Thursday, March 28, 2013

The infinite possibilities of seven billion brains with one hundred billion neurons a piece

One of the hardest parts of teaching writing is giving feedback. It can take days to accomplish this feat. By the time the stories my sixth graders write are completed and ready to be reviewed, I've already read them several times in order to give encouragement or advice along the way, but I still struggle with feedback. When they compose, my kids have to sit and think, pull ideas from their own minds, commit to them, stand behind them, none of which are easy tasks, even for an old woman like myself. Consequently, when I judge my kids' writing, I know that I'm judging my kids. I want to be honest with them about what works and what doesn't, but I want to be gently honest. I want to be the sort of honest that prods them to improve, not the sort of honest that prompts them to give up on writing altogether. 

Because even if the writing is terrible (and sometimes it's beyond terrible and well into the realm of painful to read), it meant something to my kids. Even if the kid in question protested throughout the process, declaring that he wasn't even really trying, it meant something. And even if the kid defiantly ignores my counsel in favor of what he thinks is the best way to tell the story, I want to support that because I want my kids to have their own ideas, even if I think they're godawful ideas. 

No writing is impersonal. Even when I taught high school and my kids were writing research papers that they absolutely didn't care a thing about, it was personal. Unlike a math test, where the answer is objectively right or wrong, unlike standardized tests where there's only one "best answer" of four, writing is the articulation of the individual's mind, writing is the expression of the infinite possibilities of seven billion brains with one hundred billion neurons a piece firing off more choices, more best answers, than we can conceivably imagine or capture on any sort of test. 

Writing is the artifact of thought. Even thought about something that's not important to me is my thought, a product of my mind, something that can't be blamed on anyone else or credited to anyone else. For that reason, all writing is personal. All writing comes from the individual, is a reflection of the individual. It's not the choice of someone else's best answer; it's the assertion of my own best answer.

And so when I respond to my students, I want to say more than good or bad. I want to make a note of what moved me about the writing (and sometimes I have to really search for it), and I want to offer counsel regarding those places where more work could be done, where the student can make it even better (even if by even better I really mean: well enough that I don't feel like my brain is crawling out of my skull in protest, which is really what I mean at times).

Because I don't want them to hate writing. I don't want them to quit writing. Writing is important. Even if it's not writing anymore. Even if it's emailing or tweeting or posting or some other derivative of the original act of composition, it's still the outward sign of an inward process that is extraordinarily vital not only to the individual but to the society that is dependent upon the individual's ability to create his own ideas.

This is my fear as a teacher. My fear is that education will continue to revolve around the notion that there is only one right answer and that right answer comes from someone else. My fear is that we will move farther and farther from giving students the opportunity to develop their own ideas, to construct their own knowledge, and closer and closer to a group mind that can only function when told how to function by the nearest authority figure.

Making learning personal is something that should be encouraged in schools, in every class, from the earliest grades forward. Making it about forging one's own personal ideas about the world and delivering those ideas to the world's doorstep - be it in the form of a blog, a painting, a brief but powerful tweet, or even in graffiti - is the only way to ensure that we never dwindle down to four choices, only one of which is right. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Be glad your kid's a failure

Years ago in a dusty old bookshop in New Orleans, I found a 1950s self-help book with the title Be Glad You're Neurotic. I wasn't sure whether to buy it, so I stood for a while considering, and then I left it, only to come back a week later and get it anyway (because I'm neurotic). It was worth every penny. I've always thought I was a little nuts, but this guy was saying, "Hey, we're all a little crazy. But the really crazy guys do all the brilliant stuff, so be glad if you're a little weirder than those other bozos." It gave me license to accept some of my idiosyncrasies, to use them rather than try to change them.

Modern parents need a similar sort of book, but I'd call it Be Glad Your Kid's a Failure. I know. I know. Nobody wants a loser kid. Everybody wants the kid with straight As and perfect attendance and blah, blah, blah, but the fact is, failure is a good thing. Failure is how we learn. If a kid never fails, that probably means he isn't learning much.

Counter-intuitive? No. Learning means starting from a place of ignorance and gaining knowledge and insight. How do we come across knowledge and insight? Trial and error. If a kid can make it through a class without once screwing up, he should probably be in a harder class. Learning should be hard. Yes. Hard. A challenge. It should strain a good way. It should stretch an exciting way.

If there's no chance of failure, life is boring. Failure is what gives risk its riskiness. And risk-taking is awesome. If we tell kids that failure is a bad thing, we're implying that risk-taking is a bad thing (unless we know for certain we're not going to fail). If kids grow up afraid to take risks, we're going to have a pretty stale world.

As a teacher, I meet a lot of parents who worry themselves sick every time their kid makes a B. If the kid forgets to turn in homework, we've got to make some sort of concession to fix it. Can't you just give him partial credit?

How about no. Give the kid an opportunity to experience screwing up and then sucking it up so that he doesn't keep doing it (or at least so that he figures out how to deal with it). If we don't let kids fail, if we scoop them up every time they goof and dust them off, they'll never learn how to scoop themselves up. Which is fine if you want them living with you forever (and maybe you do, but I can assure you, as much as I dote on my child, I do not). The brain that solves the problem is the brain that learns. If you solve all of your kid's problems, sweep every error under a rug, who's learning? 

Then again, don't make every failure a traumatic experience. 

My son is a pretty bright kid. When he was in second grade, all the papers he brought home were As, and I got accustomed to it. And then he brought home a 60. My heart stopped. I looked at him with sad disappointment. 

"My boy, my boy! What's happened to you, son? Where have I gone wrong? Didn't I raise you better than this?" 

And then it occurred to me: did I make this much of a fuss over his As? Should it really be this big a deal? Can we just take a look at that paper and figure out what we need to do differently next time instead of the weeping and moaning and gnashing of teeth? And that was the last time I did that because I realized, it happens. And it's okay.

One of my favorite quotes ever was from Henry Ford: Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently. It's a terrible injustice to a child to shield him from failure. Failure happens way too often in life, and it'd be a shame for a kid to get all the way through school, out of the protective embrace of mom and dad, only to encounter his first failure unsupported. Failure should happen early and often. It's healthy. It's how we learn. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Why it's important to teach kids to be horrible writers.

I've been persuading my students to participate alongside me during National Novel Writing Month for a few years now, and every year I hear a significant amount of moaning and groaning about the endeavor. Most recently, my students have been poor, helpless sixth graders, compelled against their wills to write between 1500 and 3000 words of fiction, with a proper story line and all. That's one of the things that crosses over from the writer part of me to the teacher part of me: god-like control over the fates of developing characters.

Here's what I hear the most:

I don't have any ideas.
I'm a terrible speller.
I'm bad at writing. 
I hate writing. Why do we have to do this?

This always strikes me as sad. For one thing, how can sixth graders not have ideas? I've never heard in my life more bizarrely interesting narratives than those shared amongst twelve years olds before class begins. They have ideas, but I think sometimes they protect them from teachers because rather often we spend more time correcting their grammar than acknowledging their thoughts.

I can't help but feel like the self-proclaimed lack of ideas is related to the belief that they're bad writers, and that the belief that they're bad writers is related to their views of spelling and grammar as hurdles to writing success. Sure. It's important that kids develop an understanding of correct spelling and conventional grammar, but those aren't the things that make great writing. Great writing comes from risk-taking. Great writing is a product of the unconventional. Some of the greatest writers have completely tossed aside grammar and spelling in favor of style and voice.

Comma splices can be fixed. But it's hard to repair a kid's belief that somehow his poor spelling translates to terrible ideas. That belief is crippling, not only to the child as a writer, but to the child as a thinker.

This is where I have to get back to fun in the classroom. I'm aware that every minute of every day can't be a trip to Disneyworld. I've even expressed that to my kids on occasion. But that doesn't mean that every day has to be terror-filled lest we forget to dot an i. It doesn't mean that we have to make every assignment a Geneva Convention violation that we pick to pieces until it's a bloody tattered flag of surrender that some kid throws up with the plea, "I can't help it. I'm a terrible writer."

Writing is hard work. Coming up with ideas is no walk in the park (unless walking in the park is how you come up with ideas). Published writers, writers who make money doing it, writers who seem to write without any self-doubt, struggle with writing, believe they're writing is terrible when they're in the midst of it. Chuck Wendig, one of my favorite writers, had a whole Twitter dialogue with Richard Kadrey about the insecurities that most, if not all, writers struggle with. If writing is hard to the best writers, those writers who've been encouraged, whose books have sold, who have evidence that people like them, they really like them, how much harder is it for kids who know that they're ideas are lying at the feet of someone whose job is to tear it apart in the hunt for errors?

This is why I love National Novel Writing Month. This is why I'm utterly committed to it despite the fact that on certain days, after I've read for the third time a tale of a vampire-loving werewolf, I want to gouge my eyes out. 

"Oh, Edward. How I love your sparkly skin."

When my kids start to freeze up, right from the outset, start to offer their defeated protests, I offer them this: I challenge you to write the most horrible story of all times. Create something truly godawful. Something that will make your parents consider committing you to an institution, that will make them utterly resent paying taxes to support the institution of public education. It's okay. I'm looking for the worst, most preposterous story ever written.

And out tumble some of the most original stories that I've ever read. Stories about talking chickens from outer space. Stories that feature me as a secret agent whose headquarters can be found in the bowels of a Kentucky Fried Chicken. Stories of parallel universes where everything is made of candy, teenage spy girls, lots and lots of zombie apocalypses. And, yes, stories of vampire-loving werewolves.

After two days, I can't get them to quit writing. They beg for time to read their stories out loud to one another. They read to an audience of their peers who also love talking chickens and zombies, and they're met with applause and laughter (the good kind). They start to think, "Well, I was trying to write the worst novel in the world, but it looks like I failed at that because these other people like my story." That's a failure that most people can live with.

Is the grammar terrible? God, yes. Can we fix it? Absofreakinglutely. Do we have to fix it right away? Do we have to focus on the spelling and grammar in the initial throes of world-creating excitement? No way. Forget it. 

Because here's the thing about writing. As with every skill, it only improves with practice, and people don't practice things that they hate doing. They practice things that they enjoy. If learning isn't fun, if we can't make writing enjoyable, especially in the early years of school, kids won't practice, and they won't get better at it. If they never have the opportunity to come up with their very own completely ridiculous ideas, with their sometimes godawful ideas, they won't get better at thinking either.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Moss, a tale of terror

Maybe it is a little scary.

Lest you think that I hate the real world because I love technology, I'd like to offer evidence to the contrary because I'm actually a huge fan of it. In fact, just to prove I'm not back-pedaling, I offer this article that I wrote for in 2011.

And here's a little story to illustrate why it's important that students spend at least an equal amount of time engaged with the real world.

I teach a lesson to my students on imagery that focuses on nature writing. As a class, we examine three examples of beautifully descriptive prose: one from Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, one from Thoreau's Walden, and my personal favorite, an excerpt from the Japanese poet Basho's travel narrative Narrow Road to a Far Province. Take a look at this passage:

The fields of Miyagino were thick with bush clover, and I could imagine the sight in autumn.  It was the season when the pieris flowered around Tamada, Yokono, and Tsutsuji-ga-oka. We walked through a pine forest so thick that sunlight could not penetrate at all, and were told its name, Konoshita.

One thing that makes this description evocative is the use of specific details. Bush cloverpieris, and pine call to mind more vivid images than weedsbushes, and trees. Basho was familiar with the names of the things around him, and he used that familiarity to paint incredible pictures in his readers' minds.

While a lot of kids can name every variety of tree found in a Minecraft biome, many are unfamiliar with native flora and fauna. I became more and more aware of this as I pushed students to use precise nouns in their writing. Kids simply couldn't name trees or flowers or birds other than a few standards, like roses and robins. I can only stand so many poems about roses and robins, so I talked with a science teacher who let me borrow a set of tree identification guides, and I decided to spend some time with my kids getting to know the real world more intimately.

I gave the kids a notecard each, and they brought that and a pencil along with them. We left the classroom and wandered over to a more natural area of the school campus where pines, gumball trees, and dogwoods were home to red-headed woodpeckers and flocks of thousands of tree swallows. I instructed them to make detailed notes on their sensory impressions: what they saw, heard, smelled, felt, etc., being as specific as possible regarding the shapes of leaves and the texture of bark so that they could identify specific trees by name using their guides once we got back to class.

One girl comes up to me flanked by a few other students, all of them looking bewildered and more than a little annoyed with the assignment. The leader of the pack said, hand on hip, "Miss Crisp, what do you mean by feeling? There's nothing to feel out here."

"What!?" I replied, "you're nuts. There are lots of things to feel."

Then I did this thing that probably resembled Patty Duke when she played Helen Keller discovering words for the first time. I dragged them around, making them touch different trees to see the difference between the texture of barks, and then I dragged them to a tree with emerald green moss growing at its roots.

Let me stop for a moment and say that I love moss. I love any plant that you can pet. It's like having a cat without the hassle of providing food and water and scooping poop. So I was really excited about the moss. In all likelihood, it was the sort of excitement that maybe should be reserved for things like seeing a famous author at Starbucks.

I pointed to the moss, extolling its virtues, and then I leaned down to touch it, and the girl grabbed my arm, pulling me away from my furry friend, shouting, "No! Don't touch it!" They were terrified that I'd stumbled upon some sort of alien mind sucking sludge and was now leading them to my sludgy alien leader. At least that's the impression they gave me.

This kid (along with her cronies) had never actually been properly introduced to moss. I'm sure they'd seen it, but in all fairness, to the untrained eye, moss could seem less interesting than, say, Temple Run or Cut the Rope. I assured the girls that moss does not kill people, that it is, in fact, a really lovely little organism that feels like velvet and should be petted. They watched as I demonstrated, and then I coerced them into touching the moss themselves (because I can be a bit of a bully sometimes in the name of learning).

Her response? "Ooooh, Miss Crisp! It does feel like velvet! I'm going to go home and tell my mama I learned something today." (If you didn't pick up on the back-handed compliment there, I assure you I did.)

Here's my point. I love technology in the classroom. I believe it is a 21st century teacher's duty to become familiar with it and to try to find ways to integrate it naturally into her classroom at least occasionally because it's here to stay, and we need to find ways to make it work for us and for our kids.

However, I have the capacity to be excited about more than one thing at a time. I can love moss and love Temple Run. I can teach using pencils, notecards, and moss, and I can teach using World of Warcraft, Garage Band, and iMovie. I'm grateful for anything and everything that helps my students not only to learn, but to enjoy learning and to become well-rounded individuals.

End of story.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Undertaker, Flash Fiction Challenge

As if I didn't have a million things to do today, I went ahead and accepted the FLASH FICTION CHALLENGE: Ten Words Will Give You Five posted on Chuck Wendig's terribleminds. My five words were library, ethereal, undertaker, replay, storm, envelope, chisel, and satellite. OK. I can't count. Furthermore, the story makes no sense whatsoever. So there.

The undertaker of the library chiseled words onto the stone slab of the floor. At least he believed they were words. A distant ancestor had been a librarian, a real honest to god book-pusher, but that was far back in the 21st century when books made of pulp still existed in large quantities, or so the undertaker had been led to believe. He’d heard a lot about words, thin threads that bound thoughts to pages where they were annexed once and for all. Even though he’d heard it and so knew it must be true, he never could really imagine thoughts trapped in that way. In his time, thoughts of course were free to go about as they pleased more or less. Trapping them?  Some, he shivered, he was perfectly content to shoo on their way. He couldn’t get rid of them quickly enough.

On stormy evenings of his childhood, stories of these captive thoughts in their multi-dimensional paper worlds that smelled of mildew had been passed down to him in the quiet of the large building where the last of the books had been laid to rest. He wasn't entirely sure what mildew was, but he imagined a scent like dew on the million tiny scarlet florets of Achillea millefolium. Of course, he had to imagine that smell also as there was no longer dew nor did any flowers exist, scarlet or otherwise, at least none that he'd ever seen with his own eyes in the dim emptiness of the once upon a time library.

Once upon a time he’d found something like a flower, a creeping gray thing that bloomed on the wall of a particularly dark, hidden corner of the building. He sniffed it, as he’d heard people once sniffed flowers, and it smelled of age and dampness. It smelled as though tiny bits of the wall that he couldn’t see were unsticking themselves and flying off into the atmosphere, unfortunately sucked up into his nostrils. The scent stuck there for days, causing him to sneeze sometimes, a sensation that startled him.

At the time that he found the flower, he’d been crawling beneath tumble down shelves, scrubbing up centuries old dust with the rough, gray cloth of his pants as he went. The shelves, they’d once been colossal walls unto themselves, leaned against one another, the dark amber wood splintered in some places, precariously balanced in others. They formed a labyrinth there in the library, a broken down tunnel that went nowhere in particular, but it provided the undertaker with something like adventure. Adventure had passed through his mind on many occasions. It seemed to be something they all thought of. Perhaps some had even experienced it. He supposed it must be so.

He replayed these adventures in his mind, which was easy enough thanks to the satellite that regularly passed overhead, syncing his mind with the minds of a million others. Perhaps a million. It seemed that way, given all of the stories. The satellite had been circling for a millennia or more backing up the stories that gathered there, sucking them up the way that the undertaker had sucked up the pieces of the wall as they attempted to escape, even spreading them to other minds in places he knew of only because their minds were also synced, allowing them all, from their respective haunts to be enveloped in a universe of ethereal stories of one another.

Still, even with all of the stories, stories that reached back as far as any mind could and much farther to the minds of people long gone, the undertaker didn’t recall how the shelves had fallen. It must have been during an electrical storm that scrambled the satellite, making the memory, or the story of the memory, short out some time ago. He pieced together alternate theories of the shelves’ demise, stitching together other sentences from other stories that passed from mind to satellite to mind.

Sometimes he postulated giants with flaming red hair and hairy chests had trekked through the library, pushing shelves out of the way as they went. Sometimes visitors from another planet, little green men in hovering chrome spacecrafts, dashed down the hulking shelves with searing red lasers.

Both, he knew, must be wrong, as there wasn’t a door large enough to fit a giant through nor were there any holes in the ceiling that seemed indicative of laser blasts, though there were several holes in the ceiling that suggested a thousand or so years of wear and tear. The holes simply gaped in places at the paper white sky, framing every so often the round ball of sunlight as it floated back and forth, and sometimes, the undertaker thought, the holes might also frame the satellite.

The undertaker chiseled as he thought, chiseled funny squiggles that he hoped represented all of the books buried beneath the stone slabs as well as all of the stories that floated in the ether, gathered up by the satellite and passed around like communion wine. He felt the million other minds peer over his shoulder, holding their breaths, wondering, as he did, if he was getting this thing right.

Feeling his anxiety as he struggled to capture their thoughts, all of their thoughts, not wanting to omit any one, some of the minds, in gratitude, left his shoulder and dove deep into the sea of their shared stories, searching for something akin to this moment, some sunken treasure. They were ready to helpfully retrieve it and bring it to him for comparison. Down, down, down, they dove, snatching up words from a dark mire of silty stories that settled on the hard bedrock of their remembered history. They shot back up to the top, excitedly surfacing in his mind – the satellite must be near – with a memory of another man chiseling in a dark, dim room, chiseling the first words ever used to bind down thoughts, and it was no easier an undertaking then.

The Ezana Stone, A. Davey

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Seven Nation Army: music for an epic battle

Sometimes a writer has to send her protagonist off to fight nasty gods and monsters. In my case, the protagonist was a very average, highly unmotivated teenage boy named Charlie. Charlie had managed to get through fifteen years without much conflict by keeping his head low, but then I came along and ruined it for him. I plucked him right up out of his happy if humdrum existence and deposited him in a parallel world, ordering him to slay a few legendary beasts.  (I can't even stop myself from bedeviling imaginary kids. That's how strong the teacher force is with me.)
It wouldn't have been fair to send him off without an anthem to get him pumped up, and the White Stripes' Seven Nation Army had just the right driving rhythm and young punk fierceness to egg Charlie on to do the rash and reckless sorts of things that I wanted him to do. 
Here's a part of the scene it inspired. If you read while listening to the song, you will be in my head. Your call.
A clear wide path, as broad as an interstate highway in Charlie’s world, opened up in the field as they approached the forest.  Enkidu, who had spent so much time in the forests surrounding Uruk tracking animals, pointed out the way that the grass lay flat to the ground. 
“Humbaba,” he said.
Charlie nodded, and they stepped together onto the path.  
The cedar forest rose ahead of them, climbing the face of a colossal mountain, much taller than those Charlie had climbed the previous nights. Its towering trees cast a shadow for a mile around the base of the mountain in every direction.  It was surrounded on either side by a deep ravine that looked as if it had been ripped into the earth with talons, and when Charlie looked over the edge, he saw piles of bones – some animals, some human, all broken and scarred.  Thorny thickets grew along the edge of the forest, making it difficult to find any passage into the heart of the woods save the one left by Humbaba.
An ear-splitting roar erupted in the forest, not far from where they stood, shaking the trees and sending birds scattering into the sky.  Adrenalin raced through Charlie’s blood, and he pushed ahead, knowing what he had to do.  Knowing that, at least for now, his destiny was written in stone.  Literally. 
Another roar vaulted through the cedars, closer, ricocheting through the trees, so powerful that it shattered the base of one of them, splitting it in two so that it fell, crashing through the forest and blocking the path of Charlie and Enkidu. 
They clambered over the fallen tree, and moved towards the noise, knowing that now their path out of the forest was blocked.  Climbing back over the tree with a living Humbaba breathing down their necks would be an impossibility.  
A rumbling from deep within the forest moved towards them, gaining momentum, accelerating the closer it got, sending trees crashing down in all directions so that splinters of cedar flew through the spaces around them like daggers. 
Charlie stopped and held his hand back to stop Enkidu.  “He’s coming for…”
Before he could finish his thought the last veil of the forest was torn away, and the blood rushed from Charlie’s head.  Fear overtook him, despite adrenalin and the knowledge that it was his destiny to defeat Humbaba.  A beast twice the size of Gilgamesh and Enkidu towered over them, his head the head of a lion, mouth bloody and eyes glowing yellow.  His body was the body of a colossal man, a giant, and his hands were tipped with claws like gore-stained swords.  A tail emerged from behind him, with a life of its own, the coiling body and hooded head of a cobra with its wicked venomous teeth bared.
“Who is it that comes into the forest of cedar, the home of the gods?” the voice of the beast bellowed around them, causing Charlie’s flesh and bones to vibrate.  “You come not at the request of my master Enlil, and so you must come at the goading of Irkala, goddess of death, who would have you as her slaves.”
He lunged at the two, his claws raised, but Charlie and Enkidu dashed to either side, swinging their swords and grazing Humbaba’s sides.  Humbaba turned and righted himself.
“A cord made of three ropes cannot be cut,” Enkidu said.  “Your claws will do you no good today, Humbaba.”  He lunged at Humbaba, falling into a roll as he passed the monster’s leg, flinging his dagger so that it spun through the air and pierced Humbaba’s chest, but it was no more than a bee sting to Humbaba.
“I have ten razors, and I see only two ropes.  Where is your third?” he said, pulling the dagger from his chest and hurling it toward Enkidu.  He dodged the dagger, but too late, it passed through the flesh of his shoulder, and he could feel the poison of Humbaba’s blood burn in the wound. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

A pep talk that will make you want to move back in with your mom and dad.

This is it. I just have a few more things to say about Reading, Writing, and Video Games, and then I'm moving on to a fight scene between a high school kid and an ancient, snarling beast. No, kids. It's not about your English teacher on exam day. Sorry.

Point Nine:

“Imagine if kids poured their time and passion into a video game that taught them math concepts while they barely noticed, because it was so enjoyable,” Bill Gates said last year. Do we want children to “barely notice” when they develop valuable skills? Not to learn that hard work plays a role in that acquisition? It’s important to realize early on that mastery often requires persevering through tedious, repetitive tasks and hard-to-grasp subject matter. 

You're a man after my own heart, Bill Gates.

Due to the plasticity of the brain during infancy, babies are able to learn and develop more in their first two years than they'll ever be capable of again. And they have no clue they're learning. It just happens. Evidently, you can learn even when you have no idea what you're doing. Oh, wait. Isn't that the whole idea of learning? By the way, there's also evidence to suggest that playing some video games improves the brain's plasticity. 

As to persevering through tedious, repetitive tasks and hard-to-grasp subject matter, spend an hour playing World of Warcraft. Nothing could be more tedious, and yet kids stick with it. Why? Why are kids willing to endure hour after hour of game play that gets progressively harder and harder when they can't stay awake for a forty-five minute class?

Obviously boobs and blood are huge motivators in certain sets, but there's more to it than that. Video game creators - creators of virtually all entertainment media - want kids to want to play their game and be happy with it. They make the games interactive, colorful, exciting, and fun. They give kids independence, autonomy, choices, and rewards. And boobs and blood. (I'm not suggesting teachers should come attired in fake blood and ripped blouses, huge breasts heaving, just to be clear.) 

Gryphon Flying Mount by salimfadhley

Do the purveyors of education take the same interest in kids' motivations and desires? Are kids empowered in classrooms the way that they are in video games? Are they challenged? Are they given the opportunity to fail and figure out why they failed on their own without someone else pointing it out to them?  

I'm not suggesting that technology is the only way that kids can be engaged in classrooms. I've had kids thoroughly engaged with notebook paper and sidewalk chalk. Of course, we were making paper airplanes with the notebook paper and defacing property with the sidewalk chalk, but it was all in the name of learning...and fun. Because there's a false dichotomy in the notion that learning cannot or should not be fun. One does not, nor should it, exclude the other. They enhance one another and mutually sustain one another.

I swear, I'm nearly done. Point Ten:

How’s this for a radical alternative? Let children play games that are not educational in their free time. Personally, I’d rather my children played Cookie Doodle or Cut the Rope on my iPhone while waiting for the subway to school than do multiplication tables to a beep-driven soundtrack. Then, once they’re in the classroom, they can challenge themselves. 

That is a terrible radical alternative. In fact, it's not an alternative at all. In most cases, it's the current reality. Happy at home; miserable at school.  

Kids should be learning at home and at school. And they should be enjoying it at home and at school. They should be challenged by their parents, and they should be challenged by their teachers.  

And finally. Point Eleven:

Deliberate practice of less-than-exhilarating rote work isn’t necessarily fun but they need to get used to it — and learn to derive from it meaningful reward, a pleasure far greater than the record high score.

I'm imagining a teacher giving this inspiring lecture: "Hey, kid. You hate school? Bored? Well, you're really going to hate the rest of your life then. Rote drudgery and tedious boredom all the way, pumpkin. But never fear, I'm here to show you how to gain a sense of satisfaction from surviving yet another day of bleak existential crisis. So let's get ready to plod away on those worksheets. Trust me, mountains of paperwork that mean absolutely nothing to you are on your horizon."

Fortunately, we humans aren't in the habit of getting used to things that are less-than-exhilarating. Hence all the progress. The majority of Americans no longer work from dusk until dawn at back-breaking jobs that were foisted on them, like it or not. Compared to those kids for whom the traditional school calendar was tailored, the ones for whom summer vacation meant topping tobacco in the boiling sun, I'd say we're living proof that we don't have to get used to work that doesn't thrill us. 

Despite a terrible economy, the Kauffman Foundation's 2012 report on entrepreneurial activity noted that more than 6.5 million new businesses were started in the United States in 2011. Over half of those businesses, by the way, were technology-driven, with internet publishing and broadcasting representing over 25% of the total and video games and e-commerce over 18%. (FYI, 2012 is the year of exhiliration with hot sauce being in the top 10 growing businesses on this year's report.) My point here is that today, people who have ingenuity and imagination can create their own jobs, jobs that they'll love.

Let's not tell our kids that they need to get used to unsatisfying work. Let's make school a place where they can learn to collaborate and innovate, to think critically and to raise questions that we have never considered ourselves. Let's show them that there are alternatives for people who enjoy learning, who aren't afraid of change. Let's show them how far we've come and push them to go much farther, to refuse the limits that even we set for them.

Because this poor old teacher from ye olde days:

Poor old Erma

is a far cry from this twenty-first century teacher. And that's because learning is fun to me, and I want it to be fun for my kids. I like to come to school every day, and I want my kids to like it too. Making it fun, even when it's hard, is what makes it exhilarating, and I want my kids to know that.

Yours truly

Tomorrow, on an entirely different note: Soundtrack Saturday! My vote for best song to listen to while  penning an epic battle scene and the battle scene it made my son cry with fear, which sort of rocked my world.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Emily "Brawlin" Bronte V. Tom "The Sandman" Sawyer: Using video games to market education.

Before I continue with my ramblings about Reading, Writing, and Video Games, let me clarify something that I said yesterday. To quote myself: The day a teacher is unwilling to learn something new to support her students is the day she needs to retire. I did not say: the day a teacher doesn't use technology, she should retire.

The day a science teacher refuses to learn new, proven scientific facts because she prefers the old ones that she's gotten used to, she should retire. The day an English teacher refuses to read a new book that engages students because she still thinks Shakespeare is the only thing worth reading, she should retire. The day any of us refuse to learn and expand our own knowledge and understanding in service to our children, we should retire because the most important thing a teacher teaches is how to learn.

Moving forward. Point Four:

News Corporation plans to introduce in schools a new tablet computer ...Take-home games for the device include one in which Tom Sawyer fights the Brontës. (Lest children avert their attention to the actual books.)

To suggest that students who play a game inspired by literature will somehow limit their exposure to literature is just plain backwards. Most kids wouldn't read Tom Sawyer anyway; they'd read the SparkNotes. Kids who are exposed to literature through video games at least stand a chance of having their curiosity piqued. I'd say they're far more likely to develop an interest in literature than they would otherwise.

Like it or not, we're in a brave new world with options. That means that even Shakespeare needs good press to beat out the competition. Good press agents know to target their audience. If the audience isn't buying their wares, press agents don't say, "Well, they're stupid if they don't like this campaign. This is the same campaign we've been using for twenty years, and it's always worked before, so we're not changing it now." They don't approach marketing that way because they'd lose business.

Literature has lost business. Video games are the new marketing.

So all I'm going to say about this is: a battle royale between Tom Sawyer and the Brontes? Bring it on.  I freaking love it.  

My money's on the Bronte sisters. They got their game faces on.

Then there's this.  Point Five:

Alarmists warn that schoolchildren won’t excel in the i-economy if they aren’t steeped in technology. 

Alarmists are abso-freaking-lutely right. I doubt any alarmist would suggest that children should be steeped in technology twenty-four hours a day. You can steep a tea bag for fifteen minutes and get a perfectly good cup of tea. Extrapolate.

And this. Point Six:

Many schools boast of their iPad-to-kindergartner ratio on the theory that children should learn early on how to use a touch pad. Really? Any parent with an iPhone can tell you how long it takes a small child to master the swipe.

If a small child can master the swipe and every other app on an iPhone by the time they're three (I've seen it, people) and yet fails standardized tests by the time they're in the third grade, then the folks at Mac need to be giving the prevailing powers in educational policy-making some lessons on how to design curriculum and assessment.

Point Seven:

Many of the games marketed as educational aren’t as much fun as video games children would play if left to their own devices. 

Then we need to make better educational games. 

Point Eight:

But the added bells and whistles still make it harder for them to focus on plain old boring work sheets and exams. Imagine how flat a work sheet would seem after a boisterous round of Zap the Math From Outer Space.

Kids like bells and whistles. I don't know what to tell you. I'll wear bells and whistles in class if it'll keep my kids' attention. I'll also incorporate technology because I know they like it.  

And also: I hate worksheets. I hated worksheets before Zap the Math from Outer Space was even born. Kids should not have to endure worksheets just because they somehow look more academic than Zap. If they learn from Zap, give them Zap. Worksheets are flat. And boring. We're better than that in the 21st Century.

I promise I will be done with this tomorrow, and then I'm going to talk about how much I love things other than technology. But I still feel compelled to address this cheery exhortation to students:

Deliberate practice of less-than-exhilarating rote work isn’t necessarily fun but they need to get used to it — and learn to derive from it meaningful reward, a pleasure far greater than the record high score.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

What NASA and that kid drooling on his desk in your class have in common.

Yesterday, I began writing this blog in response to an article from the NY Times that addresses technology in classrooms. The author clearly feels very strongly about the detriments of technology to education, devoting one short paragraph of seventeen to its usefulness in certain scenarios. I feel very strongly that technology can revolutionize education, making learning relevant, applicable, and enjoyable for American students. In fact, I feel so strongly about it that I needed more than seventeen paragraphs. I needed the limitless boundaries of the internet. This is where I left off. Let me get my umbrella hat back on and head to the street corner.

NASA Visualization Explorer by NASA Goddard Photo and Video

Point Two:

In a 2012 survey of elementary and middle school teachers by Common Sense Media, 71 percent of teachers say entertainment media use has hurt students’ attention spans “a lot” or “somewhat.” 

I'd like to know where the 71% got the research to support this claim. Had they done studies on their own students? Or could it be that we need a scapegoat for kids being bored to tears by a curriculum that insists teachers teach to multiple choice tests in non-interactive environments? 

Because here's the thing, and I'm going to focus on video games since that was the specific entertainment media targeted by the author of this piece, there's evidence that suggests that some video games actually support the brain processes that focus visual attention and inhibit distractions. A study done by the University of Toronto found that action video games can improve selective visual attention. Another at the University of Rochester in the US found that gamers are able to filter out irrelevant information and spot targets in a cluttered scene more quickly than non-gamers. study at NASA is even using video games to help improve the attention span of people of all ages. NASA chose video games for this study because video game-like simulations had been effective in training pilots to remain focused while in flight. They chose the Extended Attention Span Training (EAST) system - that's million dollar NASA-speak for really expensive video game - because pilots aren't using scrap paper and scan-trons to navigate jets. They're using technology, like the majority of our students will in their future jobs.

On the other hand, Christopher Ferguson of Texas A&M and T. Atilla Ceranoglu of Harvard Medical School have indicated that research done to prove video games are bad for attention spans were based predominately on the say-so of teachers. And we already know what 71% of the teachers think about it. Furthermore, most studies that suggest students' attention spans are harmed by video games don't take into account the fact that many of the children had problems focusing prior to exposure to video games, either because they were bored, they were preoccupied by situations outside of the scope of their classrooms, or because they were biologically pre-disposed to attention disorders.  

Kids who are bored to tears in classrooms come alive while playing video games because video games provide novelty and challenge (unlike the traditional school model). Video games don't make you start all the way over at the beginning if you screw up a couple of times (unlike the traditional school model). Video games don't force you to endure the same scene, the same characters, the same dialogue over and over and over again (unlike the traditional school model). Video games only get harder as gamers gain the skills they need to progress (unlike the traditional school model). Video games don't force you to stay at the level of other gamers until they gain the skills they need to progress; you can move up as soon as you're up for it (unlike the traditional school model). Video games don't consider fun to be a four letter word (unlike the traditional school model.) And P.S. traditional school model, I can do the math: it's not a four letter word.  

Point Three:

The findings have had no apparent effect on palpable enthusiasm for interactive teaching. When experienced teachers express skepticism about the value of computer games in school, they’re often viewed as foot-draggers or change-resistant Luddites. A 2012 Project Tomorrow report (paid for in part by the technology industry), found that only 17 percent of current teachers believe technology helps students deeply explore their own ideas.

That screwy 28% just will not listen to reason. You can see them. So excited. Nauseatingly giddy over innovation and change.  With their fancy ideas about computers and games and robots that will eventually bring on the apocalypse, mark my word! Their abominable enthusiasm for interactive teaching! Gone are the happy days when you could just stand up in front of a class full of sheepish clones and tell them what to think and what to write. Now we've got to interact with them? What is the world coming to? Send these hippies back to wherever they came from and let's get back to the business of scantrons - safe, easy scantrons.

Damn right they're viewed as foot-dragging, change-resistant Luddites.  What I especially love about this is that last statistic: only 17 percent of current teachers believe technology helps students deeply explore their own ideas.  Only 17%.  And we know that the minority can never be right.  I'm looking at you, Copernicus, you ill begotten upstart. 

However, there's a key word here: current.  Seventeen percent of current teachers don't think technology provides students with opportunities to explore their own ideas.  Let's look at the whole quote that the author cherry picks from the report by Project Tomorrow:

Only 17 percent of current teachers believe technology can help students deeply explore their own ideas, compared to 59 percent of incoming teachers

I can't tell you how surprised I am to find that new teachers are less jaded than veteran teachers.  Because I'm not a bit surprised.  I've seen it first-hand.  I've heard it all.  "I've been teaching twenty years without technology, why should I have to learn it now?"

Because you're a freaking teacher.  That's why.  I am in no way suggesting that all teachers must use technology all the time, but they absolutely must wrap their minds around the fact that their students will be steeped in technology in their future lives, as they are right now.  If we are not prepared to understand the world they are entering, to prepare ourselves to prepare them, then we are not fit to teach.  If we're unwilling to even consider the possibility of using technology because we didn't have it when we were growing up, we're completely out of touch with reality.  If I could only have what my mother had and she could only have what her mother had and so on back, we'd all still be sitting around a fire trying to figure out how to pick it up without burning ourselves. The day a teacher is unwilling to learn something new to support her students is the day she needs to retire.  Period.  

Fortunately even with the minimal math skills accrued in my years in traditional, utterly dull math classes, I'm able to pull together enough brain power to know that 76% of the teachers (those inspired incoming teachers and those inspiring veterans) have got it going on.  That's not a bad number.  Not as good as it should be, but not terrible.

And I'm going to leave you with that positive thought until tomorrow because there's still more.  Here's where I'll start:

Moving forward. Point Four:

News Corporation plans to introduce in schools a new tablet computer ...Take-home games for the device include one in which Tom Sawyer fights the Brontës. (Lest children avert their attention to the actual books.)

Because everyone knows we're only able to enjoy one form of media at a time.