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Month: August 2008 (page 1 of 3)

schooling: thinking costs, thinking benefits

This week in my composition course, I suggested to the students that there may be more costs to their education than tuition alone. I’m trying to use education as a critical category of discussion throughout the semester. The major reading and writing of the course will explore the aims of education. In the past, it’s always been a part of my courses but not made explicit. Student (and teacher) behavior often bothered me, but this time, instead of being bothered by it, I can be fascinated by it and make it the very topic of discussion.

Instead of being bothered by [student behavior], I can be fascinated by it.

So, we’ve begun the conversation this week with a lesson designed to get them thinking critically about their own educational/schooling experiences. (I’m using the terms education and schooling synonymously for the time being, but I believe the two things to be very different, in deed. I hope my students will come to see this soon too.) Here’s how I ran the class:

  1. As students walked in, I had them read Ken Macrorie’s “The Poison Fish” and prepare answers to the following questions: What is engfish and what are its two varieties?, What causes engfish?, Is it a possible result of our educational or schooling experiences?, What can we do about it?, What word or phrase could you use to describe the opposite of engfish?
  2. slide show to start a discussion on the costs and benefits of education

  3. After a few minutes, we begin the conversation of these questions. As they come to understand that engfish really is a kind of fake writing, I lead them to consider the possibility that school might ask us to become something we are not. Is their a transformative power to education? (By the way, I use the slides to the right to facilitate this lesson.)
  4. To provide a little more food for thought, I share with the students, this clip from the film Spanglish.
  5. The film clip generates a little more discussion before I have them get into groups of three or four to brainstorm and discuss some possible costs and benefits of schooling/education. I encourage them to think beyond the obvious, and I provide a few specific questions to push their discussion along.
  6. Ok, at this point, I tell students we’re going to break from the discussion to do something different–a little review of the syllabus before we get too far into the course. (This activity, of course, is designed to further illustrate or push the point about the power school has to shape at least our behavior–if not who we are.) I tell students that we are going to play a little game that I like to call “Carrot or the Stick.” Basically, I read questions about the course policies and choose students to answer. If they get it right, I literally toss them a bag of baby carrots (as a healthy alternative to candy, and as a nice illustration of the point). If they get the answer wrong, I take my trusty wooden ruler and literally whack the desk three times loudly saying, “wrong, wrong, wrong.” What good fun. We do this through a set of about ten questions, and then talk about the use of “carrot and stick” tactics in school–literally and figuratively. Can grades be used like carrots and sticks, I ask?
  7. This brings us to a the idea of conditioned behavior. No such conversation would be complete without the inclusion of B.F. Skinner and his very well trained pigeons. I show this clip, and ask the question “Are we being conditioned?” among these other questions. We talk about the possibility that grades as they are used in school can have a conditioning effect on our behavior, and then we consider the ethics of such methods.
  8. The point of all this, I tell students, is that we need to raise our level of critical awareness of what we are doing. Are we actively participating in a process that shapes who we are and how we think? Or are we letting this entire experience wash over us, as we sit passively allowing ourselves to be changed by it. As a means of managing or lessoning carrot-and-stick tactics in our course, I suggest we use a “learning contract” where they make some choices at the start of the course regarding their own course of study. I want them to have this freedom of choice (albeit structured choice). I think at the very least this puts students in a more active role than they are accustomed to when it comes to school. It’s a start anyway.

Next week, we’ll be reading and writing in response to Adrienne Rich’s “When We Dead Awaken.” So, we’ll see what next week brings us, or should I say where we decide to go next week…

back to “school”

Yesterday Aidan and I attended a back to “school” picnic with a local homeschooling group. It was a wonderful day. It was held at a forest preserve in Plainfield and the turn out for the event was great (about 15 families). All the kids played at the playground for some time then we headed over to a picnic shelter to have a semi-potluck picnic. (I say semi- potluck because everyone brought their own main dish/sandwich but then brought some side or dessert to share with everyone else.) After lunch a police officer from the Joliet Police department came by and presented a safety class for the kids. He discussed all about stranger danger, bicycling safety, and even a little on gun safety (that they are not toys and that kids should never touch them!). After the police officer left most of the kids ran around the picnic area having fun while the parents got a chance to introduce ourselves and talk a bit about some ideas for the group.

Aidan stuck to me like glue for most of the time (as usual), but overall he was very patient as I tried to talk with some of the parents after lunch. He did get a bit bored after 15 minutes or so of me trying to listen to and engage in conversation about possible ideas for the group. I did try to encourage him to go and play with the other kids, but he didn’t want anything to do with that (at least not alone). So, I eventually left the parents and went with him to play with the other kids (they were all gathering sticks and laying them out pretending to build a tree house). Shortly after this everyone headed back over to the playground where we spent that next hour or so at the cable ride–a fun ride that starts off at a raised platform then you grab a hold of handles on a pulley device that is attached to a cable above the ground and hang on as you slide suspended off the group until you reach the end of the cable. This by far was the most popular attraction for the majority of the kids, Aidan included. I have to say that after watching and helping the kids for awhile I just had to try it myself–it was fun! But, the kids only allowed me one turn–I know, I know the ride’s for the kids, but it really was fun! :-)

We had a great day and I was so glad to see Aidan having such a great time playing. I look forward to more events  with this group and getting to know some of the families better.

back in the saddle–the first day of class

Well, the summer was short and I find myself back in the classroom with a room of unsuspecting students–eager to learn and to challenge themselves. I love fresh starts. This is what I’ve got planned for my first day in Composition I.

  1. First a little “walk in” music, emphasizing the idea of a fresh start and new possibilities. While students enjoy the music, I ask them to provide a little information about themselves on an index card.
  2. After a few minutes, I introduce myself to the students, using a few slides to facilitate along the way.
  3. Ok, now under the guise of pleasantries, I tell students that we will be introducing ourselves. I pick someone in the front row and say, “Tell us who you are.” This is where the fun begins. When the student offers his or her name, I say, “No, that’s your name. I want you to tell us who you are.” When they begin to describe something about themselves, I say something like “No, your describing your personality; tell us who you are.” And so on. Of course, this is a joke to illustrate the complexities of identity.
  4. To further the laugh, I share a clip from Anger Management, which is where i got the idea from. The relevant part starts at 5:30.
  5. After the clip, I point out to students the obvious. “Who are you?” is a hard question. How do you go about answering it? And of course, this leads to a freewriting opportunity.
  6. We talk about freewriting as a prewriting strategy, and then students give it a try with the following prompts: Who are you really? Why are you here? How has education or schooling affected who you are?
  7. In small groups, now, students use their prewriting to get to know each other. The goal is to learn something about the one another.
  8. Students introduce the members of their group to the class, sharing one interesting thing about who they are.
  9. Now that they know each other a little, I ask them to work together by brainstorming as many questions about the course as they can (without a syllabus in hand).
  10. After a some time has passed, I distribute the syllabus, and students work together to find the answers to their questions.
  11. Finally, as a group, we discuss any questions that for which they could not find answers.
  12. For homework, I ask that they develop their prewriting into something a little more polished. Also, I ask that they read Alfie Kohn’s “The Costs of Overemphasizing Achievement.”

Until next time…

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