Thursday, June 14, 2012

Should Teachers Assign Homework?

A few days ago, teacher (and founder of the short lived but hilarious #pencilchat hashtag) John T. Spencer wrote Ten (Really Useful) Ways to Cheat-Proof Your Classroom. Cheating - especially in the form of plagiarism - is a demon I am constantly trying to exorcise from my students and I think nine of Spencer's suggestions do just that. There's only one that I find disagreeable.

Spencer suggests that cheating takes place largely on homework assignments so the easiest way to solve the problem is to simply stop assigning homework. This is the equivalent to sawing off your hand to ease the pain of a hangnail. Homework is needed not only as a summative assessment but also as a means of teaching responsibility and accountability. What standard are we setting by making students responsible for nothing more than physically showing up to class?

While I agree that there are still far too many teachers assigning crosswords and word finds, meaningful homework absolutely has a place in the classroom. Perhaps there needs to be discussions in schools about what homework is and why it should be assigned in the first place. If a teacher struggles to answer these two questions regarding a particular assignment, then it's probably not worth assigning in the first place.

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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

How do we Fix the Outdated Education Model?

Last August, I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion at the #140EDU Conference in New York City. The topic of the discussion was the Alternatives to the Outdated Education Model; the premise of which was that the current education system isn’t broken, but rather completely out of touch with the needs of today’s learners and therefore ineffective. Because of the limited time allowed for the panel, we could only offer general ideals and best practices rather than practical solutions for change. After all, updating the very structure and purpose of education would mean a massive overhaul in a legacy system embedded within U.S. culture – not really something that can be accomplished in a 20 minute panel discussion.

I thought about this experience last night while browsing through a friend’s photo album on Facebook. He’s a bit of a political junkie, which explains why the album was from his trip to the Jimmy Carter Historic Site and Museum located in Plains, Georgia. Among other uber-nerdy shots, one was of a replica of Carter’s sixth grade classroom, circa 1937 under the direction of teacher, Ms. Julia Coleman.

 Look past the inkwells, hardwood floors, and dusty chalkboards and you’ll notice something rather profound – the layout is not unlike many of today’s classrooms. Sure, 75 years have brought significant change in technology and ergonomics (I assume those wooden benches were less than comfy), but the essential geography of the classroom has stayed the same. How can we bring about fundamental change when the teacher remains at the head of the class, and students remain isolated in evenly spaced rows?

I know what you’re thinking – My classroom doesn’t look like that! - and you’re probably right. But understand that you are not the norm. To prove my point, I did a quick Google search for “2012 Classroom.” Below is the first classroom picture to come up. Notice any similarities to Carter's childhood stomping grounds?

Much like my brief time as a panelist at #140EDU, I am unable to offer an answer to the problem of our outdated model of education within this meager blog post. Instead, my goal was to use visuals to help better illustrate that despite fancy projectors, cell phones, social networking, etc., we are still doing education wrong. 

How do we fix this?

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Monday, June 4, 2012

The Lasting Impact of Teachers

As teachers, we can never be fully aware of the lasting impact our words or actions may have on our students. I often lament, for instance, that I dread open house or parent conferences because I can only imagine what stories my students bring home to their families. Will they tell mom and dad about the incredible lesson I taught, or that I did so without realizing that one of my pants pockets was hanging out all period like a floppy dog ear? My instinct is to assume the latter.

Last weekend, I shared one of my favorite stories with a small group of college students enrolled in my English Methods course at Medaille College. I think about that story often and it serves as a constant reminder that everything I say or do while in school has the potential to make a monumental impact on my students. Afterward, it got me thinking about some of my own experiences as a kid, and there’s one above all the others that stands out.

In 7th grade, one English assignment required us to write an original poem to demonstrate our understanding of mood and imagery. I don’t remember much from the assignment other than procrastinating until the night before to actually put something down on paper. The result was actually quite good. I remember being proud enough to show my parents before submitting it the next day.

I didn’t realize it then, but that assignment would ultimately shape my life and help shape my career as an English teacher. Below is a scan of the original poem. Read closely the red-inked comment from my teacher.

I was devastated by my teacher’s remarks. By suggesting that the poem was too good to be my own, I felt that he was implying that I was stupid. Whether this was his intention or not, it has stayed with me and I think of it every time I write critiques or constructive criticism on my own students’ works.

Your job as a teacher is to influence. The scary part is that you don’t know how or when that influence will happen.

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Friday, June 1, 2012

Why Schools Should Embrace Social Networking

Back in early 2011, I posted details and resources for creating a fictional Facebook wall for characters in S.E. Hinton's classic adolescent novel, The Outsiders. The post has become one of the most visited on my blog - statics as of this post indicate more than 43,000 views!

Tonight, the Outsiders/Facebook post received an interesting comment. My first impulse was to assume it was someone looking for a flame war and simply delete it, but on second thought, it was just too passionately written to dismiss. Instead, I choose to reply to it. I hope it encourages you to think about the value of social media in education and what fundamental skills we should be teaching students.  Mr. Wildern's comment and my reply are below. 

Dante Wildern,

I appreciate your vehement opposition to my post. Anytime someone shows that much passion, it deserves to be commended.

With that said, I must disagree with you. First, this project was only one assignment in a long series of activities, all of which required face-to-face interaction that included peer groupings, large-group discussions, and Socratic seminars, to name a few. By no means was a classic work of fiction demoralized by what you refer to as "psuedo-social interactions." Pedagogically speaking, the Facebook assignment was an excellent way for students to demonstrate an understanding of complex concepts such as characterization and analysis of plot elements.

Secondly, I disagree that this assignment "goes against everything I should be teaching." Look at any mission statement from any school district in America and you will find something regarding the importance of creating lifelong learners who leave school equipped with skills needed to be successful. Whether you like it or not, online social networking is how the world interacts. If schools don't embrace this, then they risk becoming irrelevant in an ever-increasing digital world.

Again, I appreciate your comment. Conversations like these are what make me proud to be a teacher. Regardless of whether I agree with your opinion or not, you are an articulate and intelligent person. Clearly, your teachers did a good job preparing you for the world of social interactions (which is exactly what this blog is).

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