Saturday, September 15, 2007

"Even in heaven they don't sing all the time"

Quite frankly, Michael Mazenko’s essay, “Awaiting—still—a renaissance of wonder,” irritates me. Teachers like Mazenko, who denigrate teenagers, irk me. During my thirty-three years of teaching, I’ve heard disparaging remarks like Mazenko’s too often: young people have lost their passion, their curiosity, their skills, and their hearts

Michael Mazenko writes,

"As a high school English teacher, I start the year by reading Ferlinghetti's poem aloud. During the discussion that follows, I ask my new crop of teenagers what they wonder. I'm always met with silence — silence and faces as blank as sheets of loose-leaf paper before an essay.

"My God," I tell them, "have we killed it in you already?"

Sadly, they don't wonder. Or they wonder innocuous, mundane things like, "What's our homework?" or "Is this on the test," or shockingly, "Do we have to know this?"

I tell my students that in order to be effective readers, to be effective students, to be happy and successful adults, they need to wonder.

They don't always get it. Something has been lost in their journey through school and through life — a journey that is supposed to be about discovery."

Just because teenagers don’t behave like kindergartners doesn’t mean that school has “killed” something in them. I’m a mother of a tenth grader. I was 39 when my son was born, and I’m 55 now. When my son was three years old, I too experienced what Mazenko calls that wonderful “second childhood” when the “world was huge and fascinating.” Now that my son is 16, I am re-experiencing the world through the eyes of a teenager. The world is still huge and fascinating—but now it’s full of danger.

Since the heady days of kindergarten, my son has gained new knowledge—none of it discovered in the classroom. He now knows death—of two grandparents and an uncle. Kids at his school have died—one was accidentally shot by a friend and one died in a car accident. He has seen friends succumb to the lure of drugs and alcohol. He knows kids who have experienced trouble with the law. Many of his friends have watched their parents’ marriages fall apart. He has learned that some neighbors and cops don’t like teenagers. He has become aware of his own intellectual and physical limitations: he has dyslexia and has broken bones and needed stitches. He remembers 9/11 and the explosion of the Colombia. He has watched TV images of the devastation in Iraq and New Orleans.

If a teenager is reluctant to jut his hand up in the air when his thirty-seven-year-old teacher asks him on the first day of school, “What do you wonder?” I suspect it isn’t that school has damaged him. I suspect it’s simply that the teenager has faced the tragedies in life. A teenager’s silence and blank face don’t mean “only innocuous, mundane things” float in her head.

Mazenko revels in his child’s statement, “Daddy, I wonder if there are any worms under that moss over there.” Yesterday, I was struck dumb by my own child’s statement, “Mom, I wonder if Robbie will go to jail.” You see, two days ago, my son’s buddy killed a five-year-old whose spontaneity and enthusiasm made him forget to look for cars as he rode his bike into the street. My son’s sixteen-year-old friend couldn’t stop his SUV in time, and now must live with the horrible reality that a car—even when driven slowly and carefully—can kill.

When I look at today’s 16-year-olds, I feel none of Michael Mazenko’s despair. He states, “I worry when my students stop wondering. That lack of discovery can lead us into the drudgery of adulthood.” Teenagers haven’t stopped wondering. In fact, they wonder so profoundly and so deeply that they can’t always find the right words to express their thoughts. True, they don’t jump out of their chairs like a five year old and ask about “flowers and trucks and tea sets.” They may be reticent—and even surly—but to be silent and awed by the world’s complexity doesn’t mean our students have entered the “drudgery” of adulthood.

Mazenko asks us, “Remember how fun it was to play tag? Remember how exhilarating it was to run through the sprinkler? Remember the insane joy of rolling down a hill? Remember when you just instinctively ran after lightning bugs at dusk?” I ask, “Remember how frightening it was to be a teenager? Remember how you worried about sex, violence, death, and war?”

Teenagers know the joy of life, but they wonder about its darkness as well. As teachers, we must help prepare them for adulthood (which has been anything but drudgery for me, by the way). We do so by offering them the great ideas of the past, as well as the exciting technology of the future. We share with them all the wonders of science and math and art and poetry. We must inspire them and show them that even though danger has always been part of human life, humans don’t need to be squelched by fear.

I am reminded of words from another poem by Ferlinghetti,

The world is a beautiful place
to be born into
if you don't mind happiness
not always being
so very much fun
if you don't mind a touch of hell
now and then
just when everything is fine
because even in heaven
they don't sing
all the time

Wednesday, September 05, 2007


I was interested in reading Terry Sale's post, where he described this year's innovations and changes. Like Terry, I am trying to reduce the amount of homework I assign my sophomores. My own son is a high school sophomore this year, and I know how exhausting and frustrating the constant load of homework can be. I've told my students that I won't assign homework over the weekends. I believe that homework erodes family life and turns a student away from the joy of learning. My goal this year is to use class time effectively--and also to be more constructivist in my teaching techniques. That probably means I won't be able to "cover" as much content as I've done in the past....but hopefully it means the kids will be more engaged in the learning.

How does this translate into specifics? I'm still working that out, of course, but it looks something like this:

Monday--Students read for pleasure for 20 minutes. They may bring any book that interests them. They earn points by reading. I'm not planning on making them do a big project or book report. All they have to do is read. Then, for 30 minutes we do vocabulary lessons from an old text book I found in the book room. I know it sounds boring, but I'm hoping a formal vocabulary study will help them with their standardized test scores, their writing, their reading. I won't test them on huge lists of words. Instead, we'll try to use the words all week--in discussion, in writing, etc. I'll try to make parts of the vocabulary study "fun."

Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday --Discussion and analysis of literary "masterpieces" from our curriculum. I love literature and don't want to teach if I can't expose the students to great writers and books. But I'm going to try to engage the kids by using constructivist techniques and TECHNOLOGY. I'll be less concerned with what I think they should know about a text and more concerned with giving them the opportunity to discover their own meaning.

Thursday--Read for pleasure and writing. This year I plan to give my students more time to write in class. Sometimes, they'll need (and hopefully want) to finish their papers at home, but the goal is to do most of the writing at school. The topics will be varied, interesting, sometimes related to the literature, sometimes not. Every now and then, we'll go to the computer lab to edit and refine a final draft that will be submitted for a grade.

So far, I'm sticking to my plan. My students--though not terribly energetic yet--are working hard and seem to be very pleased with my homework policy.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Is Multi-tasking Impairing Our Students' Learning?

This morning on National Public Radio, in an interview titled “How Multitasking Affects Human Learning” Lynn Neary spoke with UCLA psychology professor, Russel Poldrack, about what occurs in the brain during multi-tasking. I’ve attached the link because it is important information that we must consider during our switch to lap top classrooms. Dr. Poldrack essentially says that students who are engaged in learning new information do better with focused attention. He blatantly states that multi-tasking impairs learning.

I recall the comment from Anne Smith’s blog, where a ninth grade honors student (kjerstinl) wrote about his/her experiences using Blogger and Skype in the fish bowl discussions. Kjerstinl’s reflections tie in beautifully with our discussions about laptop classrooms and the studies UCLA is conducting on the human brain. Here are portions of Kjerstinl’s comment:

"There are disadvantages and advantages to using Skype over Blogger. Skype is up-tempo and fast paced....Skype allows us to know what the others are thinking in 5 seconds or less. For me, I think that this helps develop my ideas more. It’s hard to explain though, because when we were on blogger, I had to think a lot harder on what I was going to say. Instead, on [Skype], my answers pop into my head quickly. ....We can get more accomplished with having more conversations, because we cover more ground on many topics. On our free time, we could go back and read the other group’s conversation too on what they discussed. There are a few problems about Skype though. One thing is that the inner circle [the students who are talking] doesn’t get as many people from the outside circle [the students who are using Skype and laptops] that come and join the conversation in the inside circle. I think we get so into the outside conversations that we forget that there’s another conversation going on. With blogger, things were so slow that it was easier to pay attention to the inside conversation. If we want to keep skype, we have to become better multi-taskers."

I am moved by our students’ heroic attempts to think more, know more, and to do it all more quickly, but I’m not convinced that multi-tasking is a benefit to their learning. Kjerstinl points out that with Skype, the class was able to “cover more ground on many topics,” but I wonder if the students had time to digest the complex ideas that Ms. Smith was trying to teach. Kjerstinl says, “On our free time, we could go back and read the other group’s conversation,” but I’ll bet the students rarely do this (mainly because they have no “free time”).

I know we can’t step back to the time when students would go home at the end of a day, retreat to a quiet bedroom, and read and meditate in silence. Those days are probably gone. But I’m not convinced that we are helping our students when we expect them to multi-task. To set up a class environment where students are required to speed up the pace of their thoughts and to be distracted by fragmented bits of information at the same time that they are trying to learn complex new ideas may ultimately impair their learning. Where do we allow students to ponder and reflect? Where is that serene environment?

Maybe the classroom of the future is a quiet place—with soft chairs and sound-proofed walls, where students can sit and think, where they can be still for a few minutes and allow their brains to process all that their machines crammed into them that day.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Whirling Thoughts and an Idea about Grading Essays Constructively

It's been far too long since I've posted anything on my blog. Much has been swirling inside me this year. I feel like a brand new teacher, even though I've taught for 32 years. I'm redoing so many assignments and am trying to bring a constructivist slant to my teaching. I haven't been very successful with new technology--mainly because whenever I incorporate that element into my teaching, I experience the frustration of lost mouse balls, unavailable computer labs, or the filter's restriction of my access to a web page. I've cut back on the technology quite drastically as a result. It was getting in my way, if you want to know the truth. When I finally "earn"/"deserve"/"acquire" (What's the right word???) a lap top classroom, I'll bring in Skype, Wikkis, blogging, etc. In the meantime, I'll stick to chalk and talk.

But here's what I'm excited about. I love handing over the power to my students. I've always conducted seminars in my A.P. courses, but now I'm bringing Socratic Seminars to my "regular" seniors and to my "regular" English 10 students--and the students simply amaze me. I almost get teary-eyed when I listen to sophomores discuss Tortilla Curtain or Bless Me, Ultima with such intelligence and sensitivity. I learn so much from hearing what seniors have to say about Brave New World. In the past, I thought I had to tell my students what to think. I didn't trust them enough to let them figure out the deep ideas for themselves.

Also, in the middle of the night (last weekend), I woke up with an idea about how to make paper grading more constructivist. For over 30 years, I've used up hundreds of red pens marking the mechanical errors in students' writing. I've always prided myself on being very thorough. I've tried to catch every error and have operated on the assumption that if they saw the error, the students would stop making the mistake (I know that sounds stupid--but that's been my guiding principle for many, many years.....)

Here is a better idea:

I decided to circle only 5 errors in each paper. I used a code and I numbered each error. Then I told the kids to fix these five errors (as a separate assignment). They must go on-line and find the writing rule that they violated. They must copy the rule and the examples, rewrite the rule in their own words, and then fix their error.

It's true that computers fix many mechanical errors--but every English teacher knows that a computer misses many, many mistakes.

I know, Karl, that you probably believe mechanics are insignificant, and that only the ideas matter. I agree with you to a certain extent. I always concentrate on what the student's thoughts are, and I always comment on the quality of the ideas. Content is the most important element of writing. But clarity and style are also very important. Bad mechanics ruin clarity (and style), so I must teach the kids to eliminate them.

In theory, this "constructivst" approach should make my job a bit easier, because I only mark 5 errors per paper. In reality, I labored over the essays (for 5 hours last weekend), because I was trying hard to find the most significant errors--those that interfered most with style and clarity. But as I keep practicing this new, more discriminating form of grading, I figure I'll get better at it. I also figure my students will begin to make fewer errors because they'll really learn the rules of grammar.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Comments about the November 9 meeting

1. The information presented in the session made good sense. I loved discussing the philosophy of constructivist teaching with my small group. We were task-oriented (thanks largely to Greg Trotter) and spirited in our comments. We hashed out the problems we see with implementing some of the ideas about constructivist teaching--but we all agreed that this form of teaching fits the philosphy of variable scheduling and is a good ideal to strive for. I loved the intelligence and diversity of the group that I was a part of.

I was also excited by Lary Kleeman's idea about teaching lessons in front of each other. When I was young and inexperienced, I used to sit in on classes taught by people I admired, and from them I learned valuable information about class management, organization, and curriculum. I haven't done this for years, though. Whenever I attend conferences, what I value most is sample lessons and handouts that come from successful teachers. I hope we implement Lary's idea as soon as possible. I'm not a great technology person, but I have constructivist lessons that I would be willing to share (at least I think they are "constructivist.") I would value feedback.

I do worry a bit, however. Why would a science, p.e., or math teacher want to see how I teach a James Wright poem????

2. The class was well-planned and meaningful. I liked the flexibility you showed. We departed from the agenda, but that was because the group wanted to spend more time sharing ideas in group discussion. Our group was relaxed, engaged, and interested, from what I could tell....

3. I got some good information that I will be able to use in the classroom. Greg Trotter had an interesting idea about setting up two rows of desks facing each other and using that class configuration to have kids write ideas back and forth to each other or discuss various topics with each other.

4. I haven't been a great blogger lately, but I'd like the planning team to know that I've started Socratic Seminars with my English 10 classes for the first time. We are reading Tortilla Curtain, and I'm experimenting with the seminar style that Lary, Terry, and I use so successfully with our A.P. English classes. I'm thrilled with the results of the seminars (we've had 2 of them so far). This constructivist approach is working beautifully--and I'm in awe that the kids are discussing such profound, provocative ideas. They are enthusiastic about the seminars and have brought in ideas to class that I would never have anticipated. It's really fun watching them figure out the meaning of the book. I join their seminar--but I don't dominate it. I ask a few questions and am also seeking answers. We are discovering so much about this book. If anyone wants a sample "socratic seminar," I would be happy to demonstrate it.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

MySpace Project Idea

Somewhere on Anne Smith's blog is a post about the day she allowed her students to use their cell phones in class. I don't fully understand what the lesson consisted of (it involved ring tones), but Anne's kids were wildly excited because their cool teacher allowed them to use their favorite technology in the classroom.

I have been trying to design a creative (and yes, cool) project for the independent reading that my kids are required to do each six weeks. The English 10 PLC (good for me--I just used the latest buzz word) has decided to encourage reading for pleasure. The kids read a book of their choice and then complete a project about the book and share it with the the rest of the class.

I kept wondering how I could bring technology into this project. Cell phones weren't calling to me......Then--eureka--I remembered that Lary Kleeman had a student in A.P. English who created a MySpace page for Stephan Daedalus, the protagonist of Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

So I've decided to create a MySpace book report. I'm still working out the kinks. The worst kink is that MySpace is so horrible. (Many parents won't let their kids get near it, and I can't blame them for that.) My project won't involve actually logging on to MySpace. It will borrow the format and the idea of MySpace. The kids will create a MySpace PowerPoint. On various slides, they will create a "space" for the protagonist of the book they're reading. The project will involve quite a bit of writing and creative thinking. They'll also be required to insert quotes from the book. I'm excited about this--and will share what I produce with anyone who's interested in the idea.

One problem: I wish I could log on to MySpace from my computer at school. I've had to do all of the work at home.....

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Thinking about blogs again....

I keep wondering how to use blogs with my English 10 students. For their first writing assignment, I had them write a brief personal essay or autobiographical narrative. Several of these papers were remarkable. When students are allowed to write about their own lives, they bring in vivid detail, genuine emotion, and profound insights. The topics are pertinent--the painful effects of divorce, the stress of athletic competition, the dangerous fad of "cutting," near death experiences, the loss of a loved one, and many other amazing subjects.

I'm wondering if a class blog would be a good way for students to share such writings. I am a bit worried about the personal nature of these essays, however. Sometimes teenagers have no sense of propriety, so I would have to advise them carefully. I would probably suggest that they change names and that they don't post anything that could get them in trouble with their parents or the authorities. I wonder if I could get myself in trouble if I allowed students to blog about such issues. What these students write is so thought-provoking and often so wise, that teens could learn life lessons from these papers.

I still need to work out details. I might make it a very open assignment (e.g., all students in the class should post at least one paper they're proud of.) I imagine some kids might post a poem, some a literary analysis, some a personal narrative. Some might scan in a drawing. It could be a "brag board" of sorts. Then, other kids could comment on these posts. I think it sounds scary but exciting.

I'd love feedback.