Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Don’t Shoot (or Kiss) the Messenger

by Douglas Grudzina


I am not a luddite.

I needed to get that off my chest because when I mentioned that I was writing this post, one of my colleagues accused me of being one, and I’m not.

What I had told this colleague was that I was going to expose a troubling trend in education and technology. It’s not a new trend — I can think of how it manifested itself in the 1960s when I was in elementary school — but it is a persistent trend.

It’s not intentional; in fact, I think most of us caught up in the frenzy of innovation don’t even realize we’re doing it. Or we think we’re doing exactly what we’re supposed to be doing.

In terms of “raising the bar,” however, and bringing students in the United States up to international par in their ability to read, write, think critically, and reason, we’ve actually let ourselves become a part of the problem.

You could say we’ve put the cart before the horse.

Or we’ve thrown out the message because we’re always in search of a new and better messenger.

Imagine an English class. The eager, young teacher is about to teach A Tale of Two Cities. In this school, students provide their own copy of whatever they’re studying. On the first day of this Dickens unit, several kids come to class with paperback editions of the novel. Some of these display black covers with wallpaper-like designs. Some are flashy and new with a photograph from the most recent film version of the novel—maybe starring Leo DiCaprio in the dual roles of Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton (in 3D).

Other kids have hardcover editions. One is an ancient thing, crumbling and bound with rubber bands.

One kid found the book on Bartleby or Gutenberg and printed it out in green ink on pink paper, securing it in a three-ring binder. The rest have downloaded one e-book version or another onto their (you name the brand, make, and model) e-reader.

Somehow, this teacher is able to verify that every kid’s book is whole, complete, unabridged, unedited, unexpurgated … you get the idea.

Now imagine this teacher sending the ancient-volume-kid home because his book is “too old.” The three-ring-binder kid is penalized because hers isn’t a “real book,” and the e-reader kids are given extra credit for “originality and insight.”

What would you say?

Here’s another example: A traditional twelfth-grade assignment in the high school where I taught was the “Shakespeare Scene.” As the name suggests, the assignment was for groups of students to prepare and then perform a scene from a play by William Shakespeare. Over the years, I had a few students come to class and perform their scenes live. Most groups opted to videotape their scenes (and some of these were really very clever). A couple of groups did puppet shows. One group—toward the end of my classroom career—did a Tim Burton-style stop-motion animation.

Scoring criteria were always explained at the beginning of the project: “appropriateness” of set or location, “appropriateness” of costumes and props, overall cohesiveness of the scene, and familiarity with the script. We defined “appropriate” as fitting the action, mood, and location of the scene even if the students had to modernize because they were unable to locate an Elizabethan doublet or a Danish castle.

When the group that did the animated video received a relatively low grade (if that surprises you, keep reading), they protested. They’d spent HOURS, they said, making their construction-paper set and their little clay Macbeths and Macduffs. They’d spent ADDITIONAL HOURS clicking-and-dragging, frame-by-frame, to shoot five minutes’ worth of Macduff slicing off Macbeth’s head.

They knew they’d spent “way more time” on their scene than the clowns who had made daggers out of cardboard and aluminum foil and wrapped up in bed sheets to perform the assassination of Julius Caesar in front of the class.

Now, these guys didn’t fail; their grade was a solid B. But they did not get the A+++ they thought they deserved. They were not “copping an attitude”; they were not entitled-acting brats who believed every breath they breathed was Divine. They were seriously upset; they were hard-working kids who were not getting the grade they believed they deserved.

Can you guess why I gave the grade I gave?

Here’s a hint: They got very high scores in all the “appropriateness” and “cohesiveness” categories, but they got almost no points in the “familiarity” category. While all of the other students were getting intimate with Shakespeare’s words, the animation group was gluing their set and sculpting their clay figures. While the other students recited their lines from memory (because “familiarity with the script” was one of the scoring criteria), the animation group read theirs. They could answer only the most basic questions about who said what, to whom, and why.

Their project would undoubtedly have earned them that A+++ if they’d been in a cinematography or animation class. But for my English class, what had been the main point of the project (as suggested by the relative weight of each category) had received the least attention.

The other day, I was listening to a webinar in which a participant — a college-level English instructor who also does inservice programs for high-school and middle-school teachers — was advising us listeners to have our students do PowerPoints, write blogs, and participate in social media. She then explained how readily available PowerPoint software is, how easy it is to set up blog accounts, and how many different types of social media there are out there. What she did not explain was exactly what our students were supposed to do in those PowerPoints. What were they supposed to say in the blogs?

That’s when I decided to write this post, and my colleague called me a luddite.

He called me a luddite because I averred that, unless I am teaching (or taking) a social media or informational technology course, the delivery medium is irrelevant.

I’ll say it again from a slightly different angle: In a standards-based (or content-based) English classroom (or science classroom, or social studies classroom), the delivery medium is irrelevant.

What I wish that expert teacher (and many, many others over the years) had advised her listeners was that, in order to provide their students with authentic opportunities for personal writing for a real audience, they should try blogging. A cool part of the research process — that would allow kids to practice expressing in their own words what they’ve learned and to give appropriate credit to their sources — could be to have them put together a PowerPoint presentation. To get the kids reading and discussing their reading with others outside of class, teachers could set up classroom forums or wikis.

The point is not the medium but what we do with the medium.

Now, it’s possible that this is exactly what the expert teacher meant, and some of her listeners might have known it. But I can guarantee that there were a lot of listeners who left that webinar thinking, “I need to have my kids do PowerPoint presentations … and write blogs.”

I can guarantee these dedicated and well-intentioned teachers did not leave that webinar thinking, “My kids need to do more frequent personal writing. They need practice expressing information in their own words and crediting their sources.” They wouldn’t have thought this because the expert teacher did not say — or even suggest — this. She simply advised us to have our kids do PowerPoints, blogs, and social media.

Now, here’s why I’m not a luddite.

I’m not opposed to any particular delivery medium. When I was in high school, if we wanted visual aids, we had to draw pictures on construction paper, or Photostat them out of books and glue them onto cardboard. Then, we had to remember to insert them into the opaque projector upside-down and left-facing-right.

Many a National Geographic was sacrificed to “the classroom collage.”

A soundtrack required a steady hand to drop the needle on just the right spot on the album and then pick it up again—without making that amateurish scratch sound.

And, of course, the house had to be utterly silent while the cassette recorder was on.

So I welcome technology that allows kids to make their images appear and disappear as if by glittery magic. How wonderful it must be for them to be able to splice together an entire soundtrack in GarageBand and import it distortion free into their presentation. It’s great that they can form a Great Gatsby book club with readers in Sweden, Japan, and Canarsie.

But as the available media become more fun and the potential for flash and dazzle increases, we need to be ever aware of our tendency to turn the messenger into the message. When too much attention is paid to the shimmering words and not enough to what those words are communicating, when kids honestly believe that the hours they spend creating life-like Play-Doh figures are hours well spent on a project for English class, we shouldn’t scratch our heads and puzzle over why their scores on tests of reading comprehension and critical thinking are so low.

As English teachers, we know our kids are not going to be tested on the aesthetics and functionality of their blogs. They will, however, be tested on the knowledge that could be displayed in a blog post.

Media, as you know, is the plural of medium; and a medium is merely a “means of transmitting.” Good news is still good news, whether it arrives by telepathy, text, snail-mail, or smoke signal. And bad news is still bad.

Just don’t shoot the messenger.

Douglas Grudzina has over 25 years’ experience teaching high school English and consulting with the Delaware Department of Education on ELA curriculum and assessment. He has been a popular presenter at conferences and inservice workshops. As Senior New Product Development Specialist at Prestwick House, he has created and shepherded the Advanced Placement in English Literature and Composition, the Teaching Literature from Multiple Critical Perspectives, and the Levels of Understanding lines of downloadables and reproducibles. His books include Reading and Analyzing Nonfiction: Slant, Spin & Bias, Prestwick House AP Language and Composition, and the just-released College and Career Readiness: Writing series.

1 comment:

Priscilla Baker said...

Could not agree with you more! I went to so many sessions at NCTE where I left thinking, "Is this what we've come to? Tweeting and blogs and facebook posts about The Great Gatsby?" There were no layered nuances of what the intent was (outside of making it more "fun") or how to evaluate students. It drove me completely bonkers. The whole trend concerns me greatly as a high school English teacher and as a parent!