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Deep or Wide?

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It pains me whenever I read or hear someone say, “I was never taught __(insert information here)__ in school”. Or “Twenty Things You Were Never Taught about __ (insert issue here)__”.  And I have to be honest here, I feel pained because I am fiercely proud of my former profession, my colleagues who are still fighting the good fight, my former students, and the schools in which I have taught. But, beyond my own ego, there is a very good reason why educators need to reflect on these statements. It might go a long way towards helping with what my spouse calls “client education” so that people have a more realistic understanding of what goes into creating curricula for the classroom and across grades.

In educational circles curriculum developers try to straddle the gulf between “survey courses” and “in-depth courses”.  A survey course is one where you cover a lot of information in a short amount of time.  They are often introductory courses which are meant to give the students the big picture of a field of study, and the expectation is, generally, that the student will go on to study the topic in more detail later.

Students of survey courses are expected to handle a lot of information quickly and are expected to regurgitate said information on demand or on tests designed to measure how much of the information stuck. Their grades, often, are tied to tests and possibly a term paper which employs a limited number of learning modalities that can be difficult for students who find traditional learning difficult. (I’d use the word Medieval, but this type of learning was proliferated by Queen Elizabeth I, which means it really falls in the English Renaissance.)

This mode of delivering curriculum generally requires from students a proficiency at note taking, textbook reading, memorization, and fluency with the writing process.  Teachers and professors who lead survey courses rarely have time in class to allow for in-depth questions, work on papers, and textbook reading, putting the entire responsibility of the learning onto the student.  It is what is called “teacher centered” as opposed to “student centered”.  As in, the onus is on the student to react positively to the professor, as opposed to the teacher learning the ways of and responding to the needs of the students.  So, interestingly enough, a survey course which is meant to be an introduction, requires more from students in terms of learning proficiency because the teacher has so much material to get through that the best they can do is get through the material. This methodology leaves the bodies of students on the side of the educational highway, which is why they are also often considered “gate-keeping” classes, weeding out those students who struggle.

An in-depth course is one where the teacher or professor picks a few seminal items to create the curriculum and requires students to use Bloom’s Taxonomy (or something in that line) to get a deeper understanding of the topic.  Students also generally have many different ways to prove that they have grasped the material. Often the teacher will use one learned item to build upon the next item.  This takes a lot more time than a survey course, which is why you cannot dispense as much information in them.

In my experience, students prefer an in-depth approach to curriculum than a survey approach, which is why many of us use this model if we can, even though it is more work (far, far more work).  (It’s also why I often feel the need to kick survey course professors in the teeth when they complain about their students.  These people are not teachers; they do little but profess.)

So, let’s do the math.  Let’s say you’re a teacher. You see 35 students in one 50 minute class per day.  You know it takes 4-5 minutes to settle the class down at the beginning, and at least 4-5 minutes to get students packed up and out the door.  You are now at 40 minutes.  In that time, you need to pick up and/or hand back work, you need to hand out new assignments, answer questions, and get students started on new tasks, which may or may not include the amount of time it takes for a class of 35 students to get into small groups or pairs.  You may need to go over the homework due that day.  You will give a lecture or mini-lecture to help students grasp the material.  You will tell students what they are going to do.  You will show students what they are going to do.  You are going to help students do what they are going to do.  You are going to let the students do what they are going to do.  You will make corrections and suggestions and let them do what they are going to do.  You will ask them to demonstrate proficiency.

In my experience, students enjoy this learning modality more than one where they come in, sit down, listen to a professor profess for 40 minutes, maybe take notes, and leave.

Research also indicates that in-depth learning has more staying power for long-term learning, because it has more opportunities to make connections with past learning, or at least it stays with the learner for longer than the memorize-and-regurgitate model.

So why the hell are you blaming me for the fact that I didn’t teach you frickin’ everything there ever is to know in the whole frickin’ universe? (Pardon my Klatchian.)

Well, if you are going to blame me (and by me, I mean us teachers, professors, administrators, state legislators, curriculum developers, textbook writers, bus drivers, lunch staff, crossing-guards, secretaries, custodians, and all the others who go neatly into the category known as “school”), then blame me for not teaching you how to educate yourself.

There is no way, none, to teach a person absolutely everything that he or she will need, will want to know, or will find interesting enough to put in a Buzzfeed list, in his or her life.  In fact, the very teaching modality that reaches the most learners will by its very nature require that not everything can be taught.

The only way to solve this problem is to create learning environments where students are taught how to teach themselves. That, we can do.

We can teach how to research, how to sift and mine for useful information, how to ask the kind of questions which lead to answers (or better yet, more and better questions).  We can praise and provide a place for independent learning.  In this way, we may see more articles called What I Taught Myself about the Senegalese Boat People Because My Teachers Were So Busy Teaching Me How to Teach Myself That They Didn’t Have Time to Teach Me Themselves about the Senegalese Boat People, And What a Cool List It Is, Too.

A girl can dream.

 

 

 

 

 

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Fun Sucks

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Hi! Do I have your attention?  Good.

So, for those of you who have been wondering what happened to this blog, I decided to take some time off to sponge off my husband.  Many people have informed me over the years that being a teacher is already sponging off my husband, and considering how many times he’s needed to purchase things for my classrooms over said years, I’d have to agree with them.

I always said to him that if I ever became complacent or stopped enjoying teaching, he should hit me upside the head with a cricket bat.  Fortunately, he didn’t need to because I had hernia surgery last summer that went bad and kicked off a whole new round of Fibromyalgia.  So, I’m currently being the world’s worst housewife.

But the other reason I haven’t been writing is because when I was a teacher, I went to many conferences where some Johnny-in-the-Pulpit preached to me all the ways and reasons why I was teaching wrongly, and how I should fix it.  Most of these people were academics who were only ever in the classroom as students until they became professors.  Few of them had real help to give because they were not currently in the classroom. It pissed me off.  So writing to you real teachers, who are currently in the trenches, when I’m not, feels like I’m being a class traitor.  So, it wasn’t until I could no longer keep a lid on it that I decided to go back to the blog.  And I start by pissing you off.  Hey, it’s a talent.

What I saw that ticked me off was an article about why classrooms should be fun.  Which led me to this conclusion: Fun sucks.  It really does.  For so many reasons.  I’ll list some for you.

1) Fun is relative.  It is hard to know what will be fun to you versus what is fun to your students.  For example, I think it’s fun to schedule a stitch and bitch knitting meet-up at one of the local strip clubs where, sitting in the dark with headlamps and needles (knitting), we knit g-strings for the dancers.  (That’s a hoot.  That is until we are bounced out for not buying drinks and upsetting the usual punters.  I won’t tell you how many times I’ve done this and in how many countries.)  But my point is that although I think this is hi-larious, many other more sane people don’t.  And on an infinitely smaller and less morally questionable scale, the same thing happens in the classroom.  Go ahead, ask your middle school student if something is fun (I almost wrote “if x is fun” but I know it would just send you right back to the strip club.  Pull your mind out of the gutter.)  What does your student say?  “It was ok,” and then they shrug or roll their eyes.  Just don’t ask.  No matter how you couch it, somebody is going to complain about it.  Trying to organize fun sucks.

2)  Fun is not guaranteed in life.  90% of the work we do, anybody does, is not fun.  It might be satisfying.  It might be interesting.  It might be a challenge.  But fun is a diaphanous quantity (or quality, take your pick).  Although it is true that the more fun you have the more likely you will be to stick with it.  But, if we start by promising fun and trying to create an environment that is mostly all fun, we do a serious disservice to the other adjectives that work is.  Fun is hard work for you, and lazy for them.

3)  Fun is not a good teacher.  Let’s think about all the things that cannot be curriculum if we only do things that are fun.  The Holocaust.  Lord of the Flies.  The Salem Witch Trials.  Slavery.  And I’m sorry, but if you are teaching the Roman Empire and it’s all fun, you are really are doing it wrong.  It sure as hell wasn’t fun for the Celtic people, the Germanic Tribes, and certainly not for the Dacians, otherwise known as the people who would become the Romanians.  And these are really worthwhile things to teach.  I won’t go into what’s possible on the elementary level because I only subbed there, but I think it is probably true that those teachers also find it difficult to keep Fun! at the top of the list.  Fun makes a bad developer of curricula.

So, that’s three good reasons why people need to stop hoisting themselves on their own petards.  They are why it is okay to not feel guilty when your curricula are not based on Fun!.

Not that fun has no place in the classroom.  Fun can be had.  But like the chocolate chips in a good cookie, it needs to be something to be looked forward to.  The cookie part has to be good, too.  Sure, many of us don’t notice the cookie part so much, but it isn’t just a complicated method of cramming chocolate chips into our gobs.

What will work?  I think it can be found by having curriculum that is satisfying.  And satisfying is much more quantifiable.  Do your students know something or have a skill that they didn’t have when they walked into the classroom?  Do they feel that something was hard but worth it?  Can they see the progress that they are making towards a goal?  Going back to the cookie metaphor, having a strong curricula based on satisfactions and recognizable goals makes the chocolate chips of fun that much better.  With maybe a sprinkling of coarse salt on top.  (I’ve got to stop with this metaphor or I’m going to have to go make cookies.  Again.)

And do you know what is really, really awesome about curricula based on recognized growth and hard, but satisfying work?  The students sometimes don’t even know they are growing.  While they are toiling away at something that maybe doesn’t look attainable (yet) and sure as hell isn’t fun, they are still growing.  I only know this anecdotally because of the number of former students who have come back and said to me, I hated you, and I hated this when you made me learn it, but now I’m really, really glad you did.  (I’m paraphrasing here.)  Fun is immediate.  Satisfying is about delaying gratification, and you all have heard the statistics about those who can delay gratification even for a little while.

So, yeah.  If we try to make fun do too much, then fun sucks.  Feeling satisfied, seeing reasonable goals being attained, feeling the worth of the knowledge is a much better recipe for creating not just a happy classroom, but also life-long learners.  You can grow with challenge, you can grow with hard work, you can grow when you see a worthwhile challenge.  Let’s let fun be what it is meant to be.  Not the basis for curricula, but those gooey, yummy, moments of delight that sets the whole class smiling.

 

 

 

 

Note:  Hubby and I are having many words about the use of curricula vs. curriculum.  I will defer to Terry Pratchett’s The Color of Magic to help me remember this rule.

Week 38 – Can the Training Wheels Miss the Bike?

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We were on our last week of school.  Tuesday was our last day of regular classes.  Wednesday students watch the Upper School Performance (which was wonderful) and had two Humanities classes.  We finished up our last essay which students presented as a speech. The 6th had a math class, but then, that’s it.  Thursday was a half day and that was all about cleaning up, gathering up, signing year books, and saying good-bye.  We also finished watching most of The Holy Grail, skipping Castle Anthrax.

The speech writing used the same pattern as any other expository writing.  Brainstorming, outlining, writing, and for some of the faster students, a chance to revise.  The main difference was that I wouldn’t help them.

One student was not about to be put off.  She kept asking me to check her work.  Now this is a student who was writing her 14th essay for me.  I knew, really knew, that she didn’t really need my help. I had her previous 13 papers in her portfolio in the back room.  Every time she asked for help I referred her to her Tools folder, or the rubric, or the book, or a classmate.  Still, she kept asking questions that I knew she knew the answer to.

I finally stopped her and asked if she knew how hard it was for me not to help her?  Everybody thinks that the teacher is there to guide and help students, but the teacher is also there to help students do it themselves.  Once the how-to-do-it-ive-ness has been established, the teacher needs to step back and let the students do it.  I think they had noticed by now, as it was the end of the year, that I am both nosy and bossy.  I find it very, very difficult not to look over their shoulders and point out places where they could be doing it the way I would be doing it, even when there is no guarantee that their way isn’t better.  It is why I make myself sit at my desk and often knit or write blog entries until one of them needs help.

The student looked at me and said, “So, you are kind of like training wheels?”  Yes.  I am the human equivalent of training wheels.  My job is to make myself superfluous.  Then I asked her if she ever considered that the training wheels might miss the bike.

There was a moment of reflective silence in the room.

Week 36 – A Pop Essay to Make You Foam at the Mouth

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As the year is winding down, I’ve been wanting to assess my students on the writing process when left totally up to them.  I also wanted to know what they took from the movie “A Knight’s Tale” that we watched in class as part of our unit on the middle ages.  (We watched a safer, denuded, and cleaned up “airplane” version.)   So when they came back from recess, I said, “Okay, Pop Essay!  Get out binder paper and your notes.”

POP ESSAY!

Using your notes and the True/False list you made while viewing the A Knight’s Tale, outline and write a first draft of an expository essay.  You have one class period only.

 Here is your prompt:  How historically accurate is the movie “A Knight’s Tale”?  Describe the most important moments that are accurate and explain why, and then describe the most interesting  moments that are inaccurate and explain why.  What conclusions can you draw about our popular notion of the middle ages based on the film?

Do your outline here.

Go!

The students never batted an eye.  They all got out paper and their notes, and we looked at the prompt.

We took a minute to “deconstruct” the prompt.  First I asked them where we would find our thesis statement.  We underlined the first question.  I explained that they would need to turn it into a statement, but clearly I need to go over it again because one student used the question as it was written.

Then we numbered the jobs that the prompt was asking to be answered.   We put a 1 at “describe” and drew an arrow to what we were to describe and circled it: the important moments.  Then we put a 1a at the word “why” to remind us to give examples and reasons.  Then we put a 2 at the second “describe” drew a circle around the words “interesting moments” and drew a squiggly line under the word “interesting” to make it clear that “important” and “interesting” are two different concepts.  Then we put a 2a at the word, “why”.

Then we looked at the last sentence, and students were relieved to see the word “conclusions”. They accurately connected the word to a conclusion paragraph.  You don’t need to do it that way, but it does make a nice way to wrap up your thoughts.

Then I introduced the idea of the magic number 3.  They need two sets of moments.  Emphasis on the plural.  I told them that it is always useful to pick three ideas to support their thesis.  This meant that with a topic sentence they would be looking at about seven sentences for their body paragraphs.  Each moment must be supported.  The three moments plus three examples plus one topic sentence equals about seven sentences.  That gave them an idea of the length of the paper.

I wanted them to give me strong outlines, and so I told them that they needed to make the outline specific enough that if they didn’t finish the paper, I could still give them credit based on what they were planning to say as shown in their outline.  One the other hand, I warned them that they didn’t want to make the outline so specific that they didn’t have time to write it.  Only one didn’t get to write.  But his outline is amazing.  (We’ll work on it.)  Some finished early.  I told them that in this case, they need to check that they were on topic, then do as much revision as possible before the essays are picked up.  They needed to think about legibility, grammar and mechanics, idea and content, organization, word choice, and voice.

It takes time to master timed writing. They should not beat themselves up because they didn’t finish, but to consider why they hadn’t.

Instead of posting several essays, I thought I could get more student’s work up if I cherry picked some paragraphs and moments that I found to be most interesting.

Here are some openings:

The movie “A Knight’s Tale” focuses on medieval times.  But is the movie accurate to history?  In this paper:  What is accurate?  What is inaccurate? and why?

How accurate is the movie “A Knight’s Tale”? This movie is about a squire, the helper of a knight, named William, and how he changed his stars.  Which means that he went from squire to knight.

Is “A Knight’s Tale” historically inaccurate? Or is it both?  Let us find out.

And some 1st body paragraphs:

This will be the accurate section of my paper.  Training daily is a huge part of a knight’s  life.  That is how they have lots of power to hold these huge swords (not always big swords, but heavy).  Courtly love is love in the nobility.  One of the rules is when you speak to your lover, you will foam at the mouth.  The Black Prince is a real character.  His real name is Prince Edward.  He is famous for his victories.  He does help other kings and, yes, he does tournaments.  There is still many more. 

First of all, this movie had a lot of accuracies, some unexpected.  There was, in fact, daily training for all knights.  William wasn’t doing a lot of extra training. All the rules of jousting and the stuff that happened (including getting hurt) did happen.  This is important because it was actually unwarped despite how silly it sometimes seemed.  William also followed the rules of courtly love.  That is very important because to some people could see that it would be crazy how one would follow and constantly think about another.

Now I will describe a few accurate parts.  Most of the dances were accurate, but not all of them were.  This was important because William got closer to the girl he liked.  Only widows having men’s job (blacksmithing) was accurate.  William needed a good blacksmith.  People were hanged.  Roland uses this to show William what could happen to him.

First, I will discuss the accuracies of this movie. First on accuracies is Knights.  Knights had to have people pay them taxes so they can go to a tournament.  Also, in Europe, if you are not of noble birth, you cannot be a knight.  Next is Ulric von Lichtenstein.  Ulric was an actual character from history who was a knight.  Next is apprentices.  Most children were apprenticed around the age of 7.

And some 2nd body paragraphs (I didn’t give the whole paragraphs for some of these because there was a lot of repetition.)

This next paragraph is about how inaccurate it is.  They filled the lances with pasta.  The makers did that so they could have an effect.  The blacksmith put a Nike symbol on the armor.  First, they didn’t have Nike, and second the blacksmiths did not put a symbol on armor (as far as we know).  They did not know what people looked like back then.  For example, the Black Prince, we don’t know what he looks like.

Now I will explain three false moments.  One of them is that David Bowie did not exist then.  He was born very recently.  The outfits for women were very inaccurate. They looked like “Star Wars” clothes!  The lances broke.  They wouldn’t have been able to afford so many.

Next,  the inaccurate moments.  They had no trial for criminals.  When William got arrested, he went straight to public humiliation.  They also filled the lances with linguini.  I would not expect to see that in the middle ages, but it did add pop to the jousting.  Finally, the women used hair dye.  We know that women would dress their hair elaborately, but did not color their hair. 

Finally, roses were pink and white, not deep red.

They did not eat turkey legs.

First, in the middle ages, there was no hair dye and women would have worn their hair up and covered.  I know this because we have watched many middle ages documentaries and they said exactly that.

And for some conclusions:

Not thinking historically, this movie was funny and exciting.  If we had not learned about the middle ages, everyone in the class would think that the middle ages wasn’t all that bad.  They also would think most knights were mostly too snobby and proud to congratulate anyone else.  If everyone had thought these things, they would be totally wrong.

I learned that some movies are accurate and some aren’t.  Example, this one was more accurate.  I learned and saw some of the rules of courtly love. Like when the two lovers, William and Jocelyn, are talking and William is tripping over his words and you can hear him.

I am very pleased with the results.  The students’ voices come out loud and clear while strongly reflecting what we learned in class.  They also had little problem transferring the writing process to a quick essay test.  So, yay, yay, and yay.

So, here’s to Heath Ledger (god rest his soul), people having fun with History, and whoever created the essay.  Add them all up, and you get statements like “when you speak to your lover, you foam at the mouth.”

Cheers!

Week 35 – Our Path Leads to Tiblet

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Yes. I meant to write “Tiblet”. Actually, I didn’t mean to originally, but it’s the way it came out as I was trying to research some questions that my students were asking about this amazing book. The real title is My Path Leads to Tibet by Sabriye Tenberken.

Every day during our writing class, students read a chapter of her book and then write a Reading Journal about it. I think I’ve talked about this before. We moved swiftly through the book reading a chapter or two every day.

6th grade students wrote a five-sentence summary of the chapter, they gave evidence of the writing trait we are working on, and then they wrote a ten sentence reflection. They practiced using academic English, and the things they are learning in Grammar class. The 5th grade did variations on this theme. These students needed a little more help with vocabulary which slowed them down a little.

I’ve been blown away with the students’ response to this book. After reading The Alchemist with them, I’m no longer surprised at the depth of their thinking, but this book is tapping into their innate sense of justice. They want to stop and talk about what Sabriye is going through as they feel it. It’s sometimes difficult to keep them on task because they get so angry at what she’s put through. It’s the right moment to say to a student, “Good, I’m glad that you are reacting, but what you are saying belongs in your reflections. Make a note about it, or hold on to it until you are ready to write.” Of course this is not satisfactory, but generally, I find that students do write those reactions in their journals.

Today, students wanted to know if there is another book by her. They wanted to know what her organization was called, and they wanted to keep reading. What I love is hearing their voices in their reflections. I learn so much more about them by what they write.

As we just finished the book, students are pooling their reflections to write letters to Sabriye and her school in Tibet. I compiled all the reading journals for each student and handed them back to them in packets. The students want to make little origami gifts to put in the box along with the letters. If they give me permission, and thankfully, they generally do, I’ll post some of them before we send them.

Again, I’m just so proud of them.

Comments for “Week 35 – Extra Credit? My Eye”

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So I asked some of my friends on “Friendface” who either work(ed) at a middle school or are (were) middle school teachers what they thought about the middle school homework problem as discussed in “Week 35 – Extra Credit“.  Below are their responses.  I just wish I could get this going here on Merifully Teaching.  I still welcome more comments.

Linda‘s lonq response get’s another long response!!

from my parenting experience, “doing the work” and “turning it in” ARE two entirely different things. not only had i heard my then middle-schooler repeatedly say, “but i DID the work, i just didn’t turn it in,” i have heard other parents of middle schoolers say the exact same thing.

i don’t know how many times i used the response question, “so how does your teacher KNOW that you did the work?”

the middle school years are laying the foundation for kids to get along with different rules by different people. the sooner they catch on, the better. these years are the turning point of taking responsibility for one’s own choices, some kids “get it” at this point and some don’t — unfortunately mine didn’t. i think 6th grade is a particular issue in which kids were used to their K-5 teachers checking off their homework, essentially reminding them when it’s time to turn in homework and prodding them if they didn’t. in 6th grade, all of a sudden they are expected to do something different to turn it in (basket at the front when they walk in the door, pass it up to the front, etc), usually without prompting. no matter how many times the teacher states what the “new rules” are, there will be a percentage that still don’t understand, well into the year. not to mention that EVERY teacher has different rules and that changes every year, sometimes each semester.

i must’ve often sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher during the middle school years. find a way to non-verbally remind your child daily: a note written in sharpie in the lid of the lunchbox or a special picture or saying to trigger their memory. nagging doesn’t work… and if the notes don’t work… email the teacher that your child may need to be reminded from time to time, BUT do not make excuses for your child.

the best (and hardest) thing a parent may have to do is LET YOUR CHILD FAIL. the earlier they fail, the easier it will be to recover academically. yes, it goes against everything a good parent knows, but it may be the only way that your child will finally “get it” — the choices THEY make, affect THEIR future. if you fight for them, how will they learn to fight for themselves? for my girl, turning in homework had been a standing issue every year from 6th-11th grades. it did take some very drastic circumstances for her to catch on, some kids need to find their own internal drive. now that she’s at the end of her Senior year, i’m proud to say she finally “got it”!

* and i get no extra credit. i have no idea where the term “my eye” came from!

Micki – The privilege of “Friday Free Time” works for me. If the work is in they get the whole 20 minutes and if not they spend the time finding it, finishing it and turning it in. Free time is games or curriculum based activities. They don’t get to just sit and chit chat.

Elizabeth– This time of year the kids are checked out so don’t assign any homework and expect it to come in. If the students are not doing work that is essential to their learning in class then hold them in at lunch or recess to finish it and offer them some guidance. This usually works well.

Ilona– I have to agree with Elizabeth. Our kids are so far gone it’s not even worth assigning homework, unless the threat of a failing grade actually means something to them. As you know, we grade right up until the bitter end! I will be spending tomorrow entering grades! And I sent an essay home today due Friday! 8th grade? Don’t even bother!!

Mikki– We still have until June 14th! Still have lots of days to fill!!! Bored 8th Graders can get overwhelming very quickly-especially 37 of them who are all taller than you!

Thank you, friends, for your comments!  I have learned so much from each of you.

But, I think I win.  We go to the 21st.  I know I can do it.  I’m the little teacher who can.  Chugga-chugga, baby.