Sunday, February 26, 2012

Ruminating on Distractions

I have been reading through two separate texts on the topic of digital literacies (Adolescents and Digital Literacies by Kajder and The Digital Writing Workshop by Hicks). Both of these books cover relatively the same topics of integrating technology in the classroom. For another class of mine I have been reading Response and Analyisis by Probst, and it has greatly informed my ideas about teaching English. Last week I posted about the importance of distinguishing between using technology to entertain and using technology to instruct (here). This post will follow a similar line of reasoning under the much broader umbrella of “distractions.”

Standardized Testing
Certainly technology can be considered a distraction if not used correctly. What about other things that distract the English teacher? Well for starters, there is standardized testing. A typical high school teacher’s time is severely lessened due to the need to “teach the test.” I first saw this when I observed at a high school, and one of the teachers showed me the schedule for the few remaining months and over a third of it was marked for preparing students for standardized testing. Now perhaps this should not be called a distraction. This is something that, although it may be inconvenient, is mandated by the state. Teachers often complain about losing precious class time to standardized testing, and I do not blame them for that, but there may be other distractions that the teacher does have control over.

This is probably the biggest distraction in the English classroom. In order to teach literature a student must read a text, but the student must also interact with that text. That interaction can be a cognitive one or perhaps even an emotional interaction. It is the experience with the piece of literature that enables it to be something discussed, studied, and written about. Reading for information is not what defines the study of literature in the English classroom. At least I would argue that this is not the primary goal of studying literature.

The reason for studying literature is because it enables is to create something upon reading a text. A poem, short story, or novel is more than just a sequence of events recorded on paper. It is something, which is dynamic, but only by being acted upon by the student. Perhaps you disagree.

But how is that a distraction? Well there is a delicate balance between a student engaging in a discussion of an experience with a text, and simply discussing himself or herself. Discussing literature is not simply discussing what we think the author was saying, (although that is important) it is about discussing how our perceptions have changed based on that piece of literature. This can be distracting because many students (and teachers) will see this as a means of simply blathering about oneself.

Some teachers would consider any response from the students to be a good one. But the discussion should still be focused on the literature itself and how it has informed or changed the perceptions of the student. It is not simply an avenue for self-promotion. In this way, literature can become a distraction, because the literature is no longer the substance of the class. The students, rather than the academics, become the center.

English is dynamic. English is a discipline that permeates all the others. You can read a literature anthology without encountering any Chemistry or Algebra, however, you cannot read a Chemistry or Algebra textbook without encountering any English. It informs the other disciplines and for this reason is not easily taught. Because of this, English is greatly affected by the other disciplines as well.

Good luck teaching Emerson without a solid grasp of Philosophy (especially transcendentalism). I hope you paid attention when you took your liberal studies history course, because you need historical knowledge to teach literature. Modernist literature is greatly informed by the scientific and industrial advancement of the time period, and so in order to teach literature from that period it is good to have knowledge of those advancements even if it is a very basic understanding. All of these are distractions (albeit these are good and important) are what makes the teaching of English so difficult. There is a lot of knowledge needed in order to teach literature.

Overall I think that some distractions are good. It is nice to wander away from the main path every once in a while to explore something that is barely related to the subject at hand. I think all of the things detailed above are things that teachers should be aware of as possible distractions from course material.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Ruminating on Two words. Use it. Although this is not a technology that is mentioned in the class textbook, I think it is worthy of my post. This site creates an easy to use class management system. You can add classes of students giving them points for good behavior or detracting points for negatives. This enables you to track how students are doing in your class, and it also enables them to see how they are doing, as well as their parents. It is online and so parents can see how their students are doing in real time. It is a very cool tool.

I was at a conference and a teacher who has taught in D.C. for the past few years highly recommended it. You should go on and create an account. I plan to use it in the classroom.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Ruminating on Instruction vs. Amusement

There is an abundance of myths that have a deep impact on our perception of reality. We often hear things that are little more than superstition, and because of either the power of suggestion, or our want to accept that myth, it goes unchallenged into the recesses of our brain as "fact." One such myth is that learning needs to be fun.

I have heard many people judge the successfulness of a lesson plan based on the amount of fun that transpired because of it. Certainly it is easier to learn when you are having a good time and you are engaged but how important is it that students have "fun?" Certainly I do not want my students to be miserable, but how important is entertainment?

There seems to be an insatiable desire within many teachers to amuse their students, as if the goal of the class is for the teacher to feel appreciated. "Amuse" is actually a very interesting word because when broken down it becomes a - muse. "Muse" obviously means to think or ponder, while "a" is a prefix which negates. Thus making the word amuse to literally mean "to not think." This gives me a whole new appreciation for the words "amusement park."

But is it true that if students are having fun then they are not thinking? My answer: not always. However, I think that true learning is not always fun, and if it is, or if that is our constant goal as teachers, we are doing our students a terrible disservice. Learning to ride a bike (at least in my case) was not tremendous fun. The hard pavement made sure that the learning process was difficult. Similar to the training wheels on a bike, fun enables you to get going, but it ultimately prevents you from experiencing the real thing. That is not a perfect analogy, but I hope it makes some sense.

Staying up until 1am in order to read about the life and literary career of Herman Melville is difficult, not fun. Even though he is a favorite author of mine, the learning process is not always fun. True learning can also challenge our preconceptions of the world which is a very difficult thing. If you read a piece of literature which challenges your idea of what truth is, this is not always a fun realization, and takes a significant amount of internal conflict to resolve.

The distinction between amusement and instruction is especially important when discussing the use of technology in the classroom. In my opinion teachers need to use technology where it enhances pedagogy and engages students. Yes, fun can be apart of engaging students, but it should not take priority over all else. Learning is not always fun, and we as teachers should provide students with that truth. Students I have talked to often think that it is the responsibility of the teacher to make a lesson entertaining. This puts a lot of stress on the teacher but it is also a form of disingenuousness with the students because it misrepresents how difficult and "unfun" the learning process can be.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Ruminating on Language

I am always amazed at how the quality of a friendship improves when someone takes an interest in the other person and how they communicate. A close friend of mine wrestles, and so I made an attempt to learn the sport and its terminology, so I am able to communicate about the things he enjoys. Similarly parents often take the time to learn the vocabulary associated with the various activities that their kids are apart of, so they can engage in conversation and connect.

This is one of the reasons that I think being up to date on technological information is important for teachers. Computers, gadgets, phones, apps, etc are what students are talking about and we should not be left behind. But that is a rather obvious fact. When teachers show that they can communicate with the students it helps the students become engaged. They are encouraged that you make the effort to understand where they are coming from, and are not going to teach based on outdated pedagogy.

Although it may be quite a leap, I think this same mentality can be applied to communicating with international students, not just in the future but also here amongst peers. It is always fun to learn a little bit of another language and try and fail at speaking it correctly. I have made many close friends by trying to learn bits and pieces of their language. Next time you meet an international student ask them how to say some things in their language.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Ruminating on Nothing

Unfortunately, today, I have nothing of consequence to say. I am currently reading a book (very slowly) called How Language Works by David Crystal. If you are at all interested in linguistics you should read it. He does a great job of breaking down complex topics into an easier to read format, while still maintaining the quality of information. I wish I had read it as a companion to my undergraduate linguistics course in some ways it is even more helpful than the textbook.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Ruminating on Literature Circles

In one of my classes this week we talked about literature circles. We discussed the positives and negatives of using literature circles in the high school classroom. Although this is a fairly typical and old pedagogical convention, I think it is a very useful tool when employed correctly, but I suppose this could be said for any activity. I would definitely use a literature circle in class assuming the group dynamic enabled it.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Ruminating on the Learning Experience

School buildings are almost built like prisons and are not always conducive to a learning environment. Certainly a building is practical, but it makes the experience of learning one that would never want to be repeated in most instances. Most of our learning and education comes from our experiences. Students should see that learning is something that takes place all the time, not just within the four walls of a school. Learning happens mostly through experiences, not through rote memorization, or someone lecturing about an experience.

Unfortunately it is difficult to give students an “experience” when you are confined to a classroom. It is possible, but much more difficult. For the record, I am not advocating that all classes should take place outside. But this I believe, is where technology comes in. I think the technology available to teachers now, gives us the ability to make learning a great experience, even within the confines of a classroom. I will not list all of the things that technology can do for a teacher who knows how to wield it, but I will say that I believe it is not just a “good idea” but it is becoming a necessity for reaching students, and getting them (especially uninterested students) involved in the learning experience.