Friday, May 31, 2013

Latin III Exam Experiment

In my Latin III course, where we abandon the traditional textbooks in favor of a reading approach to cover advanced grammar, I ask students to keep an "Running Latin Commentary" (RLC) for all the work that we do together. This RLC is used to record notes on grammar, vocab., style, etc., as we move through our various texts. The "close reading" skills take a while to build, and it's proven challenging to organize too, leaving the paper RLCs not as useful as I think they should be.

With that, I decided to have students keep their RLC notes in a blog, rather than on paper. I'll admit that it took a huge leap of faith to ask 9th graders to keep a blog for the entire year, without having any idea of what to expect. But as I now reflect back on our year, the blog RLC was a huge success, and I'm both very pleased and quite amazed at the quality of work that they've done with their blogs. I sincerely hope that they continue using them, as they move through the cursus honorum of Latin courses.

Over the course of the year, I commented on their posts to help them look at the details that I wanted them to see. But I also gave them total creative control to add any other interesting ideas that occurred to them through their reading. I also encouraged them to read and comment each other's blogs to share ideas. On certain occasions, I gave them other prompts for posts, e.g. reading the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite for comparison with Venus in Cupid and Psyche and in the Aeneid, or comparing the heroic qualities of Aeneas to Tony Stark in Iron Man 3. In other words, the kinds of questions that Classicists like to ask.

As we approached today's final exam, we devoted the last few weeks of the year to reading Cicero's Pro Archia without fussing with grammatical detail to the same degree that we did at the beginning of the year; we just read for fun. In doing so, I saw more examples of deeper understanding of both the Latin language and literature that I'd hitherto seen, and I was very impressed at their ability to understand how prose and poetry differ. One of the biggest and most surprising outcomes of the blog experiment was an overall "looser" approach toward reading Latin.

Next year, I want to encourage more reading and commenting from the outset, and I also want to give more "freeblogging" opportunities to allow them to start making connections sooner and work through ideas that we could follow over the course of the year. And now that we'll have internet connectivity in all our classrooms, I'll even allow them to use their own RLCs on sight quizzes.

In the past, I used to give my Latin III students a final exam with a variety of parts: verb synopsis, vocab., seen reading, some sight reading, and some composition. Frankly, it was a bit of a bear and ultimately, I fear, not the best thing we could have done to cap our year of hard work. I believe that final exams should only help students not hurt them. This year, therefore, given our greater emphasis on sight-reading, I opted for solely sight passages on the final exam: one prose and one poetry passage, for which students could use a dictionary. When wi-fi access will be available everywhere in the school next year, I'll let them use their RLCs too.

It's typically the case that 9th graders take final exams, only to leave and never see them again. Given the new approach to the course we took this year, I thought that the best way to give us closure and a sense of accomplishment would be to grade the exams together. So, right after the exam, I collected those who were available, and I let students grade their own work, while we discussed the passages in detail. I'll catch up on Monday with the others who couldn't stay.

A few weeks earlier, I gave them a sight quiz that they found more difficult that I expected. Rather than grade and return it, I graded a photocopy (without telling them!) and in class handed back the original, which we graded together in the same grading style I use (assigning 1 point per word, with half for meaning and half for function). Once finished, we compared their own evaluation to mine. To our collective surprise, they all graded more harshly that I do, and I think they learned more from attentively looking at their own work than by reading my comments, especially on something they found difficult.

We took a similar approach toward grading their final exams, and in short, they were all quite happy with the outcome. Because there was no set corpus or any other set "study guide" or vocabulary to learn for the exam,, they just read Latin for the sake of Latin, and they even found both the review and the exam to be fun! In the end, they worked hard this year, and I hope that they'll leave campus this afternoon not only knowing their grade, but, much more importantly, knowing what they've accomplished.

I'm very pleased with these experiments, and I'm eager to continue to develop them next year. It'd be fantastic if we could find other Latin III classes interested in similar blog projects so we could share our work. Any interest?

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Caveat Venditor: Pink's To Sell Is Human

I loved Daniel Pink's Drive and found it extremely relevant to many of problems confronting education (cf. some of my thoughts on it), so when +Chris Long suggested his newest book To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others for a #CAedchat summer read, I eagerly jumped right on it.

In To Sell, Pink addresses the techniques that effective salesmen use, after making a compelling case that the majority of us today, especially those in academia, are indeed salesmen. Effective "sales" (in all senses of the word; I'll use it here very loosely) must incorporate attunement, buoyancy, and clarity, Pink argues, and I found his discussions around these three principles illuminating for the way we deal with each other when we're exchanging ideas and opinions.

Briefly, attunement is what's necessary to be a good listener, which I think is right up at the top of the list of valuable leadership skills to have. Additionally, the ability to take the perspective of all involved sides of a given exchange has shown to be more valuable than simply showing empathy (73). To be "buoyant" is, in part, to ask questions to make people think about an idea, rather than make statements, since questions can generate more intrinsic motivation for an idea (103). And clarity involves finding new problems, not solving old ones, and curating our information, not just accessing it (132).

Some other quick notes of interest with regard to teaching that caught my attention:

  • When making a sales pitch, selling an experience is often more effective than the promise of material items (137).
  • Making a partner look good (don't argue!), so that one doesn't feel the other is taking an advantage (198).
  • The best sales are both "personal and purposeful" (210).

All of these features belong in the classroom: We should be selling the experience of education to students, rather than product like grades and stickers, and we should make them feel good about their experiences by allowing them to do interesting things with their learning (e.g. project-based learning, 20% time, etc.). Without personal investment and a clear purpose in learning, our "sales pitches", however well-intentioned, aren't likely to find as much success as we'd like.

Just as importantly, Pink's concepts of sales deserve application to administration and leadership. Next fall, I'm going to assume a joint TIS role with a few other colleagues, when we begin our 1:1 laptop program, and with To Sell in mind, I'm looking forward to paying closer attention to various behaviors in meetings, like perspective, mimicry (75ff.), positive emotions (108), optimism (111), and the different kinds of "pitches" (161ff.) that we use sell our ideas to others. With a little more attunement, buoyancy, and clarity, I'm confident we'll be better equipped to handle the problems we'll certainly face.

First and foremost, I'm going to make it a goal to be a better listener to both colleagues and students in all my dealings with them, with the hopes that we can make our interactions more personal. I'm also going to test out introducing important ideas by asking questions, while striving to make the purpose behind them clear, and I will try to teach my students how to ask better questions and find better problems to solve. I'm going to try to say "yes and..." with positivity (193) as much as possible, rather than "yes, but..." or even "no".

We'll have much more to say on To Sell later this summer in the #CAedchat book club discussion of it, which everyone is welcome to join.

Friday, May 17, 2013

A Shallow Collective?

As I begin my summer reading binge, I've been trying to balance my consumption of pro-technology materials to include anything that offers alternative and/or critical views of the new (e.g. tech.-focused) directions in education. Much like I've argued with questions of the value of foreign language, I think it's healthy to face and even embrace criticism, since it helps us to build a fuller understand of why we do certain things in certain ways through reflection, lest our ideas become dogmatic or myopic.

With that, I recently read Nicholas Carr's The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, followed immediately by Douglas Thomas and John Brown's A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change, which seem to have been written for one another, despite having no apparent knowledge of the other book's existence (other than a single citation in New Culture without any explicit commentary on Shallows). It's proven quite interesting to read both books in succession, since in many respects they occupy entirely different ends of the technological spectrum and can thus be read as criticism of each other in the regard mentioned above.

Carr's Shallows, an "exploration of the Internet’s intellectual and cultural consequences" (cf. this video summary), gives a thought-provoking challenge to those who advocate technology. Carr's thesis is that the increased use and even dependence on the internet is affecting our attention, focus, and deep-thinking skills, and he presents a rather impressive collection of evidence in favor of the neurological consequences of certain technologies. Since finishing it a week ago, I've been thinking more about the broader applications of technology in education in light of his conclusions, and I'll outline just a few of the ideas that I've found interesting.

The first few chapters paint a 2000-year intellectual history of literary culture and the relation to the neuroplasticity of the brain, before he probes the internet's more recent effects on our thinking. One of his main criticisms is that more information necessarily allows less time to use it (Shallows 170), which then leads him to a short and subtle attack against Google's search engine (Shallows 72). And with less time spent in reflection and deep thought, we're unable to achieve a high level of memorization (Shallows 177), since the internet harms "working memory" (Shallows 193) and our attentiveness (Shallows 193-4).

Going even farther, Carr claims that the "offloading of memory" poses a threat to our very culture: "Outsource culture, and memory withers" (Shallows 197). We can even lose our "humanity" by relying so heavily on the internet (Shallows 207, 220), and we pay the price via alienation from each other (Shallows 211).  To my mind, Carr's claims at times tend toward the sensational, but that's not to say that they should be dismissed.

If The Shallows can be read as the critic's cautionary tale against the increased use of technology, then New Culture champions the proponent's response.  For what it's worth, New Culture doesn't privilege technology in its discussion or even discuss very many specific examples of tech. tools.  Instead, it's about, as the title makes clear, the "new culture of learning" that technology and the "fluid infrastructure of the twenty-first century" (New Culture 17) has given us. Nearly everything that Carr offers as evidence for the dangers to thinking that internet brings to the brain finds a response in New Culture, and the two books couldn't present two more contrary views of the cultural value of technology.

The ideas in New Culture are centered around the "collective" environment, where "teachers no longer need to scramble to provide the latest up-to-date information to students because the students themselves are taking an active role in helping to create and mold it, particularly in areas of social information" (New Culture 52).  The new learning collective, then, is far from the solitary experience that Carr describes in The Shallows.

The "new culture of learning about the kind of tension that develops when students with an interest or passion that they want to explore are faced with a set of constraints that allow them to act only within given boundaries" (New Culture 81).  That is to say, taking advantage of the new media in education is more than simply unleashing students on internet; rather, there's a concerted attempt to incorporate innovation, combining structure with freedom (New Culture 48-9).

In the old mod model of education, students learn about world and their learning culture was precisely equal to their environment, within the "intellectual tradition of solitary, single-minded concentration" (Shallows 114); but in the new model, they learn with world (New Culture 38) and their culture emerges from environment (New Culture 37-8). The learning community is constructed such that its members are constantly referencing each other (New Culture 25) and learning from other's experiences (New Culture 29), with the result that they learn more than just "data":  their learning is "personal" and students are thus more invested (New Culture 31), in contrast to being "alienated" by technology (Shallows 211).

It's proven interesting to read these two books in succession, given the seemingly contradictory ideas they propose.  If I have any criticism of my own to levy against The Shallows, it's that Carr is too "traditional" in his outlook. He has overlooked the communal advantage that the internet and social media offer to today's students. Carr openly acknowledges that the world is shifting to the paradigm of digital culture and away from solitary reading and "intellectualism" (Shallows 108), but, aside from the argument against attention loss, it's not clear to me from his conclusions why such a shift can only have negative consequences.

I'm not one to dismiss intellectualism, but I also don't think that the world needs more solitary intellectuals right now. Thomas and Brown claim that "[a]lmost every difficult issue we face today is a collective, rather than a personal, problem" (New Culture 59), and it seems that these sorts of problems that we face and will continue to face can only be effectively addressed through collaboration.

While Carr laments the "outsourcing" of memorization (Shallows 181), Thomas and Brown applaud the shift away from it (New Culture 43). Digital culture allows students to ask more inquiry-based questions like "what are the things that we don't know and what questions can we ask about them?" (New Culture 83), where answers serve as starting points for other questions. I couldn't help but think of Sugata Mitra's "Hole in the Wall" experiment, in which he gave kids in India access to the internet and watched as they collectively taught themselves how to use it. These kids look like anything but automatons who have been "numbed" from overexposure to the internet.

Carr's critical attitude toward Google is patently clear (Shallows 172), as are his beliefs about the price we pay for digitizing the world's libraries.  Thomas and Brown, on the other hand, offer a real-world example whereby Google was used by a neophyte coder to learn from his mistakes by using Google to find solutions and improve his work in the process (New Culture 26).

Though Carr argues that dependence on the internet leads one to lose identity by viewing it as an extension of themselves (Shallows 219), Thomas and Brown believe that digital culture via "collective indwelling" actually helps to create identity by giving students the opportunity to question their relationship with others through "hanging out" (New Culture 101) and by giving themselves more personal agency through "messing around" (New Culture 103). Most of all, "[g]eeking out provides an experiential, embodied sense of learning withing a rich social context of peer interaction, feedback, and knowledge construction enabled by a technological infrastructure that promotes 'intense, autonomous, interest driven' learning" (New Culture 104).  9-year-old Sam illustrated the example of the "new culture" well, in that he is able to take advantage of collective learning not only to improve his knowledge of programming, but to improve his overall understanding of citizenship (New Culture 20-21) — an understated but crucially important result of an effective collective.

In the end, while I disagree some of Carr's conclusions in favor of the ideas in New Culture, he does an excellent job of collecting various studies on brain development and behavior to show how technology can affect our brains. For instance, it's clear that we learn much worse when distracted, as has been shown through various experiments (cf. especially Shallows 133). Carr's challenges to the growing importance of technology allows us to reflect on the purpose behind our choices. Whether beginning a 1;1 program, moving students to an LMS, or even just doing digital media projects, we should be clear about our goals, and we should never use technology simply to use technology. It's up to educators to craft the right kind of collective environment for our students so we don't end up too shallow or too deep.

If interested in the intersection of pedagogy and education, I suggest reading both of these fantastic books.  The #CAedchat summer book club will hold Twitter discussions on each of them over the next few months, where I'll be eagerly looking forward to continuing the discussion about these ideas.