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Archive for November, 2011

“My Teacher is an App”

This past Saturday, the cover story in the Wall Street Journal Review, titled “My Teacher is an App,” led me to think that K-12 virtual learning is the latest red herring for individuals seeking educational reform. The article cites the growing prevalence of digital learning: Florida requires every public high school student to take at least one online course; Idaho requires two. Thirty states let students take all of their courses online.  Districts are embracing these programs because online learning cuts costs – a traditional high school teacher oversees 150 students; an online teacher can manage over 250, largely because the program is standardized and the grading is computer-generated.

Granted, there are students who might benefit from self-directed study, especially if the brick and mortar classrooms don’t provide individual instruction that matches the student’s ability.  But the statistics suggest that online learning is not the panacea we’re hoping for: online students routinely school lower on standardized tests than their “in school” counterparts.

No doubt the times call for radical solutions (in the nation’s largest cities, half of all high school students never graduate).  But perhaps the answer lies in the original meaning of radical – “rooted, inherent.”  Instead of searching for a sexy, modern solution to our age-old woe, we need to remember what it means to be essentially human, what is rooted or inheres in each one of us. We need to remember that students are first and foremost human beings, individuals who want to connect to others, who want to create personal meaning out of what they learn, and who want to develop a sense of purpose and direction.  Delivering content more readily to their doorsteps is not the solution.  After all, information is not knowledge, let alone wisdom.

Diana Senechal, in her article “The Most Daring Education Reform of All” published in spring 2010 American Educator, offers sage advice: “Instead of rushing to incorporate 21st-century skills in all aspects of school, instead of embracing change for its own sake, we should pursue perfection in curriculum and pedagogy.” Of course, her statement begs the question, “What is excellence?”  To me, that’s the question we should be grappling with.

In her article, Senechal cites an old professor of mine from UVA, E.D. Hirsch, who understood that “the central purpose (of education) used to be to create virtuous citizens with enough shared knowledge for all to participate in the publish sphere.” In his seminal but highly controversial work, Cultural Literacy, Hirsch explores the need for core knowledge in order to develop reading comprehension. Students must know something about the world in order to make sense and contribute to it. Senechal additionally offers a secondary purpose of education, “to prepare us for solitude, which is part of every life; if we know how to be alone, then we may be less prone to distractions, escapism, and boredom.” Certainly, man was made for relationships; he was made to connect and collaborate. But man was also made for solitude. Our essential condition requires that we lay down our heads at night with only ourselves to talk to, to sort things through, to come to conclusions. Communing with our fellow man is vital to our health, like nutrients to our body, but the capacity to live in solitude is akin to the very air we breathe. Parker Palmer in his book The Courage to Teach highlights the paradoxical need for both solitude and community: “When it is torn apart, both of these life-giving states of being degenerate into deathly specters of themselves. Solitude split off from community is no longer a rich and fulfilling experience of inwardness; now it becomes loneliness, a terrible isolation. Community split off from solitude is no longer a nurturing network of relationships; now it becomes a crowd, an alienating buzz of so many people and too much noise.”

In our rush to solve the problems of education, we must not overlook the basic human skill that will always endure: the ability to sit in solitude and think. I think we need to ask our students, and even ourselves, whether we are creating and fostering an environment for our students that allows them the peace and quiet to know themselves.

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The Obligation to Speak

Recently, I visited a Catholic high school, touring the facilities and sitting in on numerous classes for a few days.  Catholic schools, unlike other Christian parochial schools, are struggling to find priests to oversee chapel and administer communion as well as provide spiritual leadership. As a result, the task of fostering the Catholic identity or developing moral and spiritual education falls to the faculty.  Initially, when learning about this predicament, I wondered to myself how much longer the Catholic educational system would endure.  However, after a few days of watching individual teachers begin each class with a moment of prayer, reflection, or focused intention, I began to wonder if their solution to the lack of religious leadership was in actually a blessing, not a bane.

In many schools with a religious affiliation or a professed focus on moral development, the task of teaching ethics or spirituality falls to chaplains and religion teachers.  While the impetus for this delegation of responsibility may be well intentioned, the effects may not be fully understood.  Fostering the ethical development of a young person requires an intentional, collaborative response from every member of the faculty.  Offering Ethics as a stand-alone course, without asking the rest of the faculty to engage students in the process of ethical reflection, teaches students that the study of morality and the focus on leading a principled life has a time and a place.  Ethics becomes theoretical, not practical, and as a result students may learn to justify unethical decisions or refuse to accept their consequences.   On the contrary, when every teacher, coach, administrator, and staff member embraces the mission of instilling in students a reflective and purposeful approach to establishing ethical principles, students will recognize that choosing to make moral decisions does not exist in a vacuum.  They begin to see Ethics, not as the study of a subject, but rather as the creation of a disposition.

I became aware of the distinction in my own class today.  My students, all girls, were engaged in a shared inquiry discussion of the novel Speak, a book I assigned as a modern day accompaniment to our study of Catcher in the Rye.  In the book, which reads like a diary, a young woman starts high school after a senior rapes her at an end-of-summer party.  Alienated by everyone at school because she called the police (but did not report the rape), she becomes severely depressed and ultimately mute, hence the title “Speak.”  When I asked why the young woman did not report the rape when it happened or even after school started, I was both impressed and saddened by the mature insight my students shared: “Why would she want to open herself up to betrayal and shame all over again?” “The students at her school as a whole lacked forgiveness – why reach out to those people?” “There might be people who would understand, but there would definitely be people who blamed her for what happened.  I don’t know that she felt strong enough to put herself through that.”

Somewhat hesitantly, because of the lurid nature of the accusations, I asked my students if they had read anything about the recent Penn State child abuse scandal.  A number of them had; one girl mentioned that her father is a Nittany Lion.  I gave the students a brief summary of the story and attempted to answer their questions regarding the young men who had been abused and the man who abused them.   I said it’s easy to pose the same question I asked regarding the character in Speak – why were these children silent or, if not silent, why were they not heard?  Students offered the same responses: shame, fear of betrayal, a lack of faith in those who have the capacity to protect or to defend.

But then I asked them about the role of the larger culture at Penn State that failed to safeguard children from this predator.  What about the grown men who witnessed the abuse and did not immediately intervene?  What about the men in positions of power who heard about the abuse but failed promptly to investigate or to inform the police? If they had witnessed their own son being abused, certainly they would have torn the man from limb to limb.  What ethical lapse allowed them to compartmentalize their disgust and rationalize their obligation to intervene? Perhaps, they are not legally culpable, but is that the only measure by which they should be judged?  How does one go about challenging that culture or better yet creating a culture that would never allow an abuser the opportunity to abuse again?

Sadly, I don’t think the answer is a class in Ethics.

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As a high school English teacher who has taught single-sex classes over the last three years, I’ve been particularly interested in a recent study reporting the ineffectiveness of single-gender classes: “Single-Sex Education is Assailed in Report” and “Single-Sex Schools: Separate but Equal.” To be honest, I’m not even sure why our school instituted the move years ago since it occurred before my arrival. I suspect it was moved by the proliferation of books and research in the ‘90s citing this educational model as a cure-all for various educational maladies: the “boy crisis” (statistically, more boys disrupt the classroom, receive falling grades, and drop-out than girls) or the “girl crisis” (girls traditionally excel in language oriented classes as opposed to math and science). Actually, the first year I began teaching 9th grade English at our school, my classes were mixed gender. The next year, the upper school principal made the switch to single gender. There was little to no discussion about the merits of either.

Honestly, I’m not faulting our school here. This seems often to be how decisions are made in American education – from the gut or based on the latest research. But is it wise?

This year I’m teaching, as the dice has decided, just girls’ classes. From my experience, I’ve found that girls typically are quieter, more eager to please, enjoy discussions, and respond more readily to encouragement. The girls generally approach shared inquiry avidly; they like to talk through a story, listening to each other’s personal connections and attempting to sort out the characters’ motivations and conflicts. They can sit quietly in front of their computer screens, honing an essay in deliberation.

The boys usually are a bit more rambunctious. They like to act out plays, engage in scavenger hunts, and openly critique each other’s work. Last year, I entered my class on innumerable occasions to find my boys already present, eager to capture my attention. After watching “Dead Poets’ Society,” they all stood on their desks and greeted me with shouts, “O, Captain, My Captain.” Of course, if I’d segued into a discussion of Whitman, they would have drowned me with shouts of a different tenor. Or the day, I was impressed to discover all fifteen of them piled on top of each other on the small love sofa in my classroom.

No doubt about it: boys and girls, as a rule, are different. But that’s the thing, to make that statement, I have to use a qualifier, as I did with every statement in my last paragraph: “typically,” “generally,” “usually.” But kids break rules; each one doesn’t conform to the standard definition.

Even now, writing this, it’s easy to recall girls who were bored by fine-tuning an essay and boys who wanted to talk about how they connected to characters in literature. Admittedly, as a teacher, single-sex classes make my life easier. I know my audiences a bit better and can play to their strengths. But shouldn’t I be teaching to each individual student’s abilities, regardless of gender, race, social status, etc.?

I read the articles, cited above, highlighting this new research that casts doubt on the effectiveness of single-gender classes, but I was much more intrigued by the readers’ comments that reflected experience.

One father writes, “On a personal note, as a parent, I can say our daughter benefited greatly from a wonderful all-girls school … I’m almost certain our daughter would not have become the engineer she is had she missed out in this particularly educational opportunity.”

Another reader shares, “When I went to the top-notch Stuyvesant High School in New York, it was single-sex. I got a great education – except for the huge hole left in my maturation because I never interacted with girls. It took me a long time to catch up, and it was a painful time, too.”

A mother writes, “My 7 year old son is enamored of a girl in his class and thinks and talks of nothing else. It’s adorable, and very telling. We can’t pretend that males and females are not different and that they’re not interested in each other. Sometimes interested to the point of distraction, true. But in my view that is the teacher’s challenge to manage. We send our children to school to prepare them for life in the real world, where they will have to deal with all kinds of people. The world doesn’t set up your environment for your optimal success.”

A woman offers, “I went to an all-girls high-school, still in existence, private and non-parochial. It was — and is — in no way a “kindler, gentler” soft, educational experience. The girls can study a wide range of subjects including math, sciences, and engineering; there is no fluff. What I most appreciated about it, aside from the great education, and amazing off-campus opportunities for service and internships, was that we had no fear in the classroom or on the athletic field — no one was worrying about impressing their boyfriend, or not appearing “too smart,” or being either too jocky or too nerdy.”

Almost all of the comments on both articles begin, “I.” The writer wanted to use his or her personal, albeit anecdotal, experience to make an argument for students in general. But the cacophony of voices hums the same tune: I am unique and want my individual needs met. Everyone has been a student at one time or another, and we all return to our experiences to offer advice on how to better shape education.

Isn’t that the lesson we as educators should be learning? Each child warrants individual attention. That’s not a bad premise to begin with.

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