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Posts Tagged ‘effective teaching’

As the new school year starts and I assess what my new students need, I find myself growing ever more convinced of the wisdom of these two great axioms of educating:

  • Nobody ever became a good writer before they were a great reader.
  • It is far better for students to write five 1-page papers than to write one 5-page paper.

Friends, instruct accordingly.

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I find that most students, at first, want to call any old description a metaphor.  After I give a definition and examples, when I ask for their own examples, they give me things like, “The dog is old.”

“What two things are being compared there?” I ask.  They pause, then say, “Dogs and old.”

To help alleviate the confusion, here’s little graphic:

metaphors

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This was the advice I wrote in the margin of a couple of dozen college papers I returned to students last night.  I put the directions for their recent assignments back on the projector and showed them again that they both called for evaluating an author’s evident strategies, based on things like structure and style, for effectiveness.  Nothing in their assignments asked for personal reflection about the topics of their texts, and yet, that’s the majority of what I got.

Coincidentally, I just read this excellent essay by Mark Bauerlein, which perfectly echoes my experience.  In short, students need to be guided to write analytical work, not fluffy reactions.  Amen.

 

At one point in the discussion, Coleman paused to note a problem in the teaching of writing in English classrooms: the dominance of “personal writing … the exposition of a personal opinion … the presentation of a personal matter.”  (more…)

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A couple of months ago, a student at my school came in and asked my opinions about student writing.  I thought she was just writing for the school newspaper, but a couple of weeks ago her story ran in the local paper, the Las Vegas Review Journal.  It’s quite good.  She got some good material from a couple of other teachers, and put it together very well.  Alas, she spelled my name wrong, though.  Here’s my contribution:

However, technology cannot be blamed entirely for the decrease in writing quality over the past 20 years.

Jamie Houston, an English teacher at Las Vegas Academy, argued that technology does not affect composition as much as it de-emphasizes sustained focus and this shift in emphasis is part of society’s penchant to prefer visualization to the written word.

“School has always been like going to the gym because you do things that are repetitive, simple and uncreative, but not remotely realistic,” Houston said. “You are never going to do a pushup in the real world. You do pushups because they develop real-world muscles.”

“No one is ever going to put a gun to your head and say, ‘Quick, what’s a gerund?’ School develops thinking and communicating for the untold realms of the real world and for new technologies and innovations that haven’t even been invented yet.”

 

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In my first few years of teaching, I tried to be one those Hero Teachers–the guy who stays at work ten hours a day, who goes in sometimes on Saturdays, who takes tons of work home and grades while he tries to unwind at night.

During that third or fourth year, a scary thought hit me: what if I only did half as much work?  Would I get half the results from students?  Would they only learn half as much?  I tried cutting back on the intensity of grading papers and fancy detail of planning classes and, even after several weeks, it was obvious: my extra efforts had made no difference at all.  It was a sobering epiphany, and much of the next several years were heavily influenced by it.  I didn’t stop caring about the quality of my work, but I did try to trim anything extraneous that didn’t seem crucial.

I’ve seen a lot of teachers who think that unless they’re beating themselves to death, they aren’t doing a good job.  Some of them are convinced that we have to read and grade every line of every paper in copious, minute detail, or we’re cheating children.  Now, I’m all for feedback and revision, but except for that, so much of the time we spend grading and planning is frankly wasted.  There’s a law of diminishing returns that applies to teaching as much as anything else.  After a point, ongoing work is fruitless, or even destructive.  The goal of anyone who would do their job to maximum effectiveness is to find the point at which energy stops yielding results, work up to that point, and then clock out.

Some of us may have a Puritan streak to us that demands that visible suffering and sacrifice are requisite virtues in a teacher, but that’s baloney.  What matters is student learning.  Achieve that, and you’ve done your job well, regardless the hours you stayed late.  The time and energy you might have wasted being a volunteer martyr can be better spent on your students during the day, anyway.  Or you might even put more into enjoying your life, which will also increase your productivity at work.  This is one case where it truly does help to work smarter, not harder.

 

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Below is the text of Hugh Nibley’s classic 1970 essay “Educating the Saints” (copied from this online source, with fair use in mind), including my notes on what we can learn from it, as teachers and students, about education.  I submit that, though Nibley was writing for and about Mormons, this is the best work of fundamental values in public education ever written, and should be required reading for anyone who would be a good teacher, in any capacity. 

I’ve put in bold the segments of Nibley’s text that seem particularly pertinent and powerful, followed by my 21 notes in brackets and italics.  My notes are meant to interpret the ideas in the essay into general classroom policies and strategies.  Looking back on these notes about a decade after I made them, when I was still a new teacher, I’m pleased to see that my work has largely been consistent with the ideas here, as I understand them. 

Nibley uses Brigham Young as his model for effective education techniques, and well he should: Young took thouands of poor, illiterate, disparate immigrants and made them the foundation of a society whose descendants are disproportionately well-educated.  Though one would benefit from simply perusing the bold and italicized sections, reading this whole essay would be valuable to anyone; reading it from my source will also allow you to enjoy Nibley’s 200 footnotes!

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The New Yorker just ran an excellent essay looking at some thorny educational issues: why do so many people go to college today?  Are they getting much out of it?  Should college be different?  The author sympathetically looks at different angles to these issues, and addresses recent ideas and research on them.  At one point, though, to illustrate a section where he debates the value of liberal arts training for vocational majors, for writes:

Still, students pursuing vocational degrees are almost always required to take some liberal-arts courses. Let’s say that you want a bachelor’s degree in Culinary Arts Management, with a Beverage Management major, from the University of Nevada Las Vegas. (Hmm. I might have taken a wrong turn in my education somewhere.) To get this degree, U.N.L.V. requires you to take two courses in English (Composition and World Literature), one course in philosophy, one course in either history or political science, courses in chemistry, mathematics, and economics, and two electives in the arts and humanities. If your professional goal is, let’s say, running the beverage service at the Bellagio, how much effort are you going to put into that class on World Literature?

Since I’ve actually taught World Literature to business majors at UNLV, please let me offer an answer. 

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An excellent teaching moment came my way yesterday.  My English 101 class spends the last half of the semester doing a unit on persuasive writing, and the textbook has a whole section on logical fallacies.  In addition to a dry review of them last night, I ended class with something a little more unique and practical. 

I told my classes about the already-infamous “Asians in the Library” video that a girl at UCLA did a couple of weeks ago, and then showed it to them.  As we watched, we stopped it often so we could identify specifically which logical fallacies she was committing.  It was hilarious, controversial, and really drove the point home–the world is full of people who make stupid arguments, and we have the tools to deflate them. 

On a more serious note, for someone like me who truly believes that racism is a thing of the past, a relic that’s been relegated to only the most extreme fringes of society, no matter how loudly some professional grievance-mongers continue to crow about it, it’s really disturbing to hear something every now and then like this that shows us that there really is still some serious racism out there.  I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt, but I can’t think of any way to view this video with a charitable explanation–this young lady just simply comes across as an ignorant bigot. 

My notes on her logical fallacies are after the jump; see how many you can spot!

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One of the favorite tropes of professional education is that teaching an inch wide but a mile deep is better than teaching a mile wide and an inch deep, where the former suggests fairly little content covered in extensive detail, and the latter is the opposite: a curriculum that favors quantity of content over depth. 

The idea is that the mile wide teaching confuses kids, goes too fast for them–in short, leaves them behind–without giving enough context for them to understand or care about what they’re learning.  Mile deep teaching, on the other hand, posits that choosing a smaller core of priority material, and teaching it with enough care to produce mastery, will help students become self-sufficient learners, and end up giving them more material in retention, anyway. 

This makes a lot of sense, and I used to subscribe to it.  I no longer do, though.

For one thing, I’ve never seen anything substantial to show me that mile deep teaching does, in fact, produce better comprehension and retention.  Like exercising any other muscle, there’s a limit reached fairly quickly, after which, you’re just burning what’s already there.  Most times, if a student hasn’t grasped something after a few days of class, they’re not likely to get it ever, even after a few months. 

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When I was in college in the 90’s, Seinfeld was still dominating our catch phrase vocabulary.  As you may recall, one of the most popular lines from the show concerned an extremely anal retentive soup counter owner who demanded brevity, silence, and meekness from his customers.  Infringing upon these rules resulted in the sudden loss of your soup-purchasing opportunity, as he would yank the cardboard cup away from you and shout, “No soup for you!” 

Jerry called him the Soup Nazi.

One of my literature classes in college was run by a man who demanded respect and precision at all times.  His formality was excruciating.  If a student spoke out of turn, she would be singled out for a condescending lecture about decorum.  One young woman in our class said she walked by his desk and saw a hand-written letter that he’d opened that began with, “Dearest Father…”

We called him the English Nazi.

Maybe his greatest offense against our barely post-adolescent sensibilities was when he told us to draw poetry.  Keep in mind that this was a class mostly populated by future English teachers; it wasn’t some 100-level freshman requirement.  We all loved reading.  But, when he told us to read Keats and Shelley and Browning and draw pictures of the scenes they described, and our earnest scribblings were met by curt, withering dismissals of our perception, we were astounded. 

“No.  That’s not what it looked like,” he would say of most of our work.  (more…)

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I like to show how the books we study in school have left a lasting legacy to contemporary society.  If nothing else, when students complain how boring and outdated the books are, I can either try to elicit some open mindedness by showing them that P. Diddy consciously imitates The Great Gatsby, or I can at least argue that their recalcitrance is in opposition to the popular culture with which they’re enthralled. 

This year has been an especially good one for that.  I started the year off with The Scarlet Letter, just as a teen comedy loosely based on it, Easy A, hit theaters.  When we read Moby Dick, I was able to show them the recent Blackberry ad about the novel (many students told me that the ad made much more sense afterwards!).  We finished Huckleberry Finn last month and now, as we review the semester, there’s a national controversy brewing about a new, censored version of the text. 

Near the end of this year, when I try to wrestle some Faulkner into my students, I’ll be able to tell them that Hollywood hunk James Franco is directing a new film of Faulkner’s novel, As I Lay Dying

Now if only I could find a more recent reference for Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea than a second season episode of The Simpsons

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Last week I got a reading-response journal from a high school freshman in my honors class, about an excerpt from Plato’s dialogue Crito (which I’ve described and quoted here before); her paper started off like this:

From Cristo was written by Plato. This story talks about this guy named Socrates whom was sentenced to presin for “corrupting the youth.” although he is inasant and trys to prove it, the juriry desides he is still guilty. He agrues for his inasance. But for all it was pointless. He had the chance to run away but he wanted to prove his inasance. If he would have ran away; other “cities” they wouldn’t welcome him with open arms because he disabad the law by running away. He is killed.

It took me a minute to figure out some of the words: “inasant” is “innocent,” and “disabad” is “disobeyed.”  What accounts for such awful spelling?  Easy–people write like this because their only real engagement with the language has been verbal.  Writing like this–with phonetic spelling, slang, fragments, etc.–comes about because the writer only knows what the language sounds like out loud. 

To put it another way, we now write like this because we don’t read anymore.  Exhaustive experience reading a language used formally is the only way to learn to write fluently.  It’s a simple formula, no more complicated or less effective than any Sunday School answer: if you want to write well, you have to read first.  A lot. 

This dumbing down of written language due to almost exclusively oral experience is especially problematic in students for whom English is a second language, or not spoken at home.  For the girl quoted above, notice how the Greek name “Crito” becomes the Spanish word “Cristo.” 

All is not lost here, however.  She does a few things right.  The second sentence ends with the closing punctuation inside the quotation mark, something which most of her peers do not understand, and the next to last sentence includes the words “would have,” which many of her peers would have written as “would of.”  And, although it’s fairly simplistic and has a couple of errors, she does show a decent understanding of a difficult passage. 

Most importantly, though, when I gave this back to her and said that it needed to be revised and fixed, she cheerfully did so, taking all my advice into account, and quickly resubmitted a much improved paper.  Such a mature work ethic is practically a guarantee of success, and will eventually get her to where she needs to be.  Writing well may not foster character, but character will help her work towards writing well.

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 In a classic address, LDS apostle John A. Widstoe summarized the educational value of temple work:

Another fact has always appealed to me as a strong internal evidence for the truth of temple work. The endowment and the temple work as revealed by the Lord to the Prophet Joseph Smith (see also Doctor Talmage’s The House of the Lord) fall clearly into four distinct parts: the preparatory ordinances, the giving of instructions by lectures and representations; covenants; and, finally, tests of knowledge. I doubt that the Prophet Joseph, unlearned and untrained in logic, could of himself have made the thing so logically complete. The candidate for the temple service is prepared, as in any earthly affair, for work to be done. Once prepared he is instructed in the things that he should know. When instructed, he covenants to use the imparted knowledge, and at once the new knowledge, which of itself is dead, leaps into living life. At last, tests are given him, whereby those who are entitled to know may determine whether the man has properly learned the lesson. The brethren and sisters who go through the temple should observe all these things and recognize the wonderful coherence and logical nature of the carefully worked out system, with a beginning and an end, fitting every known law of God and nature, which constitutes temple worship.

The wonderful pedagogy of the temple service, especially appealing to me as a professional teacher, carries with it evidence of the truth of temple work. We go to the temple to be informed and directed, to be built up and to be blessed. How is all this accomplished? First by the spoken word, through lectures and conversations, just as we do in the class room, except with more elaborate care, then by the appeal to the eye by representations by living, moving beings; and by pictorial representations in the wonderfully decorated rooms (as any one may see in Dr. Talmage’s book.) Meanwhile the recipients themselves, the candidates for blessings, engage actively in the temple service as they move from room to room, with the progress of the course of instruction. Altogether our temple worship follows a most excellent pedagogical system. I wish instruction were given so well in every school throughout the land, for we would then teach with more effect than we now do.

Indeed.  As an educator myself, I’ve always been impressed with how effectively the “lesson plan” of the endowment is put together.  I’ve often outlined it in my head as I’ve gone there, wondering if I could reproduce such a complex yet organically coherent structure in my own lessons.  I’ve largely given up on that, though: I realize that the best means for teaching the gospel may not necessarily be the best means for teaching grammar. 

Still, I think examining the pedagogy (teaching strategies and methods) of the temple, in the manner of apostles like Elder Widstoe and Elder Talmage, can assist us in our worship and discipleship.  (more…)

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Teachers as Actors

It’s around this time each year that a couple of former students, be they upperclassmen, student aides, or simply returning to visit, will come by a class and find me in the middle of a lesson they recognize.  Inevitably, some will ask, “Don’t you get tired of doing the same stuff every year?” 

Sometimes, yes, but there’s also value to repeating units so we can improve them, and it’s always nice to be on familiar ground–one less thing to plan from scratch.  In this way, teachers are like actors: putting on a rehearsed performance multiple times, each time trying to make it come off as fresh to an audience seeing it for the first time.  Strange that students don’t realize how much of this is staged when they know that we teach multiple sections of the same class every year, too; they all seem to compare notes with their friends about what happens in various periods of classes often enough.

And make no mistake, it is a performance.  One of the things newer teachers all end up learning the hard way–and something we all have to readjust to as a new year starts–is just how physically draining it is to be up there working a crowd.  I’ve learned in my experience that there is one non-negotiable element of good teaching, and it isn’t any of the things you’re likely to hear in a college education class–it’s not positivity, “withitness,” or rapport. 

It’s enthusiasm.  I find that you can create just about any atmosphere or character you want in a classroom (mine tends to be decidedly crusty), as long as you do it with energy.  It’s far better to be a negative teacher with energy than to be an apathetic Pollyanna.  This, of course, is hard.  But it’s another way in which teaching is like acting.

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For an award I tried out for a couple of months ago, I had to begin my application binder with a short essay about my “focus and philosophy of teaching.”  I didn’t get the award, but I still like what I put together for it.  Here’s what I wrote for this section:

        I.            The best teacher is a trusted mentor, and I strive to become such for my students.  This means that I establish a comfortable rapport, which I do by the same method used for creating relevance and interest in my curriculum: by utilizing students’ prior knowledge and interests of their cultural milieu and introducing material (and myself) accordingly.  This is consistently brought to my attention as one of the most effective things I do for students; their understanding of, respect for, and recollection of class learning and skills are greatly augmented by it. 

      II.            By no means, however, does this mean that I water down content or lower expectations for student work.  (Indeed, if my personable class atmosphere is the first thing that most students seem to remember about my classes, the strenuous work load comes in a close second.) Rather, I use our amiable relationship as a way to elicit greater effort from students—more diligence and attentiveness to their work, greater care for its quality, and a commitment to read, write, study, and think more.  As a mentor teacher, I begin by modeling these things myself, discussing with students what I’ve been reading, conferencing with them in person and via email regarding their writing for class and giving genuine feedback, and leading my classes with the tenor of one who is comfortable acting casually, but only because he is holding himself to exacting intellectual standards, and who is requiring the same from those whose minds are in his care.  As Gandhi said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” I inspire desire.

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