T Sale's Blog

Friday, April 11, 2008

Phoning It In

Just came from my first period English 10 class, and in the spirit of the instantaneous pouring forth of thoughts favored by the modern world, I thought I’d share something. On many Fridays, for our warm up, I give the class what I call a poetry song. Today the song was Vertical Horizon’s “Everything You Want,” which I like to use because its ambiguity usually sparks some discussion. Today the class stared at the lyrics mystified for a long time. Nothing. I finally asked, what sort of song is this – is it about politics? Relationships? Sports? A couple of brave souls ventured guesses: yes, it’s about a relationship. Maybe it’s about God. A brief discussion, then more silence. I asked, How could we figure this out? Their answer: Google. Meanwhile, I had a Macbeth assignment for them to work on, so I said, Maybe we can google this later in the class.

And then, from the back of the room came the voice of Steve saying, “I already have.”

Steve had fired up his iPhone or equivalent and searched for the song. He said he only found a couple of comments, and they just seemed to be someone’s opinion, not a definitive answer (such as, say, the band itself revealing what they really meant).

On the way back to the English office, several thoughts populated my mind:
Good thing I didn’t see Steve fiddling with his phone and take it away before he could contribute to class.
I read in one of Howard Gardner’s books about multiple intelligences that he thought the computers and other electronic devices we have access to should be included in our measure of intelligence.
Years ago, a former AHS English teacher found out one of her students had computer software that would actually check his spelling and grammar, and she threw a fit because it was unfair that he had such an advantage over the other students; when he wrote in class his writing was poor to mediocre, but when he wrote at home it was good.
Good for Steve for recognizing right away that the source he found wasn’t necessarily authoritative.
By the time we figure out how to afford laptops in every classroom, all our students may very well have acquired phones with Internet access.
Outside the classroom, students are used to finding answers to what they want to know right now (the operative phrase being “what they want to know”). It must really frustrate them when, in the classroom, we constantly delay satisfaction.
The only Google-proof questions seem to be those that require some sort of personal response.
Karl would be proud: Steve is a staunch Apple guy.

I leave the conclusions to you.

My fastest blog post ever.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

What's it all about, Alfie?

I just read Alfie Kohn’s article “The Trouble with Rubrics,” and while I haven’t decided to what extent I agree or disagree with him, the article has sparked a series of thoughts that began with anger and ended with a rather liberating realization. The anger I felt was similar to that engendered by nutritionists who seem to contradict themselves every few years. (Eat lots of pasta – it’s good for you! Oh, wait, we meant whole grain pasta; that white linguini you’ve been scarfing down for ten years is playing havoc with your blood sugar!) Where was Kohn fifteen years ago, when we all embraced rubrics as a powerful tool for evaluating writing and giving our students feedback? Where was he when the Six Trait Writing boom swept through language arts departments from Bangor to Bakersfield and insinuated itself into the CSAP test evaluation process? Surely it didn’t take Kohn this long to decide that rubrics are bad. Did he decide to sit on this knowledge for a while just to mess with us? The maddening thing is, he makes some good points about how rubrics can limit expression, but why wait until now to point this out? Every time an article like this comes along, I despair of ever seeing educational reform succeed. No wonder parents and politicians don’t trust us; every few years we change our minds, and everything we believed in is debunked. Fifteen years ago LPS embarked upon criterion-based graduation requirements, manifested as Direction 2000 at a certain purple-and-gold sister school. Then, the “back-to-basics” school board assumed power, and Direction 2000 was no more. Now, Governor Ritter is ramming through his own version of criterion-based learning. Plus ca change…

At times I find all this back-and-forth especially frustrating, because I thought that by this point in my career, I would know something, have some things figured out. More and more, 21C sessions and articles like Kohn’s make me think of an old Firesign Theater record I have (yes, record, vinyl record), titled Everything You Know is Wrong. How right they were. (I mean, Pluto used to be a planet.) I have to admit, my first inclination was to say, “A pox on you, Alfie Kohn! Why are you telling me this when I will probably teach only a few more years? Why should I abandon a tool that seems to have served me (and my students) well for so long? I declare myself impervious to change! I’m too close to the end! I can just keep on going with what I have and the momentum will carry me through…”


But some of what Kohn said made sense. The more I think about it, the more I wonder about rubrics. Maybe they have been limiting students’ thinking with their left-brained orderliness. (I can’t help thinking Daniel Pink would love Kohn’s article. Just outsource the rubrics and the essays to India, he’d say, and concentrate on creating more creative writing prompts, or, better yet, get the students to create their own.) Meanwhile, in our PLCs, we’re all about rubrics. We’re all about “common assessments” and fitting students into a slot so we can quantify their learning, so we can collect “data,” so we can modify the rubrics, so we can collect more data, and so it goes. Who would dare to side with Kohn at this point and question the slowly growing beast that fascinates us so on occasional Wednesday mornings? Who would be bold enough not only to stop using rubrics (and argue against their use on common assessments), but also, say, grade assignments on a 9 point scale and, rather than posting overall grades, have students derive and justify their own grades? Who would be willing to acknowledge that the evaluation of an essay is based on his own individual judgment and experience with writing, rather than on a list of “murky” adjectives on a rubric?

And here’s where the liberating thought occurs. If I decide that Kohn is right, what have I got to lose by trying to evaluate writing in a different way? If the goal is truly to re-form education, maybe we need to try some outlandish measures, even at a bastion of excellence such as The University on Dry Creek. And it’s not the young, probationary firebrand who needs to shake the tree of knowledge; it’s the seasoned, soon-to-be-superannuated codger. The best time to try new things is in the evening. What’s the worst that could happen – that they’d ask you to retire and not have to get up at 5:30 every morning?