Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Where to begin...

In an attempted diss, one of my freshmen said this to another: "Maybe if you weren't so busy pwning all the time, you wouldn't be so lame!"

(Cue Inigo Montoya: "That word, you keep using it. I do not think it means what you think it means.")


My 7th hour has been fascinated by witches these last few weeks, more or less since we finished reading The Crucible. After we finished that, we jumped tracks completely and moved into argumentative writing... for every issue, the solution, proposed by at least one or two of my 7th-hour-ers, has been to "Get rid of the witches, who cause (said issue) by ..."

Not exactly airtight logic, but it's funny enough that I can deal.

8th hour just tells me how they want the day to be done. They do not care about witches.


I've been teaching grammar to the freshmen (as it aligns with our curriculum), which, in its very literal sense, is simply a naming of the functions of words, from which a general pattern of how language works presumably emerges (these patterns already exist in the brain, as developmentally, kids use all of the major syntactic patterns by the time they're 5... but the vocabulary gets more complex, and the syntactic patterns start being nested within each other, to some degree), which in turn is supposed to make them into better writers.

I've got some issue, philosophically, with the assumptions beneath the teaching of grammar, but I have to work from within the pre-existing framework for now, as it's "the way we do things", in order to show at least a minimum competence and to then justify my departure from the established framework in years to come.

So I teach grammar.

This week, we've been doing the complements (direct object, indirect object, objective complement, and the 2 subject complements: Predicate Nominative and Predicate Adjective).

Teaching grammar is like pulling teeth, at times, in that the only way for me to do it efficiently is if I numb them first (or knock them unconscious... but I think I get in trouble for that one), so I've been pulling from the "Bag of Tricks", as it were, that teachers I've had have used.

In this case, I set up a series of powerpoint slides, each with a single sentence, and we turned it into a quasi-game show. Kids went up to the board, one by one, and it was a race-type deal, with a point for getting it right, and another for being the first (2 teams of 8 or so) to answer. The deal, then, was that their teammates had to be silent for the first 15 seconds that the question was up (after that, they could help).

Then we kept track of points.

The kids got really excited (not because of grammar, but because of the competitive nature), which turned into them getting really loud, but for once, almost all of them were paying attention, and they were listening to each other.

They learn better when they teach each other than they do when we, as teachers, try to teach them. Call it the increased feelings of self-efficacy that result from seeing a peer perform a task. Call it cooperative learning. But they question each other, they test their hypotheses, and they're more receptive to making mistakes (as it can be figured out).

Since I'm teaching things that are more or less issues of fact (rather than opinion), with the purpose being that students can take a body of knowledge, re-create it, and do something that looks like applying it, I'm more or less an arbiter of right and wrong... I try to recognize that, for a particular problem, there are several possible answers, but usually just one "best answer", but with the curriculum goals and state standards being mostly geared around the transmission of content (and the resultant assessment being whether or not students can re-produce that content), I simply don't know how to move away from being an arbiter of right and wrong and towards someone who guides self-driven learning and authentic problem solving, as there's no room for that in the curriculum.

Which means that moves like the trivia game are purely manipulative in nature, that is, they disguise the transmission of content (and the resultant "drill and kill") by turning it into something else (and tapping into the desire to be competitive).

And I'm on pretty shaky ground, ethically, for pullin' the ol' Game-Show-Switcharoo. But I'm rationalizing it with 1) "It means they're listening to each other and working cooperatively", and 2) If I'm gonna get yelled at for having a loud classroom, I'd rather it be because they're getting excited about the material at hand (even if only tangentially to the thing they're actually excited about) than about something else, and 3) As a teacher in the traditional vein (which hasn't really changed in definition, function, or methodology since, oh, 1890 or so), my job is almost purely one of convincing kids to sit down, shut up, and unscrew their skull-caps so that I can dump knowledge in, that is to say, the measurement of my value and skill is roughly akin to how well I get kids to jump through the hoops I've set out. Something like this makes me look good.

Though I'm not sure that it's actual teaching, and it still seems to be ethically shaky. But it'll have to suffice until I can find a better way to do it.

(And Margaret Spellings, when I do, I am going to take your office. You can empty out your desk, but you'd better believe that I will be sitting in your comfy chair).


I'm not writing as much as I should be. There's a poem about Kansas, a letter, and likely a few more that should be in the works, but aren't being worked on.

Plus, y'know, the diary of a first year teacher, the novel, and doing more research on democratic schooling (I've been reading Freire, but that's not nearly enough).

Drop a line and tell me how lame I am, or something. I probably miss you.