Wednesday, November 17, 2010

More on Motivation; Thanks, Alfie...

Speaking of motivation, clearly I've been a little unmotivated to write lately.  It's embarassing when you post your goals for all the world to see and you still don't achieve them.  Luckily, there's Alfie Kohn; no matter how uninspired I might feel to write, he always piques a reaction from me. 

This article, "How to Create Nonreaders:  Reflections on Motiavtion, Learning, and Sharing Power", presents the thesis that schools squelch students motivation to read by offering incentive and punishment, by assigning finite amounts of reading, by focusing on reading skill, and by assigning particular texts, among other things.  Any English teacher can read those items and see the counter argument to Kohn's thesis, but I'll get to that momentarily.  Let's start with the positives:  I love the idea of giving, and Kohn's article served as a reminder about a trap I'm prone to fall into:  "It takes insight and guts to catch oneself at what amounts to an exercise in pseudodemoncracy. Keeping hold of power--overtly for traditionalists, and perhaps more subtly fr those of us who thin oruselves as enlightened progressives--is a [heck] of a lot easier than giving it away".  I joke with students that my classroom is "my dictatorship"  (quoth a colleague of mine), but this statement is, of course, in jest and is always accompanied by a large smile and a chuckle; I want my students to feel empowered and that I value their ideas and opinions. I am sure I don't always do as well as I could communicating this value, and appreciate Kohn's reminder.  I especially love the idea of students generating ideas for texts.  Practical questions, such as who is purchasing these books my students choose, enter my mind, but I love the philosophy.  I also find tremendous value in free reading, but struggle with its implementation (more on this later).  Conversely, I struggled with the idea of assigning pagination as a de-motivator; Kohn postulates that giving students a finite number of pages or amount of time to read takes away from reading's joy.  Although I certainly understand why this might be true, I wonder what my class time looks like if I don't assign students a certain number of pages to read as the pages I assign drive the next day's instruction and learning goals.  Further, Kohn argues that teaching literary terms is a purposeless and, moreover, demotivating exercise and that assessing students' learning also hinders students love of reading.  So I can't assign a certain number of pages to read and that cannot be my lesson plan, nor can assessing their learning--discussing, writing, activities, etc.--, nor can teaching literary terms.  So do we just do free reading every day?  Beyond just this practical level where I contest Kohn's thesis, I also struggle to understand WHY all of these are demotivators.  I know that not every student was like me when I was in high school, nor is my schooling experience comparable with that of students now, but I was a "victim" of this so-called demotiavting system, and I relish in the study of literary terms, I absolutely love to read.  I end, then, with 3 questions:  who are these students who were not motivated without choice, but are now--without being assigned or assessed--going to voraciously read?  what am I doing in class each day when I cannot discuss literature, nor teach skill, nor can I assess?  How do we know all of these are, in fact, demotivators? 

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

And it all started with a little email...

At the beginning of the school year, I emailed the Salem Historical Society in Massachusetts in the hope of inviting one of its historians in my class via Skype to discuss the reality versus the fiction captured in Miller's The Crucible, the first text we study in the fall.  I was fortunate enough to be contacted in return by Maggi Smith-Dalton, a member of the board and one of the society's directors, who was not only willing to Skype with us, but has also given my students new avenues to explore their learning.

This adventure began with research based around some of the central questions and curiosities behind the Salem witchcraft trials and some sources that she, as a historian, deems authoratative on the subject.  After reaidng The Crucible and a couple days of researching, my students Skyped with Maggi today about those same questions and my class also shared inquiries the play and their research inspired for them.  The next step in our adventure begins tomorrow with extending our learning; Maggi offered many suggestions for projects the students can do with a focus on revealing the discrepancies between this period's fiction and its reality.  Not only did she pose these project ideas, she has also kindly and generously offered to exhibit their creations on the Society's website as a means of connecting their learning to some of the society's other members.

Not only do I feel the kids have learned and will learn a lot from our connection to Maggi, I've also learned a lot about the assets technology can offer as well as its potential ease.  After years of admiring my co-workers who make similar connections, I learned that it can all begin with a simple email and one's willingness to try something new.  Yesterday I set up a Skype account, and today I brought another instructor into my classroom.  I am certainly no expert, but am more than glad I was willing to give the technology a try.

I am so excited about Maggi's willingness to help us learn about Salem and, further, about the exuberance toward learning she has helped cultivate for the kids.  I can't wait to see what they come up with and will be sure to post a link to their work when it's complete. 

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Problem of Motivation

Students' motivation or lack thereof in the academic arena has been on my mind in these first weeks of school.  Like many semesters,  I have had conversations with numerous students about motivation and lack of work completion.  My colleagues have shared the same concerns.  As always, I find myself wondering what I/ we might be doing wrong where students' work completion lies. 

My thinking about this topic was, again, prompted today as I read Alfie  Kohn's recent article, "Schools would be great if it weren't for the kids".  Among many issues, this article begs the question of why kids don't enjoy school, a question Kohn answers by detailing our reliance on grades and test scores.  By removing intrinsic motivation and making students' rewards and punishments external, we have sucked the joy from learning, he argues. 

I enjoy Kohn's writing as, oftentimes, I am incensed by his opinions and they challenge my thinking.  I kept thinking, as I read the article, about a quote from Romeo and Juliet published in 1597, obviously a text that doesn't fit in the contemporary education realm.  Romeo describes his feelings as he departs from Juliet's room:  "Love goes toward love as schoolboys from their books,/ But love from love, toward school with heavy looks" (Shakespeare II.2.156-7).  Romeo goes toward love, embodied in Juliet, as schoolboys go away from their books, but moves away from her as he goes to school: downtrodden and dismal.  A later Shakespearean text published in 1623 captures the same melancholic attitude toward school:  "the whining schoolboy, with his satchel/ And shining morning face, creeping like a snail/ Unwillingly to school" (II.7.2.145–147).  Shakespeare describes this 17th century English schoolboy as whiney, slow-moving and unwilling as he walks toward his educational realm.

Now I'm not saying Kohn's ideas don't possess merit.  I certainly wouldn't contest that schools rely heavily, perhaps too heavily, on grades and test scores.  Some of our struggles with student movitation probably do stem from their tiredness with extrinsic motivators, but I question whether, as Kohn claims, this is simply a modern American problem.  Over four hundred years ago, Shakespeare and his culture seemed to possess that same lack of motivation, that same lackadaisical attitude toward school.  I am sure it was because of students' frustration with CSAP scores...

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Creating my personal learning network

As captured in my last post, one of my primary goals for the semester is creating a network beyond my students' classroom walls with which they can share their work. 

I began this goal at the semester beginning by emailing admissions' offices at Colorado schools with the hope that I could have those who actually look at college essays during the application process give my juniors' and seniors' college essays some feedback.  The schools I emailed included University of Colorado, University of Northern Colorado, Colorado State, and Denver University.  I also emailed the admissions office at my alma matter, Trinity University in San Antonio, hoping I could guilt them in to helping me.  I heard back from the office at T.U. and at U.N.C., and have two kind people willing to help me with my project.
I also emailed a contact at the Oxford English Dictionary online and the Hero Project, a foundation created by Philip Zimbardo, in the hopes that they would work with me on a couple other projects with my seniors.  Alas, I have had no reply. 
The most exciting contact I've made, however, is to the Salem Historical Society in Massachusetts.  I contacted them in the hopes that I could get a foundation member to Skype with my Honors American Literature class about the history and myth of Salem as we read Miller's The Crucible.  After speaking with someone who co-founded this organization, however, it is clear she would like to do more.  She is hoping my students can work on a video project that would go on the foundation's opening page in the hopes of attracting a younger audience to join their society.  Needless to say, my students are very excited about the idea.  We are not quite sure how all of this will look, but will be back in the touch with the Society at September's end.
After just these beginning experiences developing my network, I feel fairly encouraged.  Of course, it would be great if I had heard back from all these contacts.  I can tell, though, that my students are already excited about having a bigger audience for their work and I learned that just taking the time to send a quick email doesn't take much time and might just pay dividends. 

Friday, August 27, 2010

Eyes on the prize

Next week, I'll ask my freshmen students (who will finally get to "do" English next week now that all the setup is complete) to set personal and learning goals for their first semester.  I ask my students to do this because this is a practice I engage in so often both personally and professionally.  I feel particularly inspired to do some goal setting after attending five conferences over the summer where I truly learned so much.  Often, I attend these conferences and forget about those things I learned, so this year, I sat down and looked over my notes, highlighting some inspiring items and using those items to determine how I hope to evolve this year. 

Here's what I came up with:
1.  Find audiences and experts beyond our classroom walls. I want to connect with people in other countries, in other classes and help my students gain more perspectives and build a bigger learning network.  I've started this and will follow up about how this progresses next week.
2.  Choose one class to try scribe posting.  Alan November professed the value of this practice and, so far, I am loving what it tells me about what my students learned and am also enjoying how if focuses as a permanent resource from another perspective for the kids. 
3.  Focus on building classroom culture to create a better learning and working environment.  Harvey Daniels talked about the concept of membership grids where students craft questions they are curious to know about one another and record those questions in a grid each day to begin group work.  I am trying this with all my classes and am loving seeing their relationships cultivate.
4.  Share my reading life.  I want to model my love for reading by sharing good books I read by bringing those in, doing book talks, and sharing my Goodreads account.
5.  Read out loud more in class rather than assigning so much reading homework.
6.  Blog once a week.  So far, so good, but I'm realizing how tricky this can get sitting here at 4:15 on a Friday afternoon...
7.  Differentiate based on readiness, interest, and learning profile.
8.  Engage in metacognition and help my students do the same.
9.  Explore other ways of giving feedback.

I figure if I tell the world my goals, it will be trickier to reneg.  I'll surely follow up as the semester continues...

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

First Day Fun

Every year I begin the school year the same way: asking myself what I will do the first day.  No lesson plans all year take me as long, there is no day that makes me as anxious.  No matter this was my seventh first day, I am perplexed every year by the idea of this big, first impression and how to make it a great experience for my students.

I shared this concern with my colleague and friend, Kristin LeClaire, who confessed to the same wonderings.  With that sentiment in mind, she asked me a terrific question.  It went something like this:  If you were a student in your class, what would make you feel excited that day?  Excited for the following class?  What would make you feel validated?  Like this class was worthwhile? 

Here is the list I came up with:
  • I want to know my classmates enough so when I have group work, I have someone to work with. 
  • I want to know them enough so when I walk in the room, they say "hi" to me and call me by name.
  • I want to know the teacher a little as a subject enthusiast and as a person.
  • I don't want to listen the whole time; I want to feel like someone wants to hear my voice and this is not just my teacher's show.
  • I want to have an opportunity to get up and move around; this is the longest I've sat and listened for a long time.
  • I want to learn a little about the class's content and why it matters or is interesting, why it applies to my life.  I want to be excited about that content because of relevancy, interest, or, preferably, both.
  • I want to know my teacher knows a cares about me a little, even after just one day.
With these bullets in mind, I drafted my lesson plans and had a solid first day experience, but I am still wondering how others might answer those questions and what they do on that first day of school. 

Friday, August 13, 2010

What the Scores Don't Show

In the spirit of the year's beginning when test scores are sure to be a prominent topic of conversation, I wanted to share an article that my step-grandfather-in-law, (if there is such a term), a member of my personal learning network, shared with me.  Jack, an incredibly well-read ex-lawyer, keeps me up with happenings via email that he thinks may be of interest to me, including this New York Times' article entitled "The Case for the $320,000 Kindergarten Teacher".
In the article, Leonhardt describes how Raj Chetty, a Harvard economist, is examining the lives of 12,000 students who shared an experimental education experience in the 1980's.  Chetty describes his purpose: "We don't care about test scores.  We care about adult outcomes."  Although his research remains a work in progress, Chetty's initial results reveal a connection between economic success and the effectiveness of one's kindergarten teacher.  Particularly, the older an individual gets, the larger the gap is between an individual with an ineffective kindergarten teacher and one deemed effective.
Clearly, such an experiment has many variables and raises many questions, which Chetty recognizes:  how does the research team define effectiveness?  What other life experiences may have affected these disparities?  In answering these questions, some of Chetty' findings yielded the age-long conclusions that, for example, class size and socioeconomic status possess significant correlations to academic success.  The new and uplifting finding, however, is that despite what test scores may yield in any given school year, some of teachers' effects can be best evidenced in the long run and are more consequential than we may imagine and than our parents and students may realize.
Although I appreciate the author's conclusion that this testifies to the value of education, its need for reform, and to the case "for the $320,000 kindgergarten teacher", I, instead, look at this article as an uplifiting veil through which to examine my test scores this fall.  Though we don't place all our worth as teachers in our exam scores, many of us pour over them and feel a sense of validation or lackthereof as we look at standardized test reports.  Chetty's results, however, encourage teachers to consider the big picture, long-term outcomes of our teaching despite what these scores may seem to show.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Summer Summary: what I learned these weeks

Like most teachers, I spent my summer in part relaxing, in part traveling, but, the majority of the time, I spent my summer learning.  Having attended various conferences and also spent many hours studying, I experienced many epiphanies and I wanted to begin my blog by reflecting on these learnings and also reflecting on why I am, again, blogging and, moreover, beginning a brand new blog after abandoning the one I began years ago.

One of my summer highlights included attending several conferneces, including the ISTE conference in downtown Denver in July.  Generally, I spend my time at these tech conferences feeling so behind the times, and this year proved no different.  Don't get me wrong, I truly enjoyed the experience; however, I struggle to feel like an effective teacher when I hear of all the "twenty-first century" activities others are doing in their classrooms and personal lives.  I walked away with a swollen brain, a Twitter account, and an epiphany about what had changed for me regarding technology:  yes, I had implemented more technology in my classroom; however, I had gotten away from modeling why I find technology important when I abandoned, for example, my own personal learning network and blog.  Under the instruction of an inspiring technology director, I began these practices now five years ago, and have since abandoned the practice, sacrificing modeling to grade more quickly and devote more time to planning.  After attending these conferences, I am beginning the school year re-committing myself to modeling my own thinking, learning, reflection and, moreover, making all of those gerunds transparent.

Another thing I learned during these conferences and my summer studies?  How it feels to be a student.  If for no other reason, even if one gains nothing from the conferences he or she attends, remembering how it feels to inhabit the small desk is an incredibly valuable learning experiience.  Standing in front of our sixth hour, sometimes we forget how it feels to have been sitting, listening for the several hours previous.  Another summer experience that enforced these realizations was spending a lot of the summer studying material I genuinely struggled with and felt frustrated by.  These frustrations were further exacerbated by the fact that I was then tested on this, what I found to be, trivial and frustrating information.  I heard myself grousing "I don't get its" and "how is this going to show my intelligences"; how appropriate to the school year's beginning.  Regardless of what comes from these studies, I look forward to entering the school year more empathetic to my student's plight.

As always, the end-of-summer cliches are swirling through my mind as I post this first response--it went too fast, I feel like I was just here, and the like.  But  I am looking gleefully forward to a new school year in the hopes that I will be a more understanding, better modeling teacher and learner as a result of my summer experiences.