Tuesday, June 26, 2007

My Research Project

I've covered a lot of ground on this blog, and I think it's time to try to create a summary of what I've done so far. I'm doing this mostly because I have the researcher's chair at the CSU Writing Project Advanced Institute tomorrow, and as you can read on the AI blog, we've decided that it would be a good idea to write a summary of what we're doing in preparation for the group discussion about our research. I debated about whether I should post it to the AI blog itself, as Renee has done, but I decided that I wanted it to be here as a summary of the work I've posted here. Besides, we are definitely filling up the AI blog; it's a bit intimidating at this point, I think, because it's so loaded with good stuff.

I think that the why and how are important questions, which hopefully I'll be able to address soon, but for now I'm going to limit my scope simply to the "what." (Id est, what I've done so far, as opposed to why or how I did it.) So here is a step-by-step summary of my research project.

1. I asked my Sophomore Honors English students to find examples of good and bad web writing and then to post their examples to a blog, along with a brief explanation of why the sample was good or bad. I asked them to find four samples, one that was excellent, one that was decent, one that was bad, and one that was horrible.

2. I compiled their responses and created a rubric for their posts based on the traits that they identified. I weighted each item based on the number of students who identified that trait. So if one student said that good writing is "appropriate," and five students said that bad writing was either "inappropriate" or "used swear words," then the rubric reflected that six points of the assignment would be based on the appropriateness of the student's responses.

Here is the rubric that we created:

Good Spelling and Grammar/No Errors _____/19
Has a Point/Is not Completely Random _____/16
Understandable/Clear/Logical _____/15
Stays on Topic/Does not Ramble or Digress _____/12
Does not Contain Slang/No Txt Tlk _____/11
Uses Factual Information/Credible Sources _____/11
Is interesting/Funny/Entertaining _____/10
Is not Offensive/No Profanity _____/6

Total Points _______/100

3. I then created a new blog, which contained 18 prompts from the book we were reading at the time A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens. If you're interested in what it looked like, check it out by clicking here.

4. We then spent about an hour of class time writing comments in response to the prompts and engaging the issues that I identified in my posts.

5. The next day I gave the students a survey, which asked for their feedback about the project.

6. I am now in the process of analyzing all the data (the blog, the survey, their grades compared to their grades on in-class discussions we had before this assignment, etc.)

7. When I have analyzed the data as much as I can, I will then begin the process of designing next year's class blog discusssion(s).

Some things I already know I will change. I am hoping that I can set it up next year so that the student's write the prompts themselves (in small groups or individually) on their own blogs. That would also mean that we would need to create two different rubrics--one for blog posts, and another for comments.

I also want to change the rubric-design process. I don't think it's that important that they post the actual examples that they find. It's really just the traits of good and bad web writing that I'm looking for. Next year I think I will try to point them in the direction of some good and bad blogs (rather than just saying, "find some blogs on a topic that interests you," as I did this time) and then just ask them to post their top three traits of good and bad web writing to a blog. That would simplify the process and make it more realistic to ask them to design two rubrics in one day.

Finally, I want to expand the activity so that rather than being a one-time deal, it could be something that we go back to for each of the major texts that we read each semester, possibly several times each semester.

I posted my three questions to the AI blog. I'm sure I'll get some good feedback tomorrow and find some ideas to help me keep moving forward with this thing. Thank you!

Monday, June 25, 2007

CSUWP Advanced Institute

Today is the first day of the AI!

I have taken my original three research questions and boiled them down to one central Research Question: What happens when I use technology to create new opportunities for "critical thinking discussions" in the classroom?

There are a few assumptions that I think that I have been making, which is one reason that I changed the language of my question to remove the "student's existing interest in technology" phrase, which applies to some students, but certainly not all. Also, I think that I am beginning from the premise that technology does have the potential to open up new opportunities for students. This may or may not really be the case. One of the things I hope to show is that web-based discussions give students opportunities that they wouldn't otherwise have to think critically and interact with texts in a way that is unique or at least different from the activities that we do in class in whole-group or small-group discussions and activities.

So, here is my plan for the next two weeks. First, I plan to take a look at the data that I gathered from my web log experiment, the surveys that I had the students take, and the in-class discussions that we conducted throughout the semester. I hope to organize and begin to analyze that data to see what it shows. My hunch is that there were students who did well and contributed to the web discussion who do not usually contribute to whole-class discussions. I also think that the web discussion was in some ways highly critical-thinking based, but that is certainly not true for all students across the board. I wonder what else I can do as a teacher to increase the level of critical thinking in those discussions.

Second, I want to design a plan to integrate this activity into an entire semester, as an activity that we return to at least twice per quarter. I also want to look into the possibility of making it a more continual process, rather than a one-time, in-class event. I would also like to find a way to allow students to create their own blogs, which other students could then respond to. I think that would make it more of an "actual" writing assignment rather than just a web-based discussion. I think that for an activity like that, I would need to have two different rubrics, one for comments and one for blog posts.

As I churn through the data I'll keep posting!

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Data Deconstruction

Well, I appreciate the fact that I haven't made it particularly clear how the rubric relates to the blog, so here is my attempt. By the way, I also took a survey at the end of the semester about the project--they liked the blog activity significantly more than the moodle activity. Interesting, because many of them admitted that they learned more from the moodle, though they liked it less.

One student wrote, "Just use the rubric we made up again next year," which I thought was funny, and not a bad idea. But honestly, I think that finding examples of good and bad web writing and explaining why it's good or bad is a useful exercise in the development of a class-owned rubric, although the kids prefer to just go straight to discussing the book.

I'm going to use "John Lennon" as my first example. You can see her work in the test blog. And by the way, I find it interesting that you can choose a gender-neutral name, or a name which clearly marks your gender, or a name that suggests the other gender. I think this is interesting in the context of inquiry in the classroom--kids can discuss important issues that they may not be entirely comfortable addressing in public.

As I moved through the class blog I kept all of the student's rubrics in front of me in three rows. As I read each comment, I marked on that student's rubric a number of points that I thought reflected their contribution to the discussion, in the appropriate column of the rubric. A particularly "understandable/clear/logical" post might gain three points, while a "completely random/slang" post might warrant a -3 and -3 respectively. Then I just totaled them up (with my eyes, not my calculator--the numbers don't have to add up exactly) and gave the student a grade in each category that I felt reflected their contribution to our discussion.

John Lennon

_16/19_ Good Spelling and Grammar/No Errors (-3)
_16/16_ Has a Point/Is not Completely Random (+3 +3 +3 +2 +2 +1 +2 +2)
_15/15_ Understandable/Clear/Logical (+3 +2 +2 +3 +2 +2)
_12/12_ Stays on Topic/Does not Ramble or Digress (+2 +2 +2 +3 +3 +2)
_11/11_ Does not Contain Slang/Txt Tlk (No instances recorded)
_8/11_ Uses factual information/credible sources (+3 +3 +2)
_10/10_ Is interesting/funny/entertaining (+3 +2 +2 + 2 +2 +3 +2 +2 +2)
_6/6_ Is not offensive/no profanity (No instances recorded)

Total __94__ /100

Here's a student who didn't do quite as well. His comment on the survey (I know it's supposed to be confidential, but I recognized his hand writing) was, "you should have told me this assignment would be worth 100 points." I agree with him, that was a mistake.

Dr. Love

_17/19_ Good Spelling and Grammar/No Errors (-2)
_8/16_ Has a Point/Is not Completely Random (-3 +3 -3 +2 +2 -1 -1 -1 -1)
_10/15_ Understandable/Clear/Logical (+3 -1 -1)
_6/12_ Stays on Topic/Does not Ramble or Digress (-3 +2 -2 +1 -1)
_5/11_ Does not Contain Slang/Txt Tlk (-2 -1 -1 -2)
_8/11_ Uses factual information/credible sources (+3)
_10/10_ Is interesting/funny/entertaining (+2 +2 +2 + 3 +2 +1 +2 +2 +2)
_2/6_ Is not offensive/no profanity (-2 -2)

Total __66__/100

It took me a little over two hours to grade this assignment. Considering that it represented about one and one half hours class time, you can see that it is time-intensive for the teacher. One goal is to streamline this grading process--I think it will be easier (the little devil on my shoulder just chuckled ominously) when each student has a school email and can create his/her own blog.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Can the Internet Save our Democracy?

"The Internet has the potential to revitalize the role played by the people in our constitutional framework . . . It's a platform . . . for reason." --Al Gore

When the constitution of the United States was written in the eighteenth century, it created a system of government that has proved itself for more than 230 years. The constitution was based on the idea that the people, informed by a free press, and freely electing representatives to national, state, and local governments, would be better able to meet the needs of our country than any dictatorship or monarchy ever could.

In order for a democracy to function, it requires an informed and educated electorate. In the past that was guaranteed through the freedom of the press provision of the first amendment of the Constitution and later by universal compulsory education, which helped us build an educated electorate as we marched toward universal suffrage. But "freedom of the press" 230 years ago had a decidedly different meaning than it does today. Back then it could be taken quite literally--freedom of the printing press, which was the source of just about everything anybody ever read at the time.

In the twenty-first century, however, much has changed. Our court systems have done a decent job of protecting our freedoms as technology has advanced--I am not here to argue that the government is violating our rights or censoring our news. However, a different threat to our democracy came from a direction that the people of the eighteenth century could not possibly have anticipated--the rise of the corporate conglomerate and the mass media. Almost all of the television, radio, and print news that we read comes from an increasingly tiny list of corporate owners--even the non-fiction books we read are published by just a handful of publishers who are owned by major corporations.

These companies control the information we receive every day. The most extreme example of this kind of censorship came when MoveOn.org tried to purchase a thirty-second spot during the 2004 Super Bowl. This may seem petty, but keep in mind that while a presidential debate on substantive issues rarely affects the polls one way or the other, a well-run television ad campaign can easily shift a candidate 10% one way or the other (as one prominent politician has personally observed in his numerous campaigns and documented in his new book).

By itself, this is a big enough problem, but as this blog testifies--the truth is out there. If you look hard enough you can worm your way through the dung pile and get a glimpse of what's really going on. But how many people in this country still care enough to try?

The greatest current threat to our democracy is willful ignorance. It's incomprehensible to people of just about any other time in history or place on Earth--the idea that a group of people with a world of information at their fingertips would purposefully, intentionally, and even with a certain flair of pride, willfully and knowingly ignore that information is mind boggling.

According to the most recent Harris polls, 47 percent of Americans believe that Saddam Hussein helped plan and support the hijackers who attacked the U.S. on September 11, 2001 (up six percentage points from November), 44 percent actually believe that several of the hijackers who attacked the U.S. on September 11 were Iraqis (up significantly from 37% in November), and 36 percent believe that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the U.S. invaded (down slightly from 38% in November). These are claims that not even George W. Bush himself has supported--he has made it clear that to the best of his knowledge none of the preceding three claims are true. So how is it possible that so many Americans still believe them?

At times, I must admit, I have entertained the idea--first presented to me by a colleague who teaches at a high school just north of mine--that we should have a basic test for all registering voters. This test could determine whether a potential voter had the basic critical thinking skills and knowledge of basic civics necessary to participate in a democracy. This is obviously a highly problematic proposal on a number of levels. I don't seriously believe that it could ever happen (nor am I positive that it should). But at times I have to wonder whether a group of people who on average spend 4 and 1/2 hours of every day in front of a television--90 minutes more than the world average--have the mental capacity to participate in a functioning democracy.

This is where computers come in. You may think that the computer is just another form of television. That it creates a similarly passive, under-stimulated mental condition that hurts an individual's ability to think critically. But the science does not back up that claim--in fact, the opposite appears to be true. A recent study at Johns Hopkins University came up with some results that didn't seem to surprise anyone--students who had a television in the bedroom scored significantly lower on standardized tests than those who did not. But one element of the study that got less attention was this--students with access to a computer at home scored higher on the tests than those without a computer at home.

I understand that many turn to computers for pornography, pirated music, and video games. But most people who have a computer know this to be true--computers can be incredibly intellectually stimulating, particularly now that they are connected to the world wide web. People can now put their opinions out there, read other's reactions to them, respond, engage, explore, dig deeper into important issues, and find sources of information that simply aren't on the television or in the mass media. The internet is an invaluable resource--it has to be protected. For more on the fight to keep the internet free, check out one of my favorite blogs, shouting loudly.

The problem is that there is so much "noise" on the internet that it is often difficult to tell a good source from a bad one, or a reasonable opinion from an inane one. That is where we come in as teachers. This generation does not need us to teach them a bunch of facts or make them memorize a bunch of rules--they can access any information they want instantly from anywhere. What I need to do as a teacher is to give my students the ability to decipher that information, filter it, critically examine it, differentiate it, and understand it. If we can do that, we can help cultivate a new generation of thinkers in this country who just might have the power to save this ailing democracy.