Focus student activities on learning

Quote from the revised Bloom's taxonomy about activities.

In one of the very first English 101 courses I taught, most of the students struggled with the concept of specific detail. I decided to try an activity a member of the Western Kentucky University graduate faculty had shared with the teaching assistants there.

I bought a bushel of apples. (I was teaching five sections of English 101 with 20 students per section.)

In each section, I had every student take an apple from the basket and write a description of that apple. When everyone finished, they put their apple on the teacher’s desk.

Then I had each student read his or her description aloud while another student tried to pick out the apple that was being described.

In the first four sections, every student was able to identify the apple by its description. As a reward for writing good descriptions, each student left class that day with an apple.

In the fifth section, I had students take an apple to describe, and then put it on the desk after they’d written their descriptions, just as I had in the four other sections.

The activity ran smoothly, with students readily identifying the apples from the descriptions, until it came Jerome’s turn to read his description.

Jerome was a black kid from Cleveland, first in his family to go to college, the first black at that particular college, an incredibly hard worker with a sweet disposition and a delightful sense of humor. Of all the students I’ve taught over nearly a half century, Jerome was my favorite.

When Jerome read his apple description, probably half the apples had already been identified, but the student attempting to identify Jerome’s apple couldn’t find it.

Jerome had written a beautiful description of the ideal apple, a distillation of the essence of an apple.

It was a fine piece of writing.

But Jerome hadn’t described his particular apple.

We had to wait until all the other apples were identified by their descriptions before we knew which was Jerome’s.

In four of my five sections that day, students performed an activity. They had fun doing it. Maybe they learned something, but I wouldn’t swear to it.

In the fifth section, students didn’t just perform an activity. Those students saw acted out before their eyes the difference between a generalization and specific details. They all learned why specific details matter.

But the student who learned the most was Jerome.

That’s why Jerome left class that day with two apples instead of just one.

Practice does not make perfect

Forget the cliché.

Practice, even lots of practice, doesn’t make perfect.

The concert pianist practices even after performing for international audiences for decades: Practice hasn’t made her performances perfect.

Practicing won’t make your students perfect writers either, not even if they practice correctly very hard for a very long time.

But the goal of practice is not perfection, whatever the cliché says.

What does practice make?

Practice makes automatic.

Practice makes competent.

Practice makes efficient.

Practice makes permanent.

Practice makes proficient.

Practice makes plastic.

If you are teaching writing, those are the learning objectives you should expect to achieve by having students practice.

Pay hike, learning link not proved

If you believe that all that stands in the way of quality education is better pay for teachers you’ll have your opinion confirmed by reading Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America’s Teachers by Daniel Moulthrop, Ninive Clements Calegari and Dave Eggers (The New Press, 2006).

If you’re not already persuaded, however, this book may make you less inclined to believe that “better schools begin with better pay.”

Moulthrop, a radio reporter, and Calegari are both former classroom teachers. Eggers is the founder of 826 Valencia, a nonprofit providing free literacy and literary arts services for young people, and Calegari is its founding executive director.  Interestingly, 826 Valencia’s programs are provided by unpaid volunteers.

Teachers Have It Easy begins by debunking myths about education. The tone of this section sounds like a teenager’s “Why do I have to? Nobody else has to” whine. The authors appear to think nobody but teachers have to pay to take continuing education classes, nobody else works more than their contract hours, nobody else in a high stress job goes without “a good deal of time off” as compensation. I’ve been a teacher; it was hard, long, and stressful. But whining about how tough teaching is does not convince anyone who hasn’t do it.

As proof that better pay produces better teaching, the authors point to studies by the Education Trust about the effect of high quality instruction on student performance. Note that language: The correlation that was studied was instructional quality and student performance, not teacher pay and student performance. If there’s a study that proves the more you pay teachers the more students learn, I didn’t find it cited in this book.

The bulk of the book is a series of stories about teachers, would-be-teachers and used-to-be-teachers.  These are supposed to show the caliber of people who are not becoming teachers because of the poor pay. Reading the stories, I was inclined to think many of them were not people I wanted teaching.

The final part of Teachers Have It Easy is devoted to profiles of districts that “start paying teacher more.” Reading past the headline, however, it’s clear that none of the success stories began by increasing teacher pay. All began by restructuring the teacher workforce through changes in hiring/budgeting/instructional policies, professional development standards, and then by changes in the way teachers were paid.

In Denver schools, for example, teachers were paid to learn how to write objectives and use them in their classroom. One former teacher, currently a principal, says she never knew objectives were useful; she had been in education for 36 years.  I don’t think someone would last 36 years in a hotel housekeeping position without knowing how to clean a toilet. How could someone rise through the ranks to a supervisory position in education without knowing the instructional equivalent of cleaning a toilet?

Although Moulthrop, Calegari and Eggers fail to prove their thesis that better pay for teachers results in better education for students, they do make the case for paying good teachers well. Indirectly, they also make a case for greatly improved teacher education programs to prepare new teachers to do a better job from their first day in the classroom with instruction in basic skills like how to write an objective.

Aim to meet objectives by mid-course

Students always take longer to meet your annual writing objectives than you think they will.

I’ve learned to set learning objectives for writing that I think students can meet by mid-course. If I’m wrong (I’ve never been right yet!), I still have plenty of time to do more teaching and/or to give students more practice.

Giving myself plenty of leeway to meet my writing objectives takes some of the pressure off me in teaching writing and off my students in developing writing skill.  I don’t feel an obsession to mark more errors in the mistaken hope that students’ writing will improve in direct relationship to the amount of red ink I scrawl on their papers.

Also, if I can get a significant portion of the class up to competence even at the three-quarter mark, I can devote attention to those who need some additional help.