Amazon.com Widgets The Good Place (Michael L. Umphrey on gardening, teaching, and writing)

"Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice. - Benedict Spinoza."

Teaching

Without leadership, the nation fails
     The democratic dilemma

Without vision, the people perish. Only a vision that links their individual aspirations to some larger purpose can keep a people organized for their own welfare and survival. For such a vision to exist as an organizing reality, leaders must articulate it as well as make decisions that keep it functional. In a democracy where people elect their own leaders, a dilemma arises out of human nature. People can win votes and leadership through using the arts of rhetoric to flatter and lie. In power, such people give lip service to the vision but undermine it in the pursuit of self-interest.

Can a majority of voters be wise enough to resist flattery and see through deception?

Not if the education system is corrupted.


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2010 Michael L. Umphrey

The context of childhood
     Waiting for Superman?

An attentive young girl in her school desk surrounded not by a garden but by desolation--it’s an evocative bit of propaganda for a film I haven’t seen: Wating for Superman, which won the “audience award” for a U.S. documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s by the director of An Inconvenient Truth. So that’s two strikes against it.

The image catches my attention because it suggests an important truth: the environment in which education takes place matters profoundly. The School of Epicurus was a garden at his house on the outskirts of Athens. Withdrawing to a garden in dark times, when humanity is under siege from the forces of darkness, can be a sanctifying mode of sanity.

If our culture continues its “progress” towards “ideals” that are toxic to childhood people of good will are going to have to contemplate the realities of our public schools, the environments in which childhood is embedded.

I’m skeptical that this film--emerging as it seems from progressivism, which is much of the problem--is likely to tell important truths. However, since its promotional poster does resonate in me, I’ll look forward to giving it my attention.


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2010 Michael L. Umphrey

The failures of NCLB are blamed on free markets?
     Strange times

Diane Ravitch has a silly post today on the relevance of the business model for the nation’s schools. “As the free market lies in shambles around us, bringing down with it many people’s life savings, I wonder if its advocates in the education arena will stop and reconsider whether they are importing free-market chaos and free-market punishments into the lives of children?”

It doesn’t ring true.

The banking crash is an illustration of the centralized collusion of big business and big government. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mae are Government Sponsored Enterprises and they functioned quite well at transmitting the will of some powerful congressmen into the banking industry, pushing for bad loans that provided political gain. Among Ravitch’s complaints is this: “And, of course, we must measure relentlessly, shaming and humiliating those teachers whose students are not constantly getting ever higher test scores. Test scores, I suppose, are the equivalent of a sales target or profit margins.” But of course, they are no such thing.

They are, rather, corrupted measures imposed by government bureaucrats through NCLB. They are more like the fantasy goals of soviet agriculture imposed by Stalin’s five year plans than they are the measures parents who were free to choose schools and schools that were free to serve a market would create.

We live in increasingly Orwellian times when the absurdities of centralized government are blamed on free markets.


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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

Centralize information, disperse control
     Helping schools get better

The discussion of NCLB over at New Talk had few surprises. The most interesting thing said might be this suggestion from Diane Ravitch:

My own preference would be for Congress to authorize national testing (à la NAEP), based on coherent curriculum standards, but without stakes or sanctions. The federal role should be to provide accurate information about student performance. It should be left to states and districts to devise sanctions and reforms. These jurisdictions are closer to the schools and likelier to come up with workable reforms. If states and localities don’t want to improve their schools, then we are in deeper trouble as a nation than any law passed by Congress can fix.

The principle Ravitch invokes here is correct: centralize information gathering and dissemination but disperse decision-making and control.

Both parents and teachers can benefit from seeing how their students compare with other students around their state and around the nation, and if basic demographic data from each school is also recorded, we could learn a tremendous amount about what is working and what isn’t working for various populations.  Some people would continue to argue that the tests measure the wrong things, but the existence of nationally standardized data for each school would nonetheless create powerful incentives to pay attention to research into what the successful schools are doing.

It could lead to a situation where the performance standards are set not by politicized bureaucracies but by the best actual performances in the field.

If this were linked to real local control of schools, so that people were free to adapt, I would expect to see many schools making rapid progress. I would also expect to see many schools dithering or slipping backwards. But others would also see it and know it. That’s a powerful thing.


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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

25 free tools for elearning
     Working with Web 2.0

A list of 25 “core” tools for using the web in teaching and learning is available here. For the most part, they are the same tools I’ve (for the moment) settled on.

I don’t lean too heavily on the web in my day-to-day teaching, because the school I work in isn’t set up for that. But I do most of my planning and handout creation online and keep a home page so students can get materials they missed or lost and check assignments. It makes makeup pretty simple.

At my last job I published a magazine and led an organization in which the staff were scattered around the map and most of our interaction was via the web. A digital communications environment is normal in today’s work environment, and students should be developing the skills to get work done in a similar environment at school.


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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

Show us the real work
     Education gurus engage in hollow rhetoric

Science teacher Annie Chien reacts with skepticism to all the talk she hears at education conferences and workshops. Such gatherings have “become stagnant to me,” she says. Though she hears speakers gush about student voice and student involvment, she “can’t seem to find the evidence” that anything important is happening.

I don’t hear or see students talking about math, science, English and Social Studies. I don’t see students working out problems in math, and I don’t see students engaging in debates about our government. Where are the abundant great student work in science and English that these student-centered institutions are supposedly creating? I don’t see a slew of student inventions and original work where they demonstrate mastery and creativity. Where is the hard core evidence that supports student centered organizations?

What she wants from those who would advise us on how to teach is “raw evidence of student learning.” Instead of pious phrases we need evidence of student accomplishment.  “No more shiny bells--I want student work and performance as my guiding light to perfect my teaching practice.”


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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

Is English literature dying?
     No, but university English departments are not well

Literary criticism as a university discipline may be dying. What implications does this have for secondary teachers?


Creative Commons

Does it matter to high schools that the teaching of literature at universities seems to have reached a dead end?

It seems odd that as English declines at the university level, it remains the most taught subject in high school. All but a half-dozen states have state-wide requirements for high school graduation and nearly all of them require four years of English. Most require three years of social studies and two or three years of math and science--but four years of English.

English, it’s true, has always been the most heterodox of subjects in high school, including grammar and writing and speech and media studies and all manner of social and political meanderings. But mostly, it’s been about literature. I sometimes wonder to what extent the teaching of literature in high school is mostly a habit, like homecoming and prom.

The Nation has joined the widespread lament about the death of literary criticism as an academic profession. “The real story of academic literary criticism today is that the profession is, however slowly, dying,” says William Deresiewicz in his review of a new edition of Gerald Graff’s Professing Literature. In brief, the story of the decline of the profession goes like this: “Classicists had been deposed by humanists, humanists by historians, historians by critics and now critics by theorists. . . .” This has been accompanied by “a steep, prolonged and apparently irreversible decline” in the number of students studying English literature.

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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

Thoughts on getting home from scoring 2000 essays
     Musing on MUS (Montana University System) Writing Assessment

A writer should be of as great probity and honesty as a priest of God. He is either honest or not, as a woman is either chaste or not, and after one piece of dishonest writing he is never the same again.

Ernest Hemingway


Giambattista Vico

What are we teaching our kids? I wondered driving home from Missoula, where with about eighty other teachers I helped score 2,000 or so of the 7,000 essays juniors wrote as part our state’s writing assessment. When I got home, I turned to old books, where I often go when my sense of reality goes dim from too much devotion to the hurly burly of school.

Giambattista Vico, I read, claimed that the aim of education should be to achieve a heroic mind. A hero is one forever seeking the sublime.

He knew something of the eros of learning. Maybe he was thinking about Plato’s Cratylus and the claim that “hero” (heros) derives from love (eros), a desire to be completed that can link us to the divine. “Make your way,” Vico continues, “. . .through all three worlds, of things human, things natural, and things eternal.” He intimates that someone rapt in a long moment of learning can reach, in his yearning to be whole, the creator.

One with a heroic mind will strive to be eloquent. Through eloquence the learner avoids being alone in wisdom, which would be to fall into foolishness. Wisdom requires eloquence—and “eloquence is none other than wisdom speaking.” It is the binding together of heart and tongue, and its work is to draw us into each other.

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2008 Michael L. Umphrey

How to improve the teaching of writing
     Five steps to a better high school writing program


Learning expedition at Whitefish High School

I’ve heard that the writing curriculum is going to get some attention from the administration this year. Nothing that schools attempt is more difficult than teaching writing. Writing may be the most intellectually challenging thing many students are asked to learn in school, and teaching writing requires individualized coaching, which is laborious and time-consuming.

We’ve gone through something of a revolution in teaching writing since the late 1970s, when “the writing process” began to be championed throughout the land. Most state teaching guides now talk about the writing process. Unfortunately, this hasn’t led to any measurable improvement in student writing:

Over the last 20 years, during which process has been integrated into instruction nationwide, all NAEP reports have shown a gradual decline in writing performance. The NAEP 1996 Trends in Writing report (U. S. Department of Education, 1996), the most current comparative report as of this writing, showed that holistic scores (on a 6-point scale) for fourth-grade writers changed from 2.82 in 1984 to 3.02 in 1996. This change is statistically insignificant. The percentage of run-on sentences actually increased during this period, as did the percentage of sentence fragments. The more recent 1998 NAEP Writing Report Card (U. S. Department of Education, 1999) does not look at longitudinal data but nevertheless allows us to compare student performance as reported in the 1996 Trends in Writing report. The 1998 report examined results for Grades 4, 8, and 12 and found that percentages of students performing at the basic (below average) level were 84, 84, and 78, respectively. The percentages of those performing at the proficient (average) level were 23, 27, and 22, respectively. Only 1% of students at each grade level performed at the advanced (above-average) level. If we compare the 1998 and the 1984 data, we find that the above-average figure is unchanged for 1998, that the average figure is lower for 1998, and that the below-average figure is higher for 1998.

James D. Williams, Preparing to Teach Writing: Research, Theory, and Practice. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: 2003, p. 99.

Between 1998 and 2003 there were slight improvements in the NAEP scores for 4th and 8th graders but not for 12th graders. Since in Montana scores stayed flat during that time, that meant our students slipped downward in the national rankings (aside: there was a huge gender gap in Montana, and elsewhere: Montana eighth grade girls scored 168, which was 31 points higher than the 137 scored by boys).

Although the widespread adoption of process teaching has not led to notable improvement in writing, I don’t take this to mean that the approach is wrong. Indeed, as one who has spent countless hours trying to write better, I am quite sure it is right. Good writing really does require planning, drafting, revising and revising and revising.

Instead, I just take the lack of improvement as evidence of how difficult the challenge really is. If kids do not write a lot and do not get quick and useful feedback on how they are doing, they are not going to get much better, regardless of whether the teaching takes a pedagogical or a process approach. What this means in practice is that if most students are going to learn to write skillfully, the school day needs to include substantial blocks of time for writing, and the writing teachers’ work day needs to include substantial blocks of time for coaching student writers.

The National Commission on Writing has called for schools to “double the amount of time most students spend writing.” I suspect that for many students on many days, this would be quite easy, since two times zero is still not much.

If improving writing in the district were assigned to me, these are the steps I would advocate:

1. Clarify and articulate the vision of why writing matters. Be able to say clearly why it is important. Then say it often.

Kids do learn what they are taught and they do believe what they are repeatedly told, if what they are told isn’t so foolish that their own experience contradicts it, and if the tellers aren’t obvious hypocrites, only mouthing pieties they have no intention of living.

I believe writing matters because it’s impossible to do large, complex thinking tasks without it. I believe writing matters because without being articulate in language, we are at the mercy of the large bureaucracies that govern modern life. Theodore Dalrymple, in his work as a physician in the London slums, commented on the way the inarticulate are held hostage by the very bureaucracies that were invented to serve them:

In their dealings with authority, they were at a huge disadvantagea disaster, since so many of them depended upon various public bureaucracies for so many of their needs, from their housing and health care to their income and the education of their children. I would find myself dealing on their behalf with those bureaucracies, which were often simultaneously bullying and incompetent; and what officialdom had claimed for months or even years to be impossible suddenly, on my intervention, became possible within a week. Of course, it was not my mastery of language alone that produced this result; rather, my mastery of language signaled my capacity to make serious trouble for the bureaucrats if they did not do as I asked. I do not think it is a coincidence that the offices of all those bureaucracies were increasingly installing security barriers against the physical attacks on the staff by enraged but inarticulate dependents.

I believe writing matters because I believe every human life matters, and to the extent possible each should create a history of its significant experiences and insights. I believe writing matters because organized societyעwith its miracles of medical science, of improved production and distribution that make life less painful and more enjoyable, of social linkages that help us find and stay connected to those who are important to us—depends on dense communication, including written communications, at every level. I believe writing matters because I agree with Francis Bacon that “Reading makes a full man . . . writing an exact man,” and all the higher occupations require the sort of analytical exactness that can only be learned through writing.

Oh, and then there’s this:

The bottom-line problem and opportunity remain the same: The correlation between career success and writing proficiency is extremely strong. Government and private sector employers alike have told us that those who can write well will advance in the workplace and those who cannot write well will struggle to be promoted or even retained.

Bob Kerrey, National Writing Commission Chair

2. Ensure that all teachers hired can write well. Don’t assume any teacher has much writing skill just because he or she has a teaching license. Especially don’t assume all English teachers can write or teach writing.

Require a writing sample created at the interview site at the time of the interview. Promote this school as the place where writing matters. Include the emphasis on writing in all vacancy announcements. Make this the place teachers who have a passion for teaching writing want to be.

3. Develop the writing skills of teachers already on staff.

This is challenging. “Drive-by” inservice workshops won’t do it. Further, much of the advice out there about the teaching of writing really has little to do with the foundations of powerful writing, which are still knowledge, grammar, rhetoric, and logic. The first rule of powerful speaking, Cicero taught, was to know your subject. He observed that unless a speaker “grasps and understands what he is talking about, his speech will be worthless.” So it is with writing.

But if you took seriously the ”6 traits”—the most popular framework for writing instruction in the public schools today—you might think that good writing was mostly a matter of “voice.” And if you look at some of the fliers that come out of the National Writing Project, you might think good writing was mostly a political affair, having to do with empowerment, authenticity, and, again, voice.

Well, maybe it is, but I sure wish more of today’s education authorities believed that “research"—including not just Googling but also interviewing, observing, and experiencing—was thought important enough to be a trait. Also, some mention of truth and accuracy would be bracing.

In any case, good writing is intimately connected to learning and to a writer’s purposes. It is important in ways quite far removed from writing 40-minute essays in response to prompt unrelated to any real world purposes (even though there is quite a lot of overlap at the level of fluency and basic skills).

For teachers who are expected to include writing among their teaching strategies, one thing that would make sense would be to have them write frequently about their practice: brief reviews of websites and other materials, introductory comments to units they want to use, reflections on student work, and so on. When I was a high school principal, we included reflective writing in-service training, and then we published teachers’ thoughts about using writing in their teaching. I was surprised at the generally high quality of the work we received.

Today, I would think long and hard about ways to use blogging to engage teachers in writing and collaborating about their practice. For one thing, I would design the school website so that each department was posting regularly for the public, for other staff, and for students about topics of interest in that discipline. Janet Clarey discusses a similar idea (though in a corporate rather than a school setting) a little more here. Teachers would need to be given some time to write, but if they are not given regular time to write and, more important, a reason to write, they are not likely to get much better at it or give it a tremendous amount of thought.

4. Ensure that student writing is visible.

Both accountability and standards are best addressed by making the work real and public. Athletic programs provide a model--both accountability and standards grow out of regular games and tournaments. A writing program should also feature regular performances. The best of these, I think, involve writing for real world purposes with a natural audience, such as local history.

Blogging is a new genre of writing that should also have a place in the writing curriculum. What I have in mind is not at all the diary-writing that young people put on their My Space pages, but the focused and regular writing on specialized topics that have emerged everywhere. While journalism continues to decline as a profession, all sorts of businesses are adding bloggers to their payroll, recognizing the advantage of putting a personal voice before the public, along with a constant flow of information and links related to the business, whether that is gardening or automobile racing or software development. For students, the practice of regularly reading online information on a topic that interests them, and then commenting on it and providing links, is an excellent way for them to advance their interests while doing large amounts of regular reading and writing.

Note: I would be leery of burying the writing in literature courses. Though many teachers apparently do a great job of integrating writing into the study of literature, it’s far easier not to do so. Teaching literature is fun and relatively easy. Most writing teachers would rather be teaching literature. Very few writing teachers went to school to teach writing. Most went to school to read great books, to spend time in the storyworlds of fiction; they didn’t go to school to learn to teach writing to the unwilling and uninterested. Teaching writing is labor-intensive and time-consuming—an easy thing for a literature lover to put off or slight when they also have curricular obligations to read all those novels.

It’s quite easy for a class mixing the study of literature with the teaching of writing to focus more on literary analysis than on writing. That is, after all, the focus of most classes taken for an English major. Many English majors are not taught how to write so much as how to appreciate literature. Appreciating literature is, of course, a fine and wonderful thing, though not something as culturally central as it once was. It’s not just that reading has been declining for some time among all age groups, it’s also that the age of great poetry has passed, in the English speaking world, and the age of great fiction is rapidly fading in the rear view. Few people today walk around with lines from the great tradition of English poetry resonating through their lives. This is unspeakably sad, and in some moods I feel it is likely that it will yet be catastrophic.

Nonetheless, the important cultural conversations in the present age are occurring elsewhere—for imaginative works, in television series and films, and for fundamental questions in the biological sciences, in cognitive science, and even in history, but not, unfortunately, in fiction and poetry. Worldwide, nonfiction outsells fiction by $55 billion to $25 billion. When a work of fiction does enter into the national consciousness, it is most often because it has either been transformed into a successful movie or it has been discussed by Oprah.

At the post-secondary level, writing across the curriculum programs have liberated composition classes from the English department. It was, after all, mostly a historical accident that led to the strong association of English with composition. Professors in all disciplines are expected to write, and anyone who imagines literature professors know more about writing than people in other disciplines probably hasn’t read much recent scholarship in the field.

5. Ensure that writing teachers have the time.

This is the main thing. Students don’t write more in large part because teachers don’t have time to deal with floods of student writing. I suspect that the real reason writing ability declined during twenty years of emphasis on the writing process was simply because all the workshops and exhortation was unaccompanied by any real increase in time to do the work. If a teacher assigns only fifty students an essay, that will translate into more than fifteen hours of reading and commenting. If those essays are taken through three drafts, you can triple that time. This is time that, for a typical teacher, will be spent after school and on weekends. A good writing conference with a single student can easily take a half hour, though such conferences are much, much more effective than scrawling comments in the margin.

But even those large investments in time aren’t enough. Except for teachers of honors classes, much of the writing will contain numerous basic problems, such as unclear pronoun references, which can’t be explained simply to students who are not eagerly seeking the skill. At the end of reading a batch of essays laden with problems of basic usage, problems of style, problems of coherence and organization, and problems of general mindlessness, the teacher needs to decide what to do about it all.

Writing comments on papers hasn’t been shown to be particularly effective. Even if it were feasible, reteaching everything that needs to be retaught tends to be similarly ineffective. Students who have failed to figure out active voice many times before are quite capable of ignoring yet another lesson. There isn’t time in class to reteach everything, though if you add up the errors made in many typical classes, they will include pretty much everything. There have been dozens of suggestions for how to handle what is basically an impossible situation: have the students edit each other’s work, have students get their papers read by two or three other people before turning them in to the teacher, teach “mini-lessons” on all those problems that show up in the work. All of these work to a limited degree with a limited number of students, but a good many students continue to write poorly all the way through high school graduation, and then on through college, and not infrequently on through graduate school.

What works best is coaching: reading carefully through a students’ paper while giving explanations and making helpful changes. To the extent that I have been able to do this, it has worked. I believe a good faith effort to teach every student to write competently would require a writing teacher’s load to be no more than three classes a day, with no more than fifteen students in each class. The other three hours a day would be spent reading student writing and holding conferences. Students enrolled in a writing class should be simultaneously enrolled in a computer-equipped study hall, both so they have time each day to write and so they are available for conferences.

Teaching writing to 45 students a day, who were actually writing for an hour each day, would be more than a full-time job. If this were done at least one semester each year for three years during high school, I would expect to see significant gains in the writing ability of a majority of students in such a program.

If this isn’t possible, for financial reasons, then I would advocate that such a program be available to those students who freely choose it. It is as impossible to teach a student to write well who hasn’t the least desire to learn it as it is to teach good basketball skills to a player who refuses to run at more than three-quarter speed or to pay attention to what is happening on the court. Though sometimes a talented teacher can motivate a student, this is a difficult and inexact art, and I’m not of the mind that opportunities should be withheld from some students because no one has found a way to persuade all students to strive for them.


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2007 Michael L. Umphrey

Why use technology in the English classroom?
     Originally published in The Journal of the Montana Writing Project

I thought about starting this essay by pointing out that many or most kids today are going to work in environments where communications technologies are ubiquitous, and kids who don’t use those technologies in school are not being well prepared to work in a world that’s already here.

But really, my main reason for using blogs and wikis and podcasts is that it’s fun. I use the Internet to find out what I need to know, to stay in touch with people, to liberate my files from a single hard drive, and to get the work done that makes my life work. What works for me will work for at least some kids-probably most.

If I lived in 1860, I would want to catch a train. If I lived in 1910, I would want to use a telephone. Today, I want all my routine multiple choice assessments to be scored and posted to the grade book automatically. I really want that, but unfortunately that doesn’t happen.

The obvious ways technology could improve productivity--getting rid of repetitive, mindless tasks--aren’t readily incorporated into schools, unless they are repetitive, mindless tasks that afflict the office, such as tallying attendance. I do take attendance online, though I would prefer that kids swiped bar-coded key chain cards when they came into the classroom. I don’t like starting class with a pause while I enter attendance data by hand. I have better things to do.

Like using technology to teach English. Why would I do that? Well, why do cowboys sing?

We’re here. We have voices. It’s our world, too. For a long time the impact of communications technologies on culture tended to be alienating. Sheet music was replaced by vinyl record albums as the main way of distributing music, and this reduced demand for local musicians. Then, as amplifiers got better, recorded music replaced live performances for all sorts of occasions.

The number of local bands dwindled. Singing was fading away, though some people didn’t notice since Elton John’s voice could be heard in every hamlet on the planet.

The same dynamic was at play throughout the culture. Movies, magazines, radio shows, and books all required costly, centralized technologies, so they were created by large corporations rather than by us common folk. A few experts did the performing and all the ways we once entertained ourselves became less common: church plays, quilting bees, dances with local musicians and community socials. A vibrant folk culture was displaced by commercial culture. Fewer cowboys were singing. They were listening to 8-tracks of Waylon and Willie.

But in the last ten years, remarkable things have been happening. Now, anyone can have access to a sophisticated recording studio. Anyone can publish his or her writing for free. Anyone can have movie editing software with many of the capabilities of the big studios. More kids are making music again. But they are not isolated in some basement with hopeless dreams of being discovered. They are burning their own cds, making their own music videos, and posting their songs on their own websites, where anyone on the planet can download them. They are writing and publishing their own texts on My Space blogs. They are creating their own movies and publishing them on You Tube.

Some of it is pretty good. Unfortunately, more of it is wretched. After all, the major influence on many kids has been a commercial culture that, while it has often made the performances of remarkable talents available to millions, has also been pushing astonishingly toxic productions at young people.

Teachers who are playing heads up ball see this as a huge opportunity. The quality of those My Space blogs matter. They really matter, much more than another essay about To Kill a Mockingbird, which is not something the world greatly needs. What the world does greatly need is more great private literature. More poems written for one person. More letters that articulate important thoughts about vital questions from one person to one or two others. More Powerpoints with recorded narration celebrating important events, such as the building of a new tree house or the first drive in a restored ‘64 Impala, to be shared with family and friends.

Yes, we should still read Auden, but more for more inspiration, more for models, more like writers read. We should teach students to become people with their own original work to get done.

The generation that is in high school right now is already creating a folk culture and a private literature that is vast. It includes stories, music, movies, diaries, slide shows and all sorts of combinations. Folk cultures are normally more powerfully educative than schools-as can be read easily in comparisons of demographics and test scores-and what this emerging digital culture becomes will have profound implications.

I rather think we, as teachers, will be its allies and it will be ours, or it will largely displace us. There are a few good reasons for keeping the mass attendance centers we now use as schools, but there are also lots of reasons to leave them. They’re protected right now by political arrangements designed by school board associations and teachers unions, but what the citizenry wants it will get, and the attractions to students and parents of online education will become increasingly compelling as those clients realize more clearly what is possible.

Personally, I wouldn’t mind at all if the online world opened new ways for teachers to work. Some days absenteeism, makeup, broken copiers, long commutes, 20-minute lunches, and the smell of floor wax gets me down a little. I feel like going out and making a movie.

So far, schools don’t know what to do about the new communication culture. They’re banning cell phones and blocking the Internet and email. Some days it seems our IT staff exists just to make it impossible for me to use the new online tools, all of which require email registration, which our server blocks. Actually, our IT staff is just Ceth, who is an amiable and accommodating wizard, but schools with hundreds of adolescents are not the best places for turning anyone loose in cyberspace. That’s fine, I suppose, but what schools also need to be doing, or at least what teachers of writing and photography and art and music could be doing, is helping kids use the tools so that the art and literature that they are creating is as appropriate and wise and powerful as it can be.

Kids have a lot they should be thinking about. What is appropriate to reveal about oneself in public? Digital information lasts forever. A semi-pornographic photo that seemed funny at the moment can lead to all sorts of problems, now and later. It takes some wisdom to deal with the permanence of this medium. Idle words tossed off as a prank may be read by future employers, future spouses, future adversaries, but also by future grandchildren and great-grandchildren. We are only beginning to consider what this means and how it changes the way we live. The young people need grownups who know what’s going on to talk things through as they go.

To a great extent, young people will do what they will do. But we could be helping them with their productions in these new media, teaching them what we know about quality scripts and making our best case for the standards we really care about. For generations, educators have labored toward the goal of bringing young people to basic literacy, giving them the power to encode and decode written language. Today, most adults in America can read a newspaper, decipher a letter from the bank, or send a note to a child away from home. This is no small achievement. But today basic literacy isn’t enough.

When publication meant printed books and magazines there was little incentive for most people to commit the time and energy needed to become skillful writers, because opportunities for publishing were limited. No more. An increasing portion of the information available to us will be created not by professionals but by ourselves. The decline of literary reviews in newspapers received a lot of attention last year, and while this caused real dismay, we should not ignore the fact that new forms of reviewing, such as the thousands of user-written reviews on Amazon, are becoming widespread. Manufacturers report that, increasingly, user reviews of their goods and services are driving sales. Apparently, lots of ordinary people are willing to write reviews and provide information. Like cowboys around the campfire, we’re getting our culture back. It will be what we make of it.

And it will be a lot more than reviews and reports. The world has always had great private literature--the letter from a father to a son that changed a life, the memoir of a grandmother that inspired generations of descendants, the heartfelt expression of an honest emotion that cemented a friendship--and the quality of life in the digital age will be closely related to the amount and quality of private literature that we create. Most people and most families will maintain an archive of words and images, accumulating through lifetimes.

Lots of kids are already their own publishers, posting whatever they want on My Space. For many families the family photo album has already migrated to the web and has become a primary venue for creative expression. Where once we had occasional images with one-line captions, we now have multimedia libraries. Lots of young people will do much of their reading not in the mass media and not in the library but on the web sites of families and friends. Already, many young people would rather spend an hour watching homemade videos on You Tube than watching commercial television. Not just kids. I often spend a free hour watching You Tube but it’s been years since I’ve watched any television except the news. The range of offerings is dazzling. Some people have their own television shows with episodes posted weekly. Some people make poetry videos featuring clever animation. Many videos are answered by other videos, creating a new form of dialogue. It’s not hard to find things more compelling than commercial television, which, by its nature is bland and predictable.

English teachers should be excited by the prospect of a culture of writing consisting of more thana few “stars” and the bestseller lists. We only need a few New York Times bestsellers-two or three every other year or so would satisfy me--but we need as many intelligent and well-crafted Powerpoints celebrating fiftieth anniversaries and movies sent to sons away at war and reflections by young mothers as we can get. We need millions of them.

Whenever possible, school work should be real work. A digital album of a trip told in words and images can be great literature. So can a movie of a family’s response to a sudden storm, or a Powerpoint commemorating the death of a grandmother, or a video tribute to a ranch family’s relationship to the landscape, or a slideshow giving a personal response to a favorite literary work. Great writers have always known that everyday life is the source of powerful writing. I watched a Powerpoint done by a sophomore girl in Phil Leonardi’s class in Corvallis telling the story of a decades old murder in Corvallis, researched in microfilm of old newspapers, that was as compelling as an episode of Unsolved Mysteries. The production values were a little lower, but it was about here. I watched an interview-based movie made by students in Renee Rasmussen’s class in Chester about the impact on Joplin of closing their high school in a consolidation move. It was stunningly evocative. It will become a permanent part of the history of that community. It was real work.

This is a good time to recommit to being not primarily consumers of commercial culture but also producers of our own culture, our own literature about the places and lives that we know. And if we do it with our students, we’ll find all sorts of intractable problems won’t need to be solved. They’ll just dissolve. Besides, it’s a great adventure.

It’s also a necessity. Our new powers bring real risks. We are quickly moving into a world full of simulations and deceptions.  It’s important that young develop their personal voices, backed by hard research and made bold by a faith that they have really seen what they have seen, really heard what they have heard, and really felt what they have felt. We need human witness and human voices that we trust. Kids need to hear us talk about trust in the real life situations, because trust is as vital in the information age as petroleum was in the machine age. The Internet moves destructive information as readily as constructive information, and we need a citizenry that understands how vital it is that we are ethical, restrained, attentive and honest. In other words, things are going to be just as they have always been, only more so.

Of course, there are lesser but still important reasons to use technology. One is that high schools seem stuck, and anything with potential to unstick them is a source of hope. They are stuck with all sorts of pretenses.

There’s the pretense of “make up.” In high absentee districts--that is, districts with athletic programs--most make up is a pretense. I’m not sure whether the pretense is that the work was made up or that anything was missed. In either case, kids have so many opportunities outside the classroom and parents so little interest in sacrificing such opportunities for any notion of the common good, that no one is going to fix attendance.

Technology has enormous potential to make missing class less disruptive both for students and for teachers. Actually, it’s not potential. Everything we need now exists. Learning how to use it and getting districts to spend the money is another thing. I work on this as much as I have time--being sure assignments are online with downloadable copies of handouts, with links to texts or webquests or videos that cover roughly what was done in. I find it amusing and fulfilling to figure out as much as I can about how it could work with the time and tools I have now, and even small improvement yield pretty good dividends. I can easily print a copy of whatever past or future assignment an office aide wants for the boy who is taking a 10-day surfing vacation in Costa Rica or the girl under house arrest.

I like to think that if something like Hurricane Katrina hits the school and it is physically gone fora few months, my classes at least will still be able to meet online and continue our work.

We use blogs--both individual student blogs and a class blog. A blog is just a website where new pages are created by typing or pasting into a form and then clicking “submit.” It’s quite like sending an email and just as easy.

I can subscribe to individual student blogs using Real Simple Syndication (RSS) and a blog aggregator such as Bloglines or Google Reader. What this means is that I can open my aggregator and a list of all the student blogs will appear. I can tell at a glance if anyone has posted anything since the last time I read them. If I click on a student name, his or her posts will appear in the reading pane. I can add comments. It’s far easier to manage than having assignments emailed tome. And it suits me far more than managing papers. Since I can access the blogs from any computer anywhere, I never carry papers home and I never get accused of losing a paper. I have an automatic record of exactly when an assignment was posted. Also, students can turn in work in the evening or on weekends, which solves quite a few problems.

I also use a class blog, where all students post on the same site. I can post a question and ask them all to answer it, or I can simply have them turn in essay assignments by posting them. I can easily ask them to read and comment on other students’ work. I can direct everyone to read an exemplary piece of student writing. I’ve automatically got a copy of everything they’ve written in a digital portfolio.

I put on the class blog’s sidebar a list of links to common writing problems. Beside each link I put a color: red=nonparallel structure; yellow=passive voice; blue=pronoun/antecedent errors, etc. I highlight errors in their writing with the appropriate color. They follow the link, read the explanation, then fix the error and remove my highlighting.

The blog for my class home page is here: http://www.flatheadreservation.org/index.php/phs

I also use a class wiki. A wiki is similar to a blog, except that everyone can edit the same page.It’s good for class projects, such as creating an annotated version of a historical text. This is a good way to handle difficult texts that require lots of annotation for difficult words and historic context. Wikis can be given real world uses that give the work more value. For example, students could create a wiki introducing younger students to a history of their town, with different students adding information on different topics.

The advantages of blogs and wikis is that they are very easy to learn and simple to use. No html is needed and the formatting is done by templates that are applied by the program, so the writer needs to think only about writing.

There are many other free tools. Google notebooks allow a student to take notes from websites by simply marking the text, then using a right click to get to a special “copy” command.  The program automatically records the url for complete citations. It takes only a couple clicks to create a new notebook for a new topic. One notebook for “Theodore Roosevelt”. A new one for"1912 Election”. When the research is done, the notes can be copied to a work processor or printed out.

Zoho has a full featured word processor that is web-based. A student working on a paper at school can get to the document at home, without email or carrying a disk. The document can also be shared, so others can add comments or edit it.

There are, naturally, quite a few bloggers who blog about education and teaching. Here are some of the more popular ones:

huffenglish.com - http://www.huffenglish.com/ Dana Huff’s blog is about English education and technology. She’s a classroom teacher and she discusses both teaching English and using technology. Her site even features the “Room 303 Blog” where students record their observations on her class.

Stephen’s Web - http://www.downes.ca/ Stephen Downs is a new media and online learning guru who works for the National Research Council in New Brunswick. He gives many presentations on using technology in education, and analyzes how it affects learning and how it can best be used.

edtechpost - http://edtechpost.ca/wordpress/ Scott Leslie writes reviews and reports on new software and other tools, and he ruminates on what’s happening in education and technlogy

weblogg-ed - http://weblogg-ed.com/ Will Richardson is the author of Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms published by Corwin Press. His blog discussesthose technologies in the K-12 realm.

Follow-up Pew/Internet reports that content creation by teens continues to increase, with 64% of online teenagers ages 12 to 17 engaging in at least one type of content creation.

Michael Umphrey’s new book, The Power of Community-Centered Education: Teaching as a Craft of Place has just been published by Rowman & Littlefield. He teaches at Polson High school.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey
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2007 Michael L. Umphrey

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