Real Audiences Elixir: Effective or Just Addictive?

One of the remedies for writing ailments that circulates regularly through the online education community is having students write for real audiences instead of the teacher.

Like nostrums sold by itinerant pedlars on the American frontier, the Real Audiences Elixir may be more addictive than effective.

Take a look at the examples promoted by Edutopia with hashtags tying them to English and English Language Arts.

The task author Rebecca Albers provide  for ninth/tenth graders is to require them to select and research a local or state official, examine the official’s record in light of his/her campaign promises, and write the official “a letter of congratulations.. or a letter calling him to action.”

I wonder how meaningful that assignment is to ninth and tenth graders. I don’t know many 14-year-olds whose idea of fun is researching their state comptroller’s record, do you?

I also wonder real the real audience for that writing prompt is. In my experience, mail to an official is most likely to get a templated response based on keywords in the letter. Perhaps the templates are more real than the students’ teacher, but I doubt it.

A more significant problem, however,  is whether the prompt accomplishes anything other than simply giving students writing experience. To what Common Core standards for ELA grades 9-10 does the writing prompt clearly link?  Research, possibly.

Because Common Core wants students to develop deep understanding of essentials within and across disciplines, teachers cannot afford to spend time on activities that address only one of the standards. That means, among other things, teachers need to direct writing assignments to support learning of other essential class content in addition to developing students’ writing skills.

(The writing prompt I criticized for English classes might turn out to be a perfect fit for a government objective in social studies.   Those standards are not yet published, so we can’t be sure.)

I’m not knocking the value of writing for readers other than just the teacher; I am urging teachers not to think that having students write to someone other than themselves is going to achieve the standards set out in the Common Core.

Set your objectives at C-level

Don’t set your writing course objectives equal to a grade of A. Set them equal to a C.

You want everyone to achieve writing competence, even the even the dullards, the unmotivated, and the lazy students. You have a fighting chance of getting the back-of-the-room, bottom-of-the-class group to try for a C.

Competent expository writing is:

  • Unified to make one clear point (its thesis).
  • Organized clearly in support of that thesis.
  • Developed with adequate detail to make readers think the thesis is plausible.
  • Presented clearly so readers never have to guess at the writer’s meaning. Correct grammar, punctuation, and usage contribute to the writer’s presentation.

When student are competent expository writers, I can stop teaching them about expository writing. They will improve just by practicing what they already know. If I change the genre or raise my standards, then I may have to do more teaching.

If C is the grade you award for competence, you should have a big group who earn A’s and B’s. (One year I taught five sections of English composition in which no student earned less than a B.)

In writing, as with many skills, the step from no skill  to competence is enormous, but the step from competence to proficiency is small. Once students get to C-level, they’ll get to B-level just by having more opportunities to practice.

Focus instruction on the middle

Most classroom writing instruction is aimed at the upper 20% of the class. Instruction in writing should be aimed at the “average kid” in the class.

By instruction, I don’t mean teaching.

I’m using instruction here to mean the presentation of terminology and directions that students need to know, understand, and recall in order to benefit from teaching and/or to learn on their own. In a writing class, there is very little information about writing that must be presented by the teacher to enable hands-on skill learning to begin.

By average kid, I don’t mean people under 18 with an IQ of 100.

Most classes have a core group who usually display about the same interest, motivation, and effort and get roughly the same grades. Probably 75% or more of students in any class fall into that core group.  That core group is what I mean by average kid, not some statistical construct. The average kid in your third period class and the average kid in your fourth period class may have little in common except you as their teacher.

If you can teach that core group to write, you also get the better-than-average kids to write, which leaves you only a few students who need more than your average amount of help.

However, if you don’t make sure that your average kids have a thorough understanding of the few terms and concepts underlying writing, you will have almost no success teaching any of your students to write.

ELA lessons from senior pranks

Teaching responsible use of social media is a hot topic that threatens to obscure some non-digital behavior issues. Two  stories in New York state newspapers this week illustrate the kind of behaviors I mean.

Custodians arrived at Clifton-Fine Central School June 1 to find a squawking rooster loose in the building. One reported to the superintendent that the school had been broken into; she called the state police.

Troopers found no school property was damaged, nothing was stolen and no one, including the rooster, was injured. Each of the five students was charged with third-degree criminal trespass, but the school didn’t suspend them or impose additional penalties.

Photo: mpcourier.com

At Massena High School, two seniors played more colorful prank.  Dressed head to toe in green Spandex costumes to which one added a pink tutu and the other added black running shorts,  they padded through the hallways and visited classes.

Administrators said they did not recognize the pair as students because their faces were covered: They could have been terrorists.

Massena High suspended each student for five days.

Incidents such as these offer a good opportunity to show students real-world examples of why English teachers harp about the importance of knowing the audience.  Apparently, it didn’t occur to students in either case that the school administration wouldn’t be spending as much time anticipating senior pranks as the students were. Breaking that self-absorption is an essential part of educating students.

It’s not too early for writing teachers to start thinking about ways draw connections next year between the history,  literature, and current events students study and student behavior.

645 meanings of the verb run

Let me run this by you.

Simon Winchester says in an op-od piece in today’s New York Times  that, according to Oxford English Dictionary lexicographer Peter Gilliver, the word run has 645 meanings in the verb-form alone.

If you teach literacy, reading comprehension, or English (including all its initalized formats: ELA, ELL, EFL, ESL), that fact should make you blink. Run is, afterall, one of the most common words in our language. It is among the words students learn in their first encounters with reading and writing.

If there are 645 meanings of the verb to run, what does that say about the difficulty of learning vocabulary in context? And what are the implications of a 645-definition word for writing teachers?

Those are not trival questions.

According to US census data a fifth of the population over age 5 speaks a language other than English at home. Of those, only 56.2 percent say they speak English “very well.” When you look at the ages of the people who do not speak English in their homes, you’ll see in every language group the largest segment of non-English speakers is school age.

Census data assumes that speaking only English at home means proficiency in oral English. I think most teachers would question that assumption.

However, even if it were true, number of people who are fluent in oral English is higher than the number who are skilled at reading and writing English, even among people whose primary language is English.

For me as a teacher, these data mean I do not have the luxury of spending time on topics just because they are fun or just because students are interested in them. I have to choose teaching topics because they help me accomplish my learning objectives. Then I have to find ways to make the topics fun or relate them to something that already interests the students.

What significance do you find in the 645 meanings of the verb run?

Homework: folly or missed focus?

In a blog post today, David Brooks,  op-ed columnist at The  New York Times, gives a brief overview of a forthcoming study in the Economics of Education Review that seems to suggest more homework has no value for students in any subject but math.

The study entitled “Are we wasting our children’s time by giving them more homework?” is certain to be taken out of context, with the result that babies will be washed out with the bathwater like farms below the Morganza Spillway.

Economists Ozkan Eren and Daniel J. Henderson took a representative sample of US eight graders and correlated the amount of homework they were assigned in math, science, English, and social studies with their test scores in those subjects.  (Note that homework assigned does not mean homework done.)

The full study is worth reading. It is only 31 pages and a third is bibliography and appendices. If statistics make your eyes glaze over, you can skip the paragraphs with the Greek terms.

The researchers took great care to rule out all sorts of factors that might impact their results, including such things as:

  • Student characteristics, such as race, gender, and family’s socioeconomic status.
  • Teacher characteristics, such as race and gender as well as graduate degree and state certification status.
  • Class characteristics, including class size, number of limited English proficiency students, number of hours the class met weekly, the amount of time the teacher spent administering tests and quizzes.
  • Teacher evaluation of the overall class level, how much of the text the teacher covered, number of hours the teacher spent each week maintaining discipline.

The researchers apparently did not attempt to determine whether the homework activities and the test items covered the same ground.  I suspect that the reason the math homework had a postive correlation with test scores was that the math homework questions and the math test questions were very similar.

I doubt very much that homework in science, English, and social studies would correlate well with questions on the test used in the study. American education has standardized tests that are taken nationwide, but no standard curriculum that guides study nationwide. The lack of standard curriculum is less obvious in math than in science, history, and English. Without agreement on, for example, social studies topics that all eight graders should study, the likelihood of social studies homework boosting test scores strikes me as pretty remote.

Moreover, science, history, and English focus (or should focus) at least as much on the thinking processes used in those disciplines as on specific facts.  Those processes do not produce right answers in the same way that solving an algebraic equation produces right answers.

Homework in science, history, or English may be directed toward having students discover multiple options rather than toward one right answer. We tend to regard solving the math problem as mathematical thinking, but real mathematical thinking is as likely to result in several possible solutions as to find one “right” one.

Giving homework in which students develop a hypothesis to test empirically or having students write an essay about American history may be more important in the long run than giving homework on material that is more easily tested by blacken-the-bubble methods.
[11-27-2012 updated Eren-Henderson link]