Sunday, December 30, 2012

It is NOT about the test scores!!!!

The title of the article in The Chicago Tribune is "Comics as curriculum." Oy. Diane Rado wrote the article for the Tribune. I can't find much on her online except through the articles she's written, so I can't speak to her qualifications to write about education, but I need to say that I'm really miffed she felt compelled to put the word "common core" in double quotes in her article as though the words are meant to be ironic or slang (please see APA style guide on the use of double quotes if you've no idea what I'm talking about).

The overarching question of the article seems to be the validity of using comic books, aka graphic novels, in the classroom. Sure. Why not? I used them in some of my college classes. Rado seems to be aghast that graphic novels are being used in the classroom when she really should be finding out why classroom teachers are using them. Are they using them so students can compare the voice and style of the work in the graphic novel to that of the original work? Excellent.  If so, what are students learning as a result of that experience?

Are teachers using graphic novels so students can learn about the power, even the possible manipulative power, of visuals? Excellent. And, if so, to what end?

After several inches of text, Rado reports on a presentation two teachers did at a National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conference. Students were reading the epic poem Beowulf. Some read the traditional work and some read it as a graphic novel. The students who read the work in its traditional form spent about six hours reading it whereas the graphic novel took about two hours.  It was at this point I started to hear the scary music in the background because I knew nothing good was about to be revealed in print. Herewith.
Both groups took the same 25-question multiple-choice test. Students who read the traditional text scored 81 percent on average compared with 75 percent for those who read the graphic novel.
The teachers' presentation raised the question: Is the score worth the additional time spent by kids who read the traditional poem or "would that time be better spent doing other things?"
So here's the thing. I don't care if kids read the comics in the newspaper or a graphic novel or a translated form (think Chaucer's Canterbury Tales) or in it's full original glory. What I do care about are the learning objectives.

Why have kids read Beowulf? Because it is early literature that reminds us that we are not so different from 10th century poets. Because it is a story of courage. Because, as Robert Yeager writes,
The struggles the poem depicts are of the good against evil: strength of sinew, heart and spirit, truth and light, pitted against dark power that gives no quarter as it shifts from shape to shape. That the darkness (be it Grendel, a dragon, or treachery, greed, and pride) is familiar only renders it more frightening — and the more instructive. . . .

And yet, although the poem ends with the death of its hero and the prophecy of extinction for his people, Beowulf is not a gloomy work, and our experience of it does not incite despair. That is because, like Beowulf himself, the poem never backs away but greets what comes with courage. . . . Students respond to the lack of falsifying sweetness that would gloss over a world that they recognize as basically an image of our own.
From start to finish, Beowulf demands our acknowledgment that sorting out the monster from the hero and the coward is a lifetime’s struggle in the dark. Beowulf joins us to our ancestors — whoever they might have been, in whatever far country — at the top of their game, as we would like to imagine them, and as we dearly hope those who come after will someday envision us.
And reading Beowulf reminds us of the transcendence of these stories, of these characteristics of humanity, and enables us to trace the arc of courage, the battles of good versus evil.  To see how the qualities may be timeless, how they might be recognized in different ages and places. To learn how we can see the world and know that certain things are immutable.

That learning and evidence of that learning does not come from pitiful 25-question multiple guess tests. Evidence of that kind of learning comes from a thoughtful essay or response to a short-answer question.

If students can learn what they need to learn about Beowulf and from Beowulf by reading the graphic novel, then read on because that gives them more time to read more works of literature.

But educators should not waste their students' time with multiple choice tests that prove nothing about what they have learned and nothing about what any teacher might have managed to guide them to learning.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

There Will Be Writing

I used to teach freshman writing.  Loved it.  LOVED IT.  Would do it again in a heartbeat.  College kids are challenged by writing for a lot of reasons.
  1. They associate ENG101 with dreaded grammar.
  2. They don't think they are writers.
  3. They know they don't know how to spell very well.
  4. They got bad grades in English in school.
Some of those are legitimate reasons for being concerned about writing, but everyone is a writer.  Not everyone is a good writer, but by virtue of putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, thumbs to smartphone surface, everyone is a writer.

But here's the thing about most writing in college: papers of assigned word length and page length.  Seriously?  To anyone paying attention: stop it.  Just stop it.  I told my students that papers needed to be as long as they needed to be.  If they needed to write 20 or so pages, I'd read them all.  If they thought they could address a topic sufficiently and achieve their purpose in a few pages, so be it.  Hey.  That's what revisions are for.

I could write a lot about writing, and I will write more posts about writing, but my purpose just now is to spend a smidge of time addressing writing and Common Core State Standards.  And here it is: there will be writing.  In fact, there MUST be writing.

As a quick sidebar: I'm consistently astonished by the number of educators who spent a lot of time yapping about the Common Core State Standards and yet have never actually read them.  Please.  Let's talk about evidence-based argument and opinion.  Curious about the ELA standards?  Go here.

Check out page 7 of the ELA standards.  See?  Notes about reading, writing, speaking, listening, and language.  Fundamental literacy skills.  For anyone.  I know this isn't easy to read, so it might be better to go to the source anyway.  Hint, hint.  Look at that third paragraph that students are able to "respond to the varying demands of audience, task, purpose, and discipline."  That's the stuff of almost any writing class.

And I'm sure you can pick out the subheading that students can "comprehend as well as critique" and that students "value evidence."  This is good stuff.  Stuff that makes sense.

And now look at page 18: the anchor standards for writing.  Some of this could come from a college writing class syllabus.  There is nothing outrageous or unsettling here.  At least, it shouldn't be.

I could do a short history of writing instruction here, and might do so in another post, but the point is that people write all of the time.  Sometimes we write well; sometimes we write badly.  Most of us have no idea when or how to use an adverb; that is the stuff of a different blog, Writing Matters.  We know, however, that writing and writing well is important.  We also know the danger of the misunderstood email, the misintentioned email, the slip of the thumb of a text.

Writing is critical not only to K-12 education as a function of literacy and learning, but it is critical to success in college and success on multiple levels in the work place.

Writing instruction can be challenging, I won't deny that.  For the college writing professor, part of the challenge is that every other college professor believes that writing instruction is not part of his or her job.  That mindset is often prevalent in K-12 classrooms, but, the reality is--and the Common Core State Standards reinforce this--writing instruction is the responsibility of every classroom teacher because literacy is the responsibility of every classroom teacher.

Where to start?  Start with the anchor standards for writing  Then go check out the writing standards for K-5.  Even if you teach middle or high school, look at the K-5 writing standards.  That is the foundation of what kids will be learning and doing before they get to your classroom; those are the benchmarks for instruction and learning.  And then review the writing standards for 6-12.  Take your time.  Underline. Highlight.  Write questions in the margins.

Even if you're only worried about writing, go back and look at those reading standards.  In fact, print out the anchor standards for writing and the anchor standards for reading.  Analyze those texts.  Compare them.  Contrast them.  Think about what you see.  Think about what you already do in the classroom and what works.  Think about how you can build on those successes to help students continue to refine and improve their skills, their thinking, their literacy.

See?  That wasn't so hard.