Monday, August 28, 2006

Laptops...Friend, or Foe?

The first question my students ask now as they enter the classroom is, "Do we get to use the laptops today?" When the answer is "no," disappointed sighs ensue. While my response to the laptops is largely positive, there are still a few problem areas I need to address.

First, any activity involving the laptops will consume at least half of the classtime, and if you think otherwise, you're just fooling yourself. Although technological difficulties are lessening each day, Blogger is still a mysterious and temperamental creature that lashes out when you're least expecting it, frustrating even the most experienced of bloggers and drawing out activities designed to be quick.

Second, as aforementioned, the laptops seem to be addicting. Many students are turning their noses up at activities that they used to enjoy because they'd rather "blog it out." While I recognize that this is largely because the laptops (and the blogging) are exciting because they're new, and that much of this will dissipate as the laptops become routine, it's still a bit disconcerting. I hope that teachers will use the laptops with me old fashioned, but I hate to think of a classroom where blogging is valued OVER face-to-face conversation.

Now that I've vented, I have to say that I'm pleasantly surprised by the utility of the laptops each time I use them. They do shorten some activities. For example, visual collages are much more efficiently produced on the computer than the old way with scissors, paste, and magazines. It's also helpful to watch my students compose essays on the computers and to be able to model what they're doing on the overhead screen. I'm also noticing that many of the teacher web sources that I've used in the past, such as, have links to interactive activities now, and the laptops will be useful for these, as for links to online literature that our anthologies are lacking.

I also see the students treating their laptops with respect, and the focus and intensity in their eyes as they work on the computer is unmatched. There is no worksheet that will inspire that kind of attention.

And I know of course, that all of these activities are still part of the technological dark ages, and that there are countless uses of the internet that I haven't even dreamed of, and this is more inspiring than it is frightening. But only by a small margin.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

"I prefer to finish my education at a different school"

And I'm not talking about Oxford. I was rereading Thoreau's "A Life Without Principle" just now for my American Literature class and found a passage that offered me a powerful reminder of what constructivist education is:

"We rarely meet a man who can tell us any news which he has not read in a newspaper, or been told by his neighbor; and, for the most part, the only difference between us and our fellow is that he has seen the newspaper, or been out to tea, and we have not. In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters, proud of his extensive correspondence, has not heard from himself this long while."

I am at least as guilty as my students when it comes to trusting "authoritative" voices before trusting my own. I push my students to question information that is "fed" to them and to listen to the weight of their own voices, yet I often find myself a hypocrite in this regard. After returning from England, I have found myself increasingly critical of American culture...I find myself sucked into a system that values the neatness and ease of homogeneity over the messy authenticity of individualism. With my Starbucks in hand and SUV in the garage, it is my copy of Thoreau that seems out of place in my Mizuno bag.

We are countering something huge here.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Back in the U.S.A.

I was reminded (sometimes painfully) this summer of what it was like to be a student in a challenging class, and I found myself desperately wanting to please my professor. I sent her a barrage of e-mails as I worked on my papers, hoping to win her approval, until she gently reminded me that I was writing the paper for me, not for her. Aside from being a nice way of telling me to leave her alone,--she was a very busy woman--it also gave me a constructivist-teacher-epiphany (let's call it a CTE). To throw themselves into their work with curiosity and ambition, students need to be reminded repeatedly that they are doing their work for themselves, not for us. I wouldn't have spent hours, days, weeks in the Bodleian Library if my focus had been determined for me instead of by me. Well, I probably would have because I'm too much of a perfectionist, but I know that my final product would have been far weaker.

I think too often that the discourse I use to teach writing revolves around me. I say things like, "I don't want you to use boring verbs," or "I don't want to find any apostrophe errors," or whatever. I have never once told my students that they were writing their essays for themselves, not for me. Writing an essay to ingratiate yourself to your teacher and writing an essay to satisfy yourself are two wholly different tasks, and the latter is clearly the one we're striving for here. That goal has always been lying quietly underneath the writing lessons, but it's been drowned out by the much louder, egotistical-teacher-voice. I like that quiet voice. While I'm sad that I've largely ignored it so far, I'm eager to refocus.

In her comments on my final essay, my professor described my writing as displaying a "linguistic felicity." This seemed like a strange pairing of words at the time, but I truly was happy--in a tortured kind of way--as I wrote and researched, and it apparently showed. I'd like for my students to know how this feels.