Monday, April 30, 2007

The Learning Curve

First, I apologize to everyone for setting my blog to "moderate comments," I didn't realize that it wouldn't allow people to post without my "approval." I just thought it would send me emails about comments when they were posted. Anyway, I have that part figured out now.

Thank you smb (Stacey) for your comments, I think you make some great points. I have definitely decided that while I will have the students find some good and bad examples, I'll also bring in some of my own (and yes, handouts are good--my thought was that PowerPoint would give me point and click access to the actual web pages--I may do both). I use PP a lot, so it wouldn't be a big deal for me. I just think that it makes a huge difference to be able to show kids pictures and videos to support the things I'm trying to explain, so I use it at least once or twice per semester (plus I make the kids design and present them too, they're already amazing at it, it works great with honors kids). I know PP is already outdated, but that' s what we have, so that's what I use.

On spelling: I'm afraid that when I said that I am an unusual English teacher I wasn't kidding. I seriously do not see any value in spelling at all. As long as the first and last letter of a word are correct, research has shown, people know what you are trying to say. Why are we so hung up on spelling in this country? Our language is not phonetic, which is a huge problem for our students and for all English language learners. If we switch to "thru" and "nite" we are reducing that problem by making our language more phonetic--that is a good thing in my opinion.

This is a whole post in itself--I'm going to put it on my "other" blog because it's a bit out of place here. Check out Letters from Today for more on why I don't give spelling tests, believe in teaching spelling, or think that spelling is an important skill for twenty-first century students to learn.

More on my learning curve: My district, in its infinite wisdom, does not allow blogging (hey PSD teachers, wipe that smug look off your faces!!!!! ;-) However, I talked to my tech guy and he said that I can let them post things if certain conditions are met. They have to have parent permission slips (no sweat--already written, ready to be copied in concert with the t-r permission slips that I have to give them anyway). But more problematic, they can't enter their email addresses at any point, ever, which means that blogspot is out.

I know that there are people here who have solutions to this problem, so please let me know what I should do next. My first thought was to set up a ghost hotmail account, then use that to set up a blogspot account, then give the students the ghost email and blogspot password so that they could post. This would be a disaster, though, because then they would all be changing the format and messing with everything and well . . . you get the picture. So, what now?

I still strongly believe that there is a difference between good and bad web writing (btw, txt tlk doesn't necessarily signal "bad" to me), and that good web writing is an important skill to learn. I'm thinking that for kids who don't have home computers, this is a really crucial opportunity for them to gain net literacy, while for the others it is a chance to show them why it is so important that they learn how to write well. The question now is, how?

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Writing on the Web

Now that I have my question, I'm moving on to the next step, which is the phase in which I'll have to decide how I'm going to try to explore this question. I've decided to focus, at least for now, on my Sophomore Honors English class. This class has been lagging a bit lately, in fact I've found that the last two years I've had a hard time with this particular stage of this class. With my freshmen I keep things moving with a non-fiction unit that works well for this time of year, but my sophomores need to get ready for AP classes next year, and the last quarter is spent on the novel Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

I really like this book, and I enjoy teaching it. Unfortunately, the kids don't seem to share my enthusiasm. I made the observation last week that they were bored out of their gourds, and I was starting to lose momentum. My discussions have gone from lively and animated early in the semester to forced and (judging by the looks on their faces) boring. So I did some reflection and decided to turn the discussions over to the kids, asking them to write their own level three questions for us to focus our discussions on. I'm also going to do a round of group projects that will hopefully get them thinking about the book in a different way, and hopefully that will give the class some variety and relieve some of the boredom while still maintaining the rigor that I know I have to keep up.

But, as I have learned in my discussions on the Mother Blog this kind of reflective practice is only the beginning, so I'm going to attempt to apply the inquiry methods of teacher research to the problem. One of the things I want to do is to create a discussion about the book that is modeled after the "silent discussion" that my colleague Nate Hoffman shared with me a couple of years ago, and which I have used since then with varying degrees of what I consider to be success. The idea is that each student will post a paragraph or two to a class blog, and then will be asked to comment on one another's blogs to hopefully generate some discussion.

First, however, I want to make sure that I am answering my question; an essential component of this project is that I use my student's interest in and knowledge of the web to build a better sense of what "good writing" looks like. My plan is to look at examples of web writing and to ask the students to assess that writing, asking them what makes it good or bad. From that we will generate a list of characteristics of good writing from which we can create a class rubric to judge both their blog posts and their comments.

My first question is whether I should find examples, organize them into a Power Point and show them to the students as we go through the rubric-designing process, or if there is a way to get the students to find the examples themselves and then to share out with the rest of the class their ideas about good and bad web writing. One sounds easier than the other in terms of my work load, but if there is a significant advantage to having the students find the examples themselves, it may be a case in which the easier path is also the best for the kids. Easier is a relative term, though, I'll still have to come up with a system to organize the student searches and then set up a way for them to present their findings to the class (Power Points?).

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Technology and Writing

In talking to my colleague Natalie yesterday I definitely have some new thoughts about the direction of my inquiry. She gave me a lot to think about, but the idea that I've been thinking about most is the impact of technology on writing.

She expressed an opinion that I think a lot of teachers (and people in general) hold--that technology and good writing are in opposition to one another. She said, and I'm paraphrasing here, that it seems to her that young people's increasing use of technology is damaging their ability to write. She pointed to their use of what I call contemporary shorthand (or "txt tlk" as web users sometimes refer to it) as an example of how technology is damaging kid's ability to spell, write complete sentences, and organize their writing.

I think perhaps I'm unusual in that I am an English teacher who believes that spelling tests are a waste of time. Although I believe that they are a reliable assessment of a student's ability to spell, I've never read any studies that show that they actually improve student's ability to write. (For more on ways that teachers can use valuable class time to improve student's writing ability check out Because Writing Matters, a publication of the National Writing Project).

Not that my opinion of spelling tests necessarily addresses Natalie's concern, but I think that it gives you an idea of the perspective that I'm coming from. I spent 7 years of my life participating in competitive debate, and during that time I learned, developed, and used a system of shorthand to write down my opponent's arguments that has helped me as a student, as a freelance reporter/writer, and as a teacher. Txt tlk, like debate shorthand, is a useful tool--students use it to make text messaging easier and more efficient. Why can't we teach them that there is a time to use it (in their lecture notes, debate notes, and text messages) and a time not to use it (in formal communication, school papers, and business communication)?

I see an excellent opportunity in the text messaging, emailing, blogging, and My Space visiting world that so many of today's students inhabit. I had a My Space page for about one week before I realized that for a teacher My Space is not the best place to be--I prefer the professionalism of a blog to the informality of that particular networking site. But I remember one string of messages that I sent to a debater of mine about one of the debate cases we were working on. At one point she wrote, "You have a bad sense of paragraphs ;-)." Looking back at my own messages I realized that she was right--I did tend to create huge blocks of impenetrable prose, while she wrote in short, easy-to-read and digest paragraphs that made her messages much better than mine.

It's exactly that kind of breakthrough that technology can give our students. This is a basic organizational tool that can be applied to all kinds of writing. But strangely, even as an English teacher and a professional writer, I didn't understand how and why it applied to web writing. But it does--there is good and bad writing on the Internet just as there is good and bad writing in novels, magazines, newspapers, and student compositions.

I think that by bringing different examples of blogs, posts, emails, and other communication into the classroom for side-by-side comparison we can start to identify some of the things that separate good writing from bad writing. Perhaps then I can finally answer the question "Why are we learning this?" in a way that a fifteen-year-old can understand. Being a good writer will make your My Space page more popular (or in teacher-terms, it makes you a better, more influential member of the world-wide information network that fills up an increasingly large portion of our student's lives).

It's time to stop fighting it and start realizing technologies' potential. The kids are miles ahead of us, but if we keep at it I think that the web can become a teaching tool with incredible power. I really believe that by bringing it into the classroom we can reach kids by making what they learn relevant to what they do now as well as what they will be doing as adults in the twenty-first century.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Teaching English and Debate

As a participant in the CSUWP Advanced Institute, I am going to be using this blog to explore some questions about teaching. As a beginning, I've generated three essential questions to guide my inquiry. I know that I'll be moving beyond these questions, looking deeper at aspects of some of them, and hopefully developing them into something that's worth thinking and writing about.

1. How can I use my student's existing fascination with technology to cultivate a desire to write well, an understanding of the importance of writing well, and an appreciation of good writing?

2. How can I use technology to create a forum for the cultivation of controversy in my classroom? What possibilities does technology open up that are not available to me in the classroom?

3. How can I use technology to help students express their opinions in a forum for public consumption, helping them to think about how to write an argument, how to address an audience, and how to defend a point of view in writing?