The Poet and the Test

My kids have attended school their entire lives under No Child Left Behind, and more recently the Common Core. They are now in 7th and 9th grade. Each spring they undergo a barrage of preparation and testing assessments. It is easy for a young person to equate these measures of academic ability with a measure of their value as a human being.

I’ve seen it in my own kids. They encounter a baffling question in homework or a practice test, and they feel dumb. If I happen to be there when these questions come up, I don’t feel dumb and I don’t think they should either. I know better. Sometimes the questions are way off base. They are ill-conceived or even just plain wrong. They simply don’t measure what they purport to measure.

Today I read an article by Sarah Holbrook, a writer and poet whose work was used on a standardized reading test, and she couldn’t answer the questions about her own work. Why couldn’t she answer the questions? Because, she says,

These test questions were just made up, and tragically, incomprehensibly, kids’ futures and the evaluations of their teachers will be based on their ability to guess the so-called correct answer to made up questions.

How is this kind of testing fair to kids and their teachers? I’ve tried to teach my kids not to put too much weight into this stuff. I teach them coping mechanisms. I teach them to simply do the best they know how to do and to not worry about individual questions that are troubling. I tell them the tests are composed by semi-literate monkeys and they shouldn’t worry what the monkeys think. I tell them if they don’t know the answer, just say “potato.” Or on a multiple choice test, they can use the four finger test by slapping four fingers on the desk, and whichever finger hurts the most denotes an A, B, C or D for the answer.

Mostly we just joke around about it and I tell them not to worry too much about the tests. But they still worry. I think it’s sad that kids go through their entire education with this cloud of this testing hanging over them. And I have to wonder if this testing environment isn’t at least in part to blame for my college students’ obsession with getting the “right” answer, instead of having a curious mind willing to ask questions and think deeply?

If I had a magic wand, I would wave it and compulsory standardized testing would stop. We would respect teaching as a profession. Educators would be responsible for the assessment of their pupils, not for-profit businesses who put the bottom line ahead of kids.

Rifftrax and Birdemic

A number of years ago, I heard about the so-awful-it’s-good movie Birdemic. It has been on my watch list ever since, and over the Christmas break I finally got a chance to watch it. The movie has been billed as “The worst movie ever made” and justly so. It is truly bad.The screenplay is bad. The acting is bad. The directing is bad. The editing is bad. The special effects are bad.

Here is an excerpt to give you a taste of how deliciously awful Birdemic is:

Now why would I want to see such a disaster? Well, for one thing, I teach digital media technology. In our program, we learn about film editing, digital storytelling and special effects. With Birdemic, I was thinking we could analyze a film that someone spent time and money to produce, discussing the things that went wrong, and how could things be improved. After seeing it, I’m imagining there won’t be enough class time for a comprehensive analysis unless we devote an entire semester to it. However, we can look at some excerpts and explore the possibilities presented to digital film makers.

One recurring theme in the courses that I teach is that of “working digitally” or doing digital work professionally. Because it is an emerging field, the possibilities are endless. I want students to begin to imagine the kinds of work that can be done using digital media technologies.

Birdemic was created by James Nguyen, a silicon valley software engineer with a dream. Through persistence and audaciousness, his film became a reality. Using social media and publicity stunts at the Sundance film festival, the film was picked up by a distributor, screened in several cities, released on DVD, and by all accounts became far more successful than what should normally be expected. So count Mr. Nguyen as a visionary of what “working digitally” looks like.

I also have a second example of how “working digitally” is associated with the Birdemic film. I’ve been aware of the Rifftrax comedy website for several years. The business model for Rifftrax is to create comedy sound tracks to play along with commercially released DVDs. If you are familiar with Mystery Science Theater 3000, aka MST3K, you know how this works – basically it is a group of wise-crackers joking around about movies they are watching. After the MST3K television show ended, the Rifftrax website was launched. Below is a sample of how Rifftrax works with the Birdemic film. We see scenes from Birdemic together with the jokes by Rifftrax.

Normally, one buys, borrows or rents a dvd to watch, and downloads an MP3 joke soundtrack to play along with the movie. Over the break, I got the Birdemic film, downloaded the Rifftrax mp3, and had a great time watching this awful movie. But I think it is a perfect example of people doing digital work, creating a product that no one could ever even imagine before computers and the internet.

Recording a Professor’s Rant

I try to live by this principle when it comes to teaching. Don’t say or do anything in classes you teach that you wouldn’t be proud to have made public in the news media. This is sometimes easier said than done, because after all, I’m human. I make mistakes from time to time. I’ve probably already made one today, and it’s only 5am as I’m writing this.

But I am reminded of this principle as I read the news out in California in which a student recorded the rant of a professor about president-elect Donald Trump.

Orange Coast College Student Threatened With Expulsion After Recording Professor’s Anti-Trump Tirade

Every student carries a mobile recording studio in their pocket. Yes, it is probably bad manners to record someone secretly. And it might even be illegal. But if you need lawyers to keep students from recording and sharing what goes on in your classroom, you are probably doing it wrong.

Authentic Experiences in School

If I think carefully about who my “influencers” are with respect to my teaching and my philosophy of education, probably the most influential are Postman and Weingartner and their book Teaching as a Subversive Activity. My own experience as a student, particularly before college, was frequently one of suffering. Some of my friends liked going to school, but for me it was painful drudgery. I enjoyed learning, but I did not enjoy school. While the suffering subsided in college, there were still a number of times when it arose again.

What was the root cause of the suffering for me in school? The inauthenticity of the experience. Those times when the teacher was able to “make it real” for the learners were the times that I was at my best as a student. I never bought into playing “The Great Trivia Game” that Postman and Weingartner describe:

It’s a kind of rigged quiz show. And it seems to work only if the participants value the “prize.” The “prize,” of course, is a “grade.” An appropriate grade permits the participant to continue playing the Trivia game. All the while, very little, if any, substantive intellectual activity is going on.

Examples of times the learning for me was not authentic:

  • Taking a public speaking class in which most of the time was spent listening to the teacher talk about public speaking
  • Taking a computer networking class in which the teacher read to us straight from the textbook
  • Taking a teaching methods course in which the teacher lectured to us 99% of the time.

Instead, I preferred to be involved in something that seemed important, interesting and real—something I could really sink my teeth into. Something where the students were actually doing something. Some examples from my own education experience when learning was authentic:

  • In 6th grade, social studies students (taught by Mark Treaster) were arranged into three groups, Europeans, Mestizos, and Indians/Slaves. The slaves worked their rear ends off doing academic drudge work – worksheets mostly. The mestizos worked less, and were supervisors of the slaves. The europeans assigned the work to the slaves and mestizos, but did no work themselves. I was a slave. By the end, I was angry, because the europeans kept moving the goal posts by which we could secure our freedom. When the tables turned, and the slaves became europeans and vice-versa, we really socked it to our former masters.
  • In Navy electronics service school, we were taught with lectures and with hands on labs. We had practical tests, usually each week to show what we had learned, using the exact equipment we would work on in the fleet.
  • In college, I had a history professor who engaged us in critical thinking. We had only one date to memorize – 1066 – the year of the last successful invasion of England. He made us think about all sides of an issue using evidence. We participated in many class discussions and we never knew where he personally stood on particular issues because he was fair in exploring all points of view.

While I am far from perfect in my own classroom, I do take pains to actively engage my students. It is something I am continually working on. It also varies on class size and topic how much I lecture and how much we are involved in activities.

Denny’s Blog

I am always learning new things from my students. This week, I learned about the Denny’s Restaurant blog. It is full of wonderful, punny food GIFs like this one:

Hamboni Pun
Denny’s Hamboni

This is a great example of self-deprecating humor that shows it is ok not to take one’s self too seriously. Certainly this approach cannot work for all businesses, but it seems to be working for Denny’s.

I like the Denny’s work so much, I challenged my students to make a series of food GIFs and release them in their own social media campaign on Twitter. We’ll see what happens.

Literature and Tech in Classrooms

One of the ideas I regularly try to convey to students is that Social Media can be used for serious, professional purposes. A good example of this was an online conversation I participated in this past week about teaching literature.

waiting for something

It all started with an innocent post from my Internet friend Scott Andrews, a professor of literature in California. I’ve never met Scott in person yet, but we’ve become connected online through a mutual acquaintance.

Literature discussion on Facebook

I really appreciate these discussions, because I can see what professors from other disciplines are thinking about.

screen-shot-2016-10-31-at-7-35-48-am

I shared a comment about a speaker I saw earlier this year, Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, and researcher of young adults and their culture.

screen-shot-2016-11-06-at-9-37-11-am-copy

I couldn’t remember where the data on the plummeting levels of reading came from exactly, Dr. Twenge shared so much with us last spring. But I need to find out. In short, it is a real challenge getting students to read anything substantial these days.

But I seem to recall seeing a graph that showed the rise of the smart phone and the decline of substantial reading happening around the same time. Certainly Internet access has reduced the amount of novels, magazines and newspapers we read. But mobile tech has taken our reading habits to new lows.

My approach lately has been to break a text down into manageable chunks and have each student read and report back to the group. Although no one reads an entire work, we can get a summary of one with a group effort.

Anyway, this was a great discussion online, and a good example of how teachers can collaborate and learn from one another using social media, even if they’ve never met in person. Anyone can use a similar approach to learn in any field, if they desire.

 

Abstract Accepted

abstract accepted

I recently submitted an abstract to the ASEE Educational Research and Methods division for the 2017 national conference and it was accepted. When I first began work at K-State, a trusted colleague advised me to avoid this particular division because there were other divisions that would be more likely to accept my proposals. However, since I recently finished my Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction, I thought I might now be up to the challenge. It felt really great to receive the acceptance e-mail this year!

But it turns out that my colleague was correct. While the feedback I received was positive, there also were a number of concerns raised that I need to address in the full paper. I can do that. I am always trying to get my students to push themselves and take the more rigorous path from time to time. Hopefully, I demonstrate this attitude myself from time to time.

Fire Writing

Lia Fire Writing
Lia Fire Writing by naturalturn 2008 https://www.flickr.com/photos/naturalturn/
I don’t think I’ve ever heard the expression “fire writing” before, as mentioned in this Edutopia article, New Teachers: Inspire Your Students to Write, Write, Write. However, it is exactly how I got things going with my PhD dissertation. I just wrote. And I didn’t worry about how it looked or sounded. It was messy and chaotic, but I cleaned it up later. First I dumped my ideas out of my brain and onto the page as quickly as I could. Then I went back and ruthlessly edited. I cut out huge chunks that I loved and was left with the essence of what I was trying to say.
 
Another great idea from the Edutopia article is something I first read about years ago in Zinsser’s classic book, Writing To Learn. Students tend to write for an audience of one – the teacher. They need to stop it, and we as teachers should stop encouraging it. Zinsser suggested writing letters to a friend or family member about the day’s learning.  I think it is a great approach. Instead of getting hung up on perfect mechanics, get to the main ideas, reflect and write about them. Quit worrying about what you think the teacher might want, and write the important ideas in a voice that someone who loves you and cares about you would recognize as you. If it comes out wrong, you can always improve and revise.
I teach a class that includes a lab activity and requires lab reports. I wonder what those might look like if they were composed in the form of a letter? Right now, I have a prescribed format that I’ve been using since I first started teaching the course. I inherited the report structure from the person who taught the class before, and haven’t ever questioned it. Perhaps it is time for me to take a closer look at that important writing assignment.

PostSecret


Yesterday proved to be insightful when talking with my students. I am constantly stumbling over cultural references when trying to reach them. I grew up in the 70s. They grew up in the 2000s. I realized just how big of a gap this is, when I asked them if they had heard of the Internet phenomenon, PostSecret.

Not one student had heard of it. I thought that PostSecret was pretty common knowledge, especially among Internet-savvy youth. I thought wrongly. So it is apparent to me that the tide has shifted from one where my students and I explore the Internet together sharing a wonder of discovery, to one where I can serve as a knowing guide on a well-travelled path. Of course, I will always be able to learn new things from them, but even while to me it is still quite new, I really, truly know much more about the Internet and it’s short heritage than they do.

The reason I mentioned PostSecret is that I was hoping for establishing a common reference point that speaks to the vulnerability and hurts that we all have. I am trying to build empathy for others.

Every single person has at least one secret that would break your heart. If we could just remember this, I think there would be a lot more compassion and tolerance in the world. – Frank Warren

I remember hearing the PostSecret founder state this truth, and it has always stuck with me. Probably no one has heard more confessions than Frank Warren, except perhaps the Curé of Ars, so he certainly has a firm understanding of the human condition.