Should Students Choose?

Happy new year! Over the holiday break, one of my colleagues sent out a clutch of links followed by a thought-provoking question:

Below are a few articles related to my new quandary as an English teacher: Should students choose their own books?  I struggle with forcing a student to read.  I know it too often leads to a dislike of reading or the use of Cliffs Notes, instead of reading at all.

I thought about this for a few days, and I found myself having some pretty strong feelings on this subject. If you’re interested–and if you’d like to join the conversation!–read on.

So, should students choose? Short answer: sometimes. But maybe not in high school English class.

Longer answer: sometimes. I love the moment we’re in for education. I love that the rate-limiting step for achievement is less and less about access to information. The power of schools is no longer that we’re the keepers of all of the information. Schools like ours, though, remain powerful, because we are curators and stewards of information.

I think it’s critical that we not mistake our students’ ingenuity for knowledge. When I was fifteen, I hated the Odyssey with an unending passion. I thought it was the stupidest thing in the world to read it. Years later, I discovered that that reading experience informed and shaped my experiences reading other books. Because I’d read the Odyssey, I got the jokes in other books. I knew the references. Years after that, I found myself minoring in classics and reading the Odyssey again–in Greek. That’s a pretty unlikely path, I know, but it suggests that I–like most of our students–had no idea what was worth reading at school. I didn’t know that as a fifteen-year-old, but my teachers knew better. And generations upon generations of teachers knew better.

My Edward Said-reading, postcolonial-lit-studying self loves the idea of challenging the canon and allowing our students to stray beyond traditional ideas of what’s valuable to read. However, as a college preparatory institution, we have a responsibility to our students to give them a basis in the kind of reading that their professors are going to expect them to show up with. We also have a responsibility to our institution: if we’re truly preparing all of our students to be scholars, we have to equip them with experience in the canon and experience in how to grapple with it in class discussion, close reading, and analytical writing. It’s good to allow students to have autonomy about their education–the twenty percent project is a terrific example of this sort of opportunity. There are things that are fundamentally valuable to read, though, and I don’t want to deprive our students of contact with those works of art because they as teenagers don’t grasp the books’ value. Not every kid is going to love every book we read. Not every kid is going to love math or chemistry either, but that doesn’t mean we should throw out the unit on logarithms or thermodynamics.

The other way that we as teachers add value is in that shared experience of reading a book. I know that I read differently when I’m preparing to read and discuss than when I’m reading only for myself. There’s something nice and appropriately community-oriented about how we do things in our particular school: everybody reads Hamlet. Everybody reads the Odyssey. While we have honors and AP and regular classes, there’s significant overlap in the curriculum, unlike what many of us experienced in our own high school days. I like that there are some shared touchstones for our community that don’t separate people by intellectual ability. Though we have some students who struggle mightily with Shakespeare and with many of the other things they read, I don’t want to deprive any student of that shared experience. We never know what seeds we’ve planted. For that reason, I think it’s critical to preserve major elements of teacher-dictated curriculum, especially for literature.

So far, this is what our students can expect in college: to show up in a classroom with a more-senior leader and to be expected to talk about and ultimately write about a book’s content and import. That’s fundamentally a task they have to do alone, and it would be ideal if every student could pick their own book to read, read it critically, and then meet one-on-one with an expert teacher to discuss the book at length and in depth. Unfortunately, the structure of our school day and the structure of our school isn’t currently set up to handle that. In our school, one way this could work would be to carefully curate a list of books and to construct reading groups. This would require a lot of legwork on the part of the teacher, including choosing the books, organizing the groups, guiding discussions, choosing writing prompts, and grading papers. It’s a great idea, but it’s tough to do at scale. From a volume perspective alone, it makes sense to scale that experience to our small classes and to have all students reading the same book at the same time. It’s less personal to be sure, but it’s still fundamentally a valuable thing to do.

Additionally, the greater issue that may need addressing with high school students may not be solved by giving them more choices. In a world of selfies and self-promotion, we may be serving a greater purpose by dictating that they have to read this thing, at this time. Learning where freedom can exist within structure is a great skill for them to learn, and it may prepare them for a college experience where they are once again called upon to do tasks they didn’t elect to do.

If the goal of letting students choose the books they read is to engender a love of reading in our students, I’m not sure that that achieves our goal of preparing them for college. I’m afraid that that task may be more the province of elementary or middle school rather than high school. High school students are so over-scheduled and necessarily college-prep-focused that 1) I’m not sure that most of them take time to reflect on enjoyment as an end unto itself, and 2) as much as I think that’s terrible, I’m not sure that changing the books they read in literature classes will address that larger cultural problem.

To pull off real change, it would mean fundamentally altering how we do school. I like that idea a lot. However, in a world with limited school days and a whole lot of books they should have read before they show up for college, I’m drawn to exposing them to as much canonical literature as humanly possible, with as much class discussion and writing as possible. If that makes me a dinosaur, so be it.

On Writing By Hand

Earlier this week, I was working on my requests for rooms for final exams. I’ve been fortunate to be able to use the computer lab as an “extended time suite” for the past few years, and it’s worked well as a large space for many students to test. The computer lab is perfect for most exams: the tables are big, the computers are big enough to block students’ views of one another but slim enough to be pushed aside.

The trickiest exam to organize is always the English test: we have some students who have an accommodation to do all of their writing using a computer, so they definitely need to have computers. However, if the English faculty decides that they want students to type an essay for their final, things suddenly get complicated. While every student has an iPad, very few students are adept at using them to type at length. There are a total of 86 computers available: 40 in the lab, 40 on laptop carts, and 6 desktop computers in the library. We have almost 200 students. 

When I surveyed the English faculty about their technology needs, it started to look like every sophomore, junior, and senior was going to need a computer, leaving us still at least 50 machines short. I went to our head of school, Rachel Simpson, to discuss this. What should we do? What would be most beneficial and fair to our students?

Rachel had a great idea: she suggested we take a step back and think about what we’re really trying to do here. As a college-preparatory school, what obligations do we have to our students as we prepare them for college-style exams? If we know that all of them will have to write essays by hand on the SAT and ACT, is it worth giving them practice on this skill while we can?

We know for sure that the SAT and ACT are going to still have handwritten components for at least the next year (see yesterday’s post), but we were less sure about the state of affairs in college. So I went to Facebook and asked:

Stay tuned to get notifications all day long.

Stay tuned to get notifications all day long.

The results were astonishing. For those of my Facebook friends who’d recently been in graduate school, computers were the order of the day. Everything was written on computer, and most exams were of the take-home variety.

For my cousins and former students who responded–all of whom graduated from high school in 2007 or later–the results were overwhelming. Every single person said they had taken exams exclusively by hand with paper and pen or pencil. This was remarkable to me because of the range of schools represented in this sample. They included:

  • Biola University
  • Boston University
  • Michigan State University
  • Princeton University
  • Purdue University
  • Texas A&M University
  • Trinity University (TX)
  • United States Naval Academy
  • University of Central Florida
  • University of Edinburgh
  • University of Michigan
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • University of Notre Dame (IN)
  • University of Texas at Austin
  • Vassar College

Additionally, the range of majors represented weren’t just a bunch of English majors. (Though I definitely tried to influence all of them to be English majors in the first place; believe me.) There were engineers, pre-med biology majors, history majors, business majors, and music performance majors. For all students, the answer was overwhelming: everyone wrote every exam by hand.

As a college preparatory institution, one of our obligations is–very simply–to prepare our students for the academic challenges they’ll face in college. While we may transition to a digital solution in the future, the state of the art right now is that students are still using pens and pencils to record their responses for cumulative written exams in college. Additionally, the essay portion of the SAT will remain handwritten at least until the spring of 2016. We owe it to our students to given them some practice with those experiences.

For students who have the accommodation to use a computer for writing, they’ll be using computers–that’s non-negotiable. However, for students without that accommodation, we’re choosing to make their exams a learning experience both in terms of content (the information they’re being tested on) and in form (the way that they’re being tested).  For now, our students will write their essays by hand.

More Summer Adventures: “An American Reader” goes digital

The current textbook for the eleventh-grade English course isn’t a textbook at all. Instead, it’s a carefully curated collection of images and texts that introduces our students to the history of American literature. All of this was collected by Karen Randall, now-retired head of the English department. It was a labor of love, to be sure, and a terrific resource for her students. Its only weakness was its medium: “An American Reader” was a copy-shop spiral-bound notebook. It was tattered and torn by the end of the year, and some of the texts inside were photocopies generations old. The thing was full of great resources, but some of them were very hard to read.

Earlier this year, Convent English teacher Julia Arce and I had a brilliant idea. Ms. Arce has taken over teaching the Junior American Literature course, and we were talking about ways to build upon this great textbook. We’re a 1:1 iPad school, after all, and the juniors now all have iPads. We wondered: what if we took “An American Reader” digital? 

This is a great option for a lot of reasons. First of all, most of the resources in the reader are in the public domain. That means we can include them for our students without violating copyright laws. Secondly, this means that our students can use the built-in accessibility features of the iPad to help them read: just by selecting text on screen, the full text of Patrick Henry’s “Give me Liberty or give me Death!” speech can be read aloud. Finally, and most intriguingly, going digital would open up amazing possibilities for adding resources. What if we embedded audio of Ms. Arce reading the poem? What if we embedded a video of Ms. Arce explaining the class’s final project?

I started work on this today and Ms. Arce and I will continue work on this throughout the summer. I don’t have much to show for it yet, but it’s an exciting way to reshape our school’s curriculum. I’m thrilled to get to help find ways to make a great resource even more accessible for all Convent students.

Today’s Adventure: iPad Workshop with Shelley Haven

I’m back in the Flood Mansion for the next two days in a great workshop led by Shelley Haven, a trainer and consultant who focuses on the use of assistive technology. Her two-day workshop will offer special insights for how to use built-in and specialized apps on the iPads to help all learners learn more strategically, efficiently, and effectively. While these insights are critical help for our students with learning differences. I’m here with colleagues from all four schools and it should be a fun two days. I’ll update my blog and my Twitter feed with any exciting insights we come across. Happy summer to all!

Teacher Inservice: What we do when you’re not here

Mr. Luna and Ms. Denny explore the iPad at the May CSH/SHHS inservice day.

Mr. Luna and Ms. Denny explore the iPad at the May CSH/SHHS inservice day.

The high school faculties are on campus today for an inservice while all of our students are away enjoying the sunshine. (We’ll do the same later, I’m sure.) We’re spending the morning sharing knowledge about Google apps and iPad best practices. It’s an exciting way to learn: rather than bringing in an outside speaker, Mr. Farrell explained this morning, we’re drawing upon the expertise within our school and taking the time to share the things that we’ve seen work well on our campus.

CSH Service Opportunities!

Many people have been asking me about great summer service opportunities. There are a variety of sites you can check out. First, try the Service Learning page on our own school website, which is linked here. There are many ongoing and one-time service opportunities listed there that could be helpful.

For one-time opportunities, see the calendar on that page: there are tons of great opportunities to help, like at this weekend’s SF Interfaith Winter Shelter Walk, Miller’s Mile, and through next week’s SHHS spring blood drive. All of these opportunities involve students from SHHS and are great opportunities for our schools to work together in service.

If there’s a particular place in the city that you’re interested in helping, feel free to visit their websites directly and feel empowered to call on the phone! Volunteers love to hear from people who want to help, and they are frequently interested in finding ways to connect high school students to their agencies and organizations.

You can also use the Community Service Day guide as a resource. All of the contact information for the sites we visited is listed there. Community Service Day Guide

If you have questions or need help finding a place to serve, come see me and we can search together. I’m happy to help.