Non-Communicative Future

Yesterday morning in my Comp I class I had them share what they had written for the Portfolio Project that was due.  In the portfolio I had asked them to evaluate themselves as students/learners/writers as well as revise one paper and set some goals. I started doing this type of project in another school, and for the most part feel that it is a successful project. I still feel that, even after grading the projects yesterday, except for one thing. Many of my students don’t know how to communicate. Most of them shared their portfolio in as few sentences as possible–not expanding or explaining unless  I asked questions, barely even listening to each other talk. After that, I vamped for the rest of the time (as I had expected it would take longer) talking about learning, why we need to take writing classes, how would they form their ideal comp class, anything that came to mind. (I used up my material for the last class tomorrow, now I have to think of something else).  But, in typical fashion, two or three of them spoke and the rest stared at me in silence. This has been my semester in this class. It might as well have been a class of three people.

I was teaching writing. I helped some of them improve in grammar and the ability to support an argument. I helped some of them improve as readers, or just gain confidence in their ability to learn. That to me is a success.

But many of them still don’t know how to communicate.

In part of the “discussion” yesterday we talked about the changing forms of communication. For example, the fact that more people function by text messages now than any other form of communication. I mentioned how important it was to learn to write proper e-mails and things. Later in the day, I got this e-mail from one of the students in the class:

“Dear Ms. lisa what would be my grade in the class?!?”

That’s it. That was the extent of the e-mail. Now, let’s forget about the fact that they still haven’t figured out that I am Dr. I just wanted them to call me Lisa, but I usually get one of the following: Teacher,  Ms. Lisa, Mrs. Kramer, Mrs. Lisa, nothing, and on rare occasions Dr. Lisa or Dr. Kramer. But, setting that aside, my name is not capitalized. He didn’t sign it. And he wrote this one sentence when I told them that I would be figuring out the grades and let them know on Friday.

Students today do not know how to communicate.

Vicky, at Little Miss Everything, wrote a post today called “My best friend is a screen” that asks if our future will be this

Sadly, I think we are heading to some form of that. I don’t necessarily believe that everyone will be a fat slob (although there is potential for that too). But I do think that we are losing the ability to communicate face-to-face. We are also losing common courtesy and respect for each other, as our skills in face-to-face communication dwindle.  How often have you sent an e-mail and never gotten a reply? Not even an acknowledgment that the person received your e-mail? How often have you made a phone call asking for a return call and never gotten the call back?

I am guilty of these errors myself. I am bad about writing thank you notes and thanking people for invitations. I’m trying to get better. I don’t like to talk to people on the phone, but I will and I will call back. Sometimes I prefer to e-mail, but I always respond to e-mails. I’m not perfect, but I try.

I worry though that we are raising a generation of people who will never try, because they are too buried in their own pleasure. In the self-evaluation I had several students admit to: texting or listening to music during class, or falling asleep intentionally. But then the following statement would be something like, “I respected my teacher and my classmates.”

Is this respect? Where are we headed in a world that does not respect each other or know how to communicate?

Sorry for the RANT! But what do you think?

[Update, another of my favorite bloggers chose to write about this topic today as well. Check out her post  ” A World Without Words”.]

Making Connections with Words A Powerful Tool in Education

My Alma Mater, Brockton High School, has been in the news recently.

In a time when the news about school is usually depressing (murder, suicide, school shootings, bullying, failure, etc) this was good news: with a lot of hard work and commitment the school was able to turn around from being the lowest testers in the state to the top 90%.

Many people suggest that this is somewhat miraculous because the school does not represent the so-called ideal that people argue for today. It is not a small school. It’s huge! When I went there, there were around 6000 students. Numbers have dropped, now they have only 4300, but that is still larger than my college.

So what did they do that was so drastic? It is simple really (in its logic, not in the amount of work). They added reading and writing to EVERY SUBJECT!! Yes folks, a radical change, encouraging people to read and write actually helps them learn.

This story has really been resonating with me since I heard it. Not just because it is my school, or because the principal Susan Szachowicz was one of my favorite teachers in high school, but because of my own experiences in the classroom. For the past 5 years, I had been teaching Freshman Composition classes at a small Liberal Arts College. I enjoyed it, except for the fact that so many of my students were not good writers (even though I wasn’t teaching the lowest level classes). Even more of them were not good readers. They could read, but they had no interest in it, and found it difficult to understand or find meaning. Some of them did not know basic grammar.

Now, this is not an attack on the public school teachers. I know that they work hard under trying circumstances. Rather, I think this was a symptom of something greater–the idea that we as a culture are not making young people understand the value of learning or the connections between what they learn and real life.

I usually began those classes asking if anyone thought writing was unimportant. It never failed; I had several students who would argue that they would never use it, because they were accounting majors. or business majors, or science majors, or physical therapy majors or whatever. My goal was always to prove them wrong. We would talk about how reading and writing would play a role in almost any job or just in life in general. Of course, someone would always come up with a couple of examples where they could function without writing–like a porn star.

When possible, I tried to have at least one assignment where the students could choose a topic that interested them to research, read, and write about.  Usually that was pretty successful. One of my accounting students chose to explore how research and writing might fit into accounting. She was very surprised at her results, when she discovered that writing does play a role in accounting.

Back to Brockton High School. By incorporating writing into every subject I believe they are doing several things: 1) encouraging reading and writing, a valuable skill;  2) showing even the most reluctant students that communication is important; 3) making subjects interconnected in a way that they truly function in the so-called real world. You need math as well as words to function in our society.

I believe that when you connect the material to the interests of the students, and show how everything is interconnected you create an education program of true value. Our world functions on the connections we make between what we know and what we don’t know.

John Dewey said “Education is a social process. Education is growth. Education is, not a preparation for life; education is life itself.” By allowing the students to see how language plays a role in sports, in math, in science BHS has allowed them to become thinkers and to grow as learners. They may not all succeed, but they are being given the tools to succeed.

The lesson to be learned from this is not that big schools are better or all schools must do this program to succeed. The lesson to be learned is that, through hard work and focusing on the true needs of the students, education can succeed. Kudos to Dr. Szach and BHS for understanding that low test scores does not give educators the right to give up, but rather creates the mandate to try something new.

On Theatre and Drama in the Classroom

Recently I started going to my daughter’s first grade class to help them prepare for an Earth Day play. Sarah is so lucky to have a teacher who recognizes the value of creative play to learning, and I am privileged to be able to participate.  Beyond this play, she’s had them do biography tv (where the students interview famous people) and a penguin parade (where the students, dressed as penguins, went from classroom to classroom explaining facts about penguins).  Watching this teacher, witnessing my daughter embrace learning, and participating in this play project merely reinforces what I’ve always known and spent my education understanding, that use of theatre and drama in a classroom creates deep learning activities beyond what it means to be an actor. Of course, I’m coming in to lend my expertise in staging and creating characters, etc. But what these students are doing is so much more than that.  Let’s review:

  • They wrote the scripts in class, thus practicing writing.
  • They read the script in rehearsal (practicing reading) until they memorize their lines (memorization and understanding)
  • They chose their characters themselves, and are learning how to present those characters. (social/emotional learning)
  • They chose the theme, and decided to focus on the need to protect the earth (social issues, social studies).
  • They are practicing what to happen if something goes wrong (social/emotional learning).
  • Each time we rehearse, I am inundated with ideas for how to create sets/props/costumes (art, creative thinking, etc.)

These times are dangerous times for arts in education, including theatre, music, and visual arts. But seeing these children, in the short time that I am there, embracing ideas and challenging themselves makes me wish that those who control the finances would go into a classroom and witness the learning that goes on.  I can give all the empirical evidence I want and back it all up with theory as to why theatre or drama needs to be included in education, but the reality is in the classroom. And it is a reality that we will be foolish to ignore.

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