In the wake of our President’s latest address to the American people, I found this via an email from a friend. It’s hard to forget how we all felt at that point in our lives at the moment when we were about to enter into what we felt was the real world: life after high school. To be making that leap at this point in history is especially harrowing, and you can hear that in the voices of these bright young students from California. Something tells me these kids have a good chance of making that leap.
Listen to the message Don Tapscott leaves here in his brief plug for his new book:
When I was a freshman in high school, an odd, yet charismatic senior ran for student council president. Jake John Robert Hast was his name. I did not know him, never interacted with him, or even saw him much after that year. However, his speech contained an element I never forgot. He began his speech with this quote, stating that it was from an earlier generation:
I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words… When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly disrespectful and impatient of restraint.
Upon hearing it, I could hear my grandparent’s voices in it, and I could sense it came from a generation that sacrificed much for the liberties of my own future.
Jake then revealed that it was in fact from ca. 700 A.D. by a Roman poet and rhapsode named Hesiod. That moment made me forever suspicious of judging youth at media’s face value, and of resistance to change.
What do you feel about today’s youth? Do you agree with Tapscott, Hesiod or neither?
This post is the transcript of the notes I posted to our English Department Group page. I thought I’d make them public here as some of our discussion might spark some conversation elsewhere.
This month’s meeting had a dual focus:
- Resource Sharing
- Summer Reading Discussion
We began the meeting by discussing the following passage:
“I am a second year teacher who teaches at a high school where the
SparkNotes epidemic is in full force. In fact, I had students in a
college prep class gloat over the fact that they hadn’t read a single book all year and were passing (barely, mind you).
We all know the list: SparkNotes, Cliff notes, BookRags, Pink Monkey,
etc. etc.; and for some, like myself, it’s difficult to imagine not
reading the book and simply relying on a website as a primary source.
(After all, you don’t get that lovely used book smell. Aahh.) Ugh, but
it’s happening…a lot.
I’ve talked to my collegues about this, and we’ve griped about it
together. I’m very creative with my lesson plans and want to teach
heavier concepts, but it’s extremely difficult when
is reading. One teacher told me she purposely goes on these websites to
create her quizzes based on information not mentioned in the plot
summaries and character analysis. It sounds a bit malicious, but what
else is there to do?
Does anyone have a suggestion how to combat SparkNotes? Or do I throw
in the towel whenever I assign a bit of reading that contains more than
The purpose behind this was two-fold. Obviously the piece generated discussion amongst the group regarding how we work with this, and how to find the holes in the SparkNotes summaries that students read. Several of you discussed how you read the SparkNotes summaries and use them to create you assessments. Doing so enables you to focus on details and elements not included in a pat summary.
Questions that came up (both during the meeting and in my head after):
- Do we take the role of “gotcha” with our assessments? If so, what affect does that have on students desire to read?
- What other sites are out there for them to use? (Schmoop, BookRags)
- If we don’t acknowledge the use of it and use it as a tool for ourselves as well, will it become abused?
The second purpose of reading this passage was to give an example of the type of discussion that is occurring at a social networking site created by English teacher Jim Burke called The English Companion. The site has over a thousand members from around the world, most of them English teachers. The amount of sharing of resources and ideas that is occurring there is truly phenomenal. I find myself reading and commenting often. Learning as we know it is changing rapidly, and our ability to find sources of dialogue about these changes is crucial to our understanding of it.
The second article we shared was an editorial from the Washington Post by Nancy Schnog titled “We are Teaching Books that Don’t Stack Up.” The article originally ran in August, but I wanted to tie it into our discussion on summer reading. Schnog argues that as much as our desire as teachers of literature is to engage our students in the thrills we have all found in literature and the requisite critical analysis of it, we might be doing them a disservice. Jamie pointed out that she remembers being a student and wanting to just read a passage without having to dissect every nuance and literary symbol. Schnog also spoke about the timing of literature and the genres offered to students at their various age levels. She spoke about students reading Catcher in the Rye as Juniors rather than as 8th graders because of how they could relate to it on a completely different level. When we speak about summer reading, we often include similar ideas: is this book going to engage the boys? is this title going to pull in reluctant readers.
If our goal is to push students to read for enjoyment, are we accomplishing that? If that isn’t the goal of summer reading, what is? Andrew brought up a point at the end of the meeting regarding what we can ask students to read and what we can ask them to respond like. His reading, he stated, has become focused on editorial and opinion pieces over the last year, and looking at the summer reading list, Angela asks her students to keep dialectic journals while reading a self-selected group of editorials from either the New York Times or the Washington Post. What if we asked our students to do this at every level? Due to the participatory nature of politics and news at the moment, this might work to engage them in reading for pleasure.
I have learned a great deal from my monthly meetings with the English department: how to lead, how not to lead, how to completely miss the mark on what teachers need, and how to recover beautifully from missing said mark. However, one of the simplest things, I have found, you can do for teachers to aid them in their professional development, is to listen carefully and then deliver on what you hear.
On Wednesday, all of the above situations played out. We have often discussed having an expert voice come speak to us to help us drill deeper into an element of our craft. A while back, I came across an article by a Duke University professor, Dr. Bradley Hammer (who is how at UNC), that dealt with the shifts that were taking place in student writing in the “academy.” The title of the article spoke volumes: “A New Type of University Writing.” Now, my English department already thinks I have a massive case of technophilia, and inviting this professor who believed that college writing, long believed to be the epitome of thesis driven argumentative writing, was now transforming into another piece of the digital landscape, was a risky move. But, after talking to him on the phone in September, I knew he would make some waves of the good kind. And did he ever.
The teachers were very interested in hearing about trends he saw in student writing, in essence asking for feedback on what he thought of Freshman entering the program. Dr. Hammer didn’t disappoint in his response. Most of his work, he stated, is deconstructing what the students come in with. For example, he stated that 15 years ago, it was common for students to arrive at the college campus with very poor argumentative skills: weak ability to write strong theses, very little support for arguments in their writing. Now, they all arrive knowing how to “do the essay.” Formulaic, straightforward positions, support at all the appropriate turns, and of course, an adherence to the five-paragraph format. His work is to get them away from “doing the essay,” to caring about the essay.
His work is about teaching students to deconstruct their own biases in their writing so that when confronted with a traditional topic (he used abortion in our our conversation as an example) the students would begin to generate questions about the factors that define the topic rather than automatically deciding which side of the argument to sit on. For the students in his writing class, it’s not about whether or not you can convince someone of something, but rather that you get an understanding of yourself through an issue presented to you. His greatest line, by far for me, was this:
High schools train students how to argue–they need to learn how to ask questions and interrogate ideas first.
As soon as he said it, I immediately began running thumbing through my mental Rolodex to try to remember how many times I have heard that in my reading over the last two years. It just rings. Whether it’s been caused by federal mandates or by our poorly thought out responses to them, we’ve underestimated our students ability to be meta-cognitive about the writing process. It’s more about the process rather than the product, when we truly break it down to it’s smaller parts. Is it really imperative that little Suzy write her essay in five standard paragraphs with a neat little thesis hook at the end of her first paragraph? Or would we rather see her wrestle something down to it’s bits in the pre-writing and research stages and produce something in three paragraphs? I’ll take the scrapping any day.
What was great for me, aside from the fact that it was a meeting where I did very little direct talking, was the dialog that sprung up after our call ended. Some of those in the room were in agreement with Hammer; we should be focusing more on the meta-cognitive processes of writing. Others asked if the reasons Hammer and his colleagues are able to do the deconstruction with students and push them in the direction they do is because of the argumentative underpinnings that high school English teachers provided them with? Can they get to B without having gone through A? Others asked if there was a way we could see products of the freshman Hammer worked with; we wanted to see what inquiry-driven writing looked like in the end.
The most challenging element about working with the four departments I do is trying to find something for each of them to sink their teeth into, and this did it for the English teachers. My own personal belief about what compositional writing should like look at any level is very simple: writing should demonstrate your ability to think, and your ability to convey those thoughts succinctly. My answer to the departmental question about whether or not we should be doing the things that Dr. Hammer does in our classrooms is undeniably yes. But, like anything, let’s allow the students to determine the level to which they can successfully do it. Just because they are 16 doesn’t necessary preclude them from inquiry, and the same can be said in reverse for some students. Push where needed, pull back when necessary.
All in all, a great meeting.
Image Credit: “Me & teh thesis” from doryexmachina’s Photostream