Thursday, November 15, 2007

Are You Serious?

English as a course of study at the high school level sometimes seems to take a back seat to other subjects. Given a choice between whether to show up for math or physics course with a problem set unfinished, or showing up for English with an assigned reading only partially done, or not done at all, many students seem comfortable opting for door number two. The whole question of homework across the board has been a subject of debate nationally and at our school. Last year we spent one department meeting brainstorming some ideas about the role of homework in an English class, and at yesterday's English department meeting we embarked on a followup discussion, and at one point in the meeting I found myself talking about something that has been bothering me lately. It bothers me every semester about midway through, and I usually get over it, but here we are in early November, and here I am again, wondering about Quality, how close our students are to attaining it, and whether we are providing an environment in which quality issues are taken seriously. And so I asked, rhetorically, "What proportion of our students are really serious students of English?" A pretty interesting discussion ensued, and part of what made it interesting is that the question itself clearly made some of us uncomfortable. I had been planning to unpack some of my thinking about this on Throughlines, but my colleague Chris Watson beat me to the punch, and I wound up responding to him on his blog, so I'm basically going to re-present the dialogue here. His post:

Every other week, the English department meets a large group (largest dept. in the school) to discuss courses, initiatives, school business, and overarching questions. Yesterday, we revisited a conversation about homework that's been going on school-wide for a few years. How do we use it? Why do students gain from it? Could we get by without it? And so on. And we ended up discussing what some of us perceived as a move towards a school culture that doesn't foster serious students, specifically in English. Physics and Math maybe a different story?

Many great questions came out of the discussion:

*Is there a difference between being good at something and being a student of something? Waterpolo was the analogy.

*How do we balance encouraging the skills of a good student with the necessary pace of the curriculum?

*Should we expect all student to have passion for English? For example, do we expect all student in orchestra to be serious musicians?

*Is being a serious student, a mastery of skills or an investment in content?

So I left the meeting thinking about these questions, and thinking about how I might present some ideas in a post here at WatsonCommon. Considering myself a serious student of several things, English, leadership, educational technology, surfing, mountaineering, racquetball, marathoning, I thought I'd take inventory of all the things I do as a serious student (maybe learner is a better term).

1. I keep a small notebook with me at all times to quickly jot down ideas, reflections, and observations. This is also where raw ideas are born. Often, what's written here is in the form of lists, pictures, webs.

2. I write in a personal journal, at least 10 minutes a day, for nobody but me.

3. I keep a professional blog and read blogs of people who do similar work, creating a network of creative collaborators. Before blogging, I documented all my work and organized it in binders and folders, ready to reference and share.

4. I try to build a professional library of thought-provoking reading. I think this too is encompassed by the read/write web.

I'm probably missing things. But these are the habits (I wouldn't call them skills) that I believe make me serious. Is this what we expect of students? Or is it something else? Something more?
My response:

Well, I was gonna write about this too, and here you went and beat me to it (not for the first time either.) But yeah, all of the things you mention. Writing figures in three of four items in your inventory, reading in the fourth. It seems to me that reading and writing are critical: reading allows us to broaden our understanding, writing allows us to shape it, extend it, deepen it. I'd add three things to the list:

5. Reflection - staying with an idea inside the mind, turning it over, rotating it, looking at it from different points of view

6. Conversation - talking about something is a way of honoring its importance, and there's something generative about talk as well; putting something words is clarifying and often surprising when it leads you to say things you didn't know you knew or believed

7. Action - putting ideas into motion provides the real test of their validity. A lot of things sound good but don't work in the real world.

I took the position in our meeting that many of our students, including many students who are earning grades good grades, are not what I would consider to be serious students. How many of our students do even half of the things that are on our emerging list? They do what they are told to do, yes. But how many of them write for their own enrichment? How many of them read beyond what is strictly required? (Many of them do not even do that much.) How many of them do we see making any kind of active effort to put the ideas they do care about into practice? How much of their complacency is a result of the climate of expectation we set for them? And if we wanted to change that climate, where might we begin?

So yeah, it was an interesting discussion. Those are serious questions, and deserve serious answers.
I think as teachers we are always walking a thin line. On the one hand we want our students to like whatever subject we are teaching, to like the class, to like us. On the other hand, we want them to push themselves, to work hard, to improve their skills, to produce the kind of work they are capable of. Some of us don't mind playing the bad cop; some of us have trouble with that role. Some teachers argue that if a student writes something that she thinks is good, it is good, and that we should simply praise what is good and ask the student to write more, on the theory that in this way she will come to love writing. Others argue that there are degrees of good, and that if a student's work is not yet good enough, the only way it is going to get better will be if someone tells her what she needs to do to make it good, or, at least, better.

I think a serious student would want to know that. And I'd like to believe that by the time a student is a junior or senior in high school, s/he would have a pretty clear sense of what makes good work good, and a pretty good sense of what it means to be a serious student in any particular discipline. The things Chris mentions in his post seem pretty obvious to me: of course a serious student would read widely, write often, value careful work, and enjoy the time spent doing it. And yet, having written that out, I am once again struck by how seldom I actually see those habits of mind and action on display, even among our best students, how apparently idealistic (unrealistic?) these expectations seem, and how conflicted I feel about the whole business. On the one hand, I'd like to believe that if we were all doing our job well as teachers, our students would being doing their job well as students. On the other hand, I realize that there are a lot of factors—cultural and familial economic and attitudinal and hormonal and developmental and generational—over which we as teachers have little control, and that it's always going to be an uphill battle.

The good news is, it's early November, and in a few weeks at least some of those students we've been holding out on may very well surprise us with work that is just amazingly good. And that is going to be enough to carry us right through until... the middle of next semester.


Kassissieh said...

Fascinating. English may be taking a back seat at some schools, but in many schools it rules the roost. Perhaps it's just the handful of schools at which I've taught, but I have had the opposite experience. Students take their English work extremely seriously, on the cue of how the school has structured its offerings and the personalities leading their English departments.

Thank you providing an alternative to the traditional definitions of "rigor," even if it was unintentional!


Zuzuzpetals said...

English skills are huge in our district; they've become so in the last three to five years. Our administration's mantra is that every teacher is a reading and writing teacher. Face it, you can't do anything if you can't read (word problems, biology text, history articles, physics lab instructions). Of course, English teachers have known this forever. I am so thankful for our students that it is becoming more commonplace knowledge in other disciplines.
As for not completing assignments, etc., I think it goes back to the nature of the beast. Math problems. There are 15 of them. You either did or did not do them. Novel chapters 1-5; you can, arguably, take part in a discussion even if you've only heard about their contents from a classmate.
The upside of that (at least to me) is that stories are infinitely more interesting than math problems. No offense, math teachers! I'll gladly trade that my kids can come to class some days underprepared but still have an interesting discussion with the ease at which I'd be able to tell if they had prepared fully followed by not-so interesting discussion.
That's just my personal preference :).
English remains the only required class through the senior year - so even if kids put the homework last from time to time, heck, at least they keep us on the schedule until they're done!