alas, our curriculum is all about the input. How do you ‘un-teach’ things that kids ‘know’? The curriculum guide doesn’t explain that; it just tells me to cover what will be on the test.

Another problem is that somebody keeps throwing garbage in the sink, and we spend all our time unclogging it. Every time kids turn on the television or surf the internet, they are learning things – but not learning to evaluate them. They believe things because they saw them on YouTube or read them at Ask.com.

Our governor doesn’t know about all the garbage. He just wants teachers to stop blaming the sinks. He suspects that we are pouring vast quantities of cooking grease down their drains. His solution? Drano — for us, not the clog.

If teachers are mind plumbers, our job should be to keep things flowing, not fill the sink. Students’ brains should be like sieves, filtering out what is incorrect or illogical. But it’s not simple; when you live surrounded by garbage, you don’t realize that it stinks.

It would be much better if we stopped treating kids like passive receptacles. “Fix a kid’s drain and his sink will work for a day; train him to be a plumber, and he’ll charge you $60 an hour, plus parts.”

Why Kids Can’t Write, and What We Can Do About It

After years of worksheets and quizzes, many students arrive in high school with brains largely unscathed by grammar. I know this because I teach both English and Latin. It is obvious to me who understands subjects and verbs, especially in my Latin classes.

People who have studied a foreign language generally understand the grammar of their own language better than those who have not. This is one way foreign language teachers justify their existence — we will teach them grammar so English teachers can focus on dramatic irony, rising action, oxymorons and other stuff that might be on the state graduation test or the S.A.T.

I have nothing against literary analysis. Through reading and analyzing literature, students gain a new perspective. They understand that jealousy and revenge are universal, not just things that happen when you put a lot of teenagers in a large building and call it high school.

But it’s tough to write about jealousy and revenge when you don’t have the tools to express yourself. The subordination of one idea to another doesn’t just happen by throwing lots of ideas at students. My students have many ideas; they come out in long rambles beginning with “So…” and are strung together with “and” and “because.” Their reasoning never takes shape; if it does, it’s a circle. They write things like, “School should not be mandatory because students should have a choice.”

Why don’t kids learn grammar? And it’s not only grammar — why don’t they know how to spell and punctuate? More

Faulty Logic

Everyone has been to school.

Everyone has a story that begins, “I had a teacher who…”

Teachers have stories, too. “I had a kid who…” or “I had a kid whose parents…”

People use anecdotes to prove a point.

But anecdotes, however true, prove nothing.

My grandfather smoked heavily, lived to be ninety. My sister, who never smoked, died of lung cancer. From this ‘evidence’, one might suppose that there is no link between smoking and cancer. Maybe if we all smoked, we’d live longer!

It is from this kind of logic that conspiracies are imagined: “They’ve found a cure for cancer, but the drug companies are keeping it secret because they would lose a lot of money if everyone could be cured.”

Lately, it seems that this kind of anecdotal logic has been applied to education.

You might believe that because you had a bad teacher, there must be a lot of bad teachers out there. You might even think that’s why our educational system is going down the tubes — teachers are ignorant, lazy, and only care about their paychecks. You might even imagine that teacher’s unions are conspiring to keep our schools in decline.

Evidence? Oh, I guess we need some of that.

The evidence is this: the factor that most influences a student’s ability to learn is poverty. Poverty — not class size, school size, teacher experience, how long or short the school day is, or how many tests we give them.

Let me say that again: Kids who grow up in poverty, whose parents have little education, who have not seen a book before they start school, who move every six months, who have never been to a museum or library — these kids are more likely to do poorly in school and on standardized tests.

In other words: standardized tests show us who is poor. Didn’t we already know that?

What about “Leave No Child Behind In Poverty?” More

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