Images’ value, an ELA writing prompt

couple in cafe having respectful argument
An argument is supposed to result in better understanding of a topic and the participants.

Since it’s officially summer, I’m sure all my blog readers are busy preparing new materials for fall term. (Cue uproarious laughter.)

Today I’m going to give you the nub of a writing prompt about communication that (a) you could use in an ELA course and (b) is relevant to a wide range of other subjects and in many careers.

If you are not busy preparing materials for fall, you can tuck it away for August.

Here’s the prompt:

Do people learn better from images?

If you can believe what you read on the Internet, people learn better from images, especially video, than from print.

Do some research: Is that assertion true? What evidence is there to support it? What does learning mean in this context? Does the assertion apply to all kinds of learning, or are there only certain things that people learn well from images? You need not limit yourself to information from published sources; you may do original research.

Write an argument in which discuss the value of images for teaching. You may limit your discussion to either video or to non-moving images if you wish.  In fact, your writing will probably be stronger and more interesting if you can include some of your personal observations.  You can include your personal experience as a portion, no more than a quarter, of your evidence.

Remember that you don’t need to disagree totally with someone else’s opinion. You can agree partially. You can argue that the other guy’s evidence isn’t strong enough to warrant his conclusion. You can show that the other guy misunderstood what he presented as evidence.

Remember, too, that in an argument you must accurately and respectfully present the opinion with which you disagree. An argument is supposed to be an exploration of a topic so all parties come away feeling they were understood and respected. If your argument reads like an attack by a thug in a dark alley, you’ve totally missed the point.

Relationships and learning

Since I came across this image in a tweet, I’ve been trying to decide whether or not I agree with the quote, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.”

I agree with the @teachergoals that relationships must be encouraged and maintained. I suspect the intent of the quote is to encourage teachers to interact with their students as people instead of as rectangles on a seating chart, which is a worthwhile aim.

What I’m not so sure about is the meaning of a “significant relationship” in the educational context.  (I’m sure, however, it’s not the meaning we occasionally hear about on TV newscasts, in which one of the parties wears a bright orange jumpsuit.)

Who are the parties to a significant relationship in which learning occurs?

In what way(s) must the relationship be significant to impact learning?

Do the learning and the relationship have to occur contemporaneously?

If all significant learning requires “a significant relationship,” is turning students into lifelong learners a pipe dream?

And, last but not least, I wonder if I the only person in the world whose most significant learning came from books?

Is College Worthwhile? Was It Ever?

The Plastic Age, a 1924 novel by Percy Marks which became a bestseller, takes a close-up look inside a men’s college in the days of  prohibition, jazz, and bootleg whiskey. it finds “The college is made up of men who worship mediocrity; that is their ideal except in athletics.”

As they near the end of their college careers, the men reflect on what they’ve learned and find themselves wanting. One says, “Here I am sporting a Phi Bete key, an honor student if you please, and all that I really know as a result of my college ‘education’ is the fine points of football and how to play poker. I don’t really know one damn thing about anything.”

The men take their questions about the value of college to one of the college’s few good teachers. He says, in part:

The average college graduate is a pretty poor specimen, but all in all he is just about the best we have. Please remember that I am talking in averages. I know perfectly well that a great many brilliant men do not come to college and that a great many stupid men do come, but the colleges get a very fair percentage of the intelligent ones and a comparatively small percentage of the stupid ones.

Some day, perhaps…our administrative officers will be true educators; some day perhaps our faculties will be wise men really fitted to teach; some day perhaps our students will be really students, eager to learn, honest searchers after beauty and truth. That day will be the millennium.  I look for the undergraduates to lead us to it.

Has anything really changed in 90 years?

Will anything really change in the next 90?

Worry about your learning more than your teaching

Sylvia Garrison being tutored Folks in the blogosphere have been talking a lot lately about teachers learning from their pupils, as if the idea had just appeared on the breakfast menu.

I was amused to see the same idea advanced by the heroine of Meredith Nicholson’s 1912 bestselling novel, A Hoosier Chronicle.

When Sylvia Garrison, a Wellesley-educated mathematician, determines to be a public school teacher, everyone tells her she is too good to waste her time teaching in the public schools. She says politely that what she intends to do. She views her Wellesley courses as preparation for her real learning.

Sylvia takes the pre-1900 version of Teach for America training one summer to give her the requisite pedagogical training.

As she starts her first year in the classroom, Sylvia writes a friend, “I’m a school-teacher…a member of the gray sisterhood of American nuns….it’s not what I’m required to teach, but what I’m going to learn that worries me!”

Learning from my students

Caution sign
In education circles, it’s fashionable to blog about learning from one’s students. Not to be left out—and because it’s April 1 when a certain amount of foolishness is acceptable—I will share insights my college students have generously shared with me.

One student told me that “a bird in the hand is worth two of George Bush.” That’s an insight you can take to the voting booth.

Another student cautioned me not to “burn my bridges at both ends.” Even burning them at one end could be a serious let down.

A third student said his wife ended up in the emergency room “every time she eats pees.” I am now very careful to avoid consuming pees.

And one student shared a piece of autobiography that explained something I’d never understood. The student said she had just gotten her GED and had decided to go on for her Ph.D. because she “only needed two more letters.” That was a light bulb moment for me. I finally understood why some folks consider an Ed.D. and easier degree than the Ph.D.: Once you have a GED, to get an Ed.D. you need only one more letter.

Photo credit: “Caution!” Uploaded by ugaldew

Are school activities fun or meaningful?

Attentive class
Despite all the hype about making better use of visual content in education, most educators still rely on language to communicate their messages. When educators talk to audiences beyond the education community, they often choose the same words they would use with other educators. Those choices can significantly undermine the case for education.

One such word is  fun.

Foreign language teachers have been discussing ramifications of  “fun activities” in foreign language classrooms. Joanne E. O’Toole, assistant professor of  curriculum and instruction at the State University of New York at Oswego, offered this insight:

I have spent much time trying to understand why some people view foreign language education as dispensable or less important than other content areas.  One contributor I have discovered is the perception others have of the nature of the language classroom.

Our beginning courses can be viewed as lacking weight because they are composed of so many “fun” activities (i.e., games, songs, food, etc.), just as our  advanced courses can be viewed as too weighty because they are “no fun at all.” This “fun-based” dichotomy can negatively influence educational decision makers, students, and parents.

My perspective is that conversations about what happens in language classrooms should not be about degrees of “fun” but rather on meaningfulness and the opportunities provided for worthwhile learning.

Therefore, I have replaced the word “fun” with the word “meaningful” when I talk about what we do in the foreign language classroom. This reminds me to make the meaningfulness of activities I use explicit, such that others understand the value the activities contribute to overall language and cultural learning.

Meaningful activities take a range of forms that evolve with the students’ proficiency levels; there is no dichotomy. Meaningfulness can be easily understood and valued by all those with whom we work and the students we teach.

In other words, one very powerful advocacy move I believe we all can make is this semantic shift. When we talk about what we do as “meaningful” rather than “fun,” we advocate for the value of language teaching and learning.

Dr. O’Toole’s analysis fits with what research tells us students want in courses in every discipline: activities that are meaningful and challenging rather than activities that are fun.

Her analysis also makes good sense from a public relations standpoint. Hearing his school taxes support “fun activities” is likely to raise the ordinary taxpayer’s blood pressure to a dangerous level. Such wording may lead to a resounding “NO!” vote on a school’s budget proposal, while an identical tax levy to support “meaningful activities” might pass without opposition.

Thanks to Dr. O’Toole for permission to reprint her remarks.
Photo Credit: “Attentive Class” by Ruthibabe

Learning lessons from a cat


George was smarter than he looked

A lot of what I know about learning, I learned from a cat.

When I moved into a new home, the kitchen door was badly scratched by the previous owner’s pets. I determined my animals were not going to claw the door.

I bought a set of fake sleigh bells at the dollar store and hung it beside door just about cat’s ear level. Evey time the door opened, the bell jingled softly. When the cat needed to go out, she’d move to the door, I’d give the bells a good shake and then open the door. Within a couple of weeks, the cat learned to ring the bell when she needed to go outside.

That cat died.

I adopted a replacement from the local animal shelter. George was an older cat, rather stupid looking, but he was up to date on shots and already altered. The positives outweighed the negatives.

For the best part of the month after George took up residence, it rained nearly every day. I didn’t attempt to teach George to ring the bell because I didn’t want him to associate the bell with getting soaked. (Also, I didn’t want to go out in a downpour with a cat to make sure he knew which house was his.)

When the rain stopped, I started letting George go out, but I was too busy to teach him to ring the bell.

One noon after George had started going outside by himself, I was having lunch at the kitchen counter. George was sitting nearby staring at the bell. After a little while, he walked over to the bell and gave it a hard smack with his left paw. I got up and opened the door. George’s eyes got big and his jaw dropped. Apparently that was the response he wanted, but he hadn’t been entirely sure the bell was what made someone open the door. George plodded out.

Next day George repeated the performance, starting from the same position on the kitchen floor.  I opened the door when he rang and let him out.

The third day, George sat in a different place before he got up to ring the bell. Again, I opened the door when he rang and let him out.

The following day, it was lunch time, but I was still working in my office when I heard the bell ring. I went to the kitchen, where George was waiting beside the door. I let him out.

In the second week, I heard the bell ring one morning while I was working in my office. When I got to the kitchen, George was sitting in the pantry in front of his empty food bowl. He looked at me, then he looked at his bowl and looked back at me. I filled the food bowl.

Some years later, I moved and couldn’t take George. He ended up in a new home in a different state. His new cat care provider  fastened George’s bell beside the back door. George rang his bell when he needed something until shortly before he died of old age.

What George taught me

  • Learning occurs fast when the a smart cat sees what’s being taught will let him accomplish something he wants to do.
  • Immediate success encourages repeat behavior.
  • Smart cats rule out alternative explanations for the results they experience. (The door opens only if I sit in a certain place before I ring. The cat care provider has to be in the kitchen.  I have to be wearing my lucky flea collar.)
  • Smart cats use what they’ve learned for purposes the teacher never anticipated.