Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Stats for Dummies (e.g., me)

It's been a while (obviously) since I last blogged, but I think it's time to do as I will soon instruct my students: write everyday, even if only for the sake of writing....

I am a teacher of English.

I desire to state it clearly and succinctly because the subject of this blog represents an attack on my ordinarily singular pedagogical sensibilities.

You see, as part of my Master's work through the University of Florida, I am taking EDG 6931: Research for Educational Technologists. One would tend to think such a class might have to do with, oh, doing some research. Perhaps research for Educational Technologists.


Simply put, it's a math class (statistics, to be specific). Now, I can appreciate the subtle nuances of language, can spin yarns detailing basically any writer's methodology and its effects on his work, can even write fairly fluid prose myself (read: I am capable of being a B.S. artist when the situation presents itself). But whoever concocted such an obvious bait-and-switch with this one should be given her due. Research for Educational Technologists = Statistics? Only a veritable compendium of rhetorical knowledge would be able to produce such a fallacious title. Or maybe they are just like me (when the situation presents itself): B.S. artists.

Nevertheless, I am compelled to take it. This is probably the class I have been least looking forward to (heavy litotes here), but alas we educators are working in an increasingly data-driven world, so it behooves me to know how to collect data and if ever I suspect someone of -- as one butcherer of the English language said -- propagating "fuzzy numbers," then I should be able to prove such a case.

Still, I haven't had a math class in nine years. The students I have now were in elementary school then. Playing with Power Rangers.

We'll see how this one goes. I hope by writing thoughts on here as I go, I will better learn as I hoist myself up the mountain of statistical knowledge. I figure if I have my students reflect on their learnings, then I had better be a decent model for them to do so.

This teacher of English is about to become a learner of math.


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Continuing the Discussion

I actually posted the entry below as a comment to comments made by my peers (and one worthwhile comment made by one of my Advanced Placement students: You think she's ready for college or what?). I was glad to obtain the perspective of one sitting in the same seat I myself sat ten years ago. I decided to make it a blog, as I would like to continue this discussion and I know not everyone reads the comments made on previous blogs.

Thanks for your comments, all.

I maintain that speech and writing have inherent differences. The asides mentioned by Brittany that occur in spoken language are not "this generation"-specific: My friends and I had similar digressions and lost the focus of conversations which began without one.

The thing which makes each situation unique is that, when a person is speaking to another person in a one-on-one setting (as is most often the case when IMing), one person has an obligation to conform to societal norms and allow the other to speak. Even if he who is not speaking is thinking about something entirely different or wants to change the subject, more than likely he will wait to voice his opinion until the other person has finished talking. IMs remove -- or at least lessen -- the need to conform to societal norms prevalent in speaking situations. Though many IM systems now alert users when another user is typing, there is still nothing preventing the person on the other end from typing at the same time. As soon as a thought comes to mind, it goes down in the IM text box.

In addition, reading is a different cognitive task than listening; students' varying abilities to attend to listening tasks versus reading tasks is evidence of such. This must be taken into account when discussing where IMing falls on the Writing-Speaking spectrum.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

It's Evolution, Baby

Ok, so to follow up on my outage-induced last entry, I searched for information regarding the effects of text-messaging and instant-messaging on other cultures. I came across an article in a UK educational website. The article, written in 2004, backs up the research I have found regarding the effects of text-messaging and instant-messaging on America’s school-aged children.

The article did mention an aspect of the findings that I had not previously come across. There were two groups of students sampled, one which used text-messaging frequently and one which did not use it at all. Both groups performed nearly the same on a series of written tests, with each group making grammatical and spelling errors. The one significant difference researchers found was that, when asked to describe a picture or event, the group of “texters” wrote much less than the group of non-“texters.”

Of course this begs the question, what do we make of this?

First, based on other research I have found, I think it is reasonable to suspect that the group of texters studied use that form of media to communicate far more than they do any other media. While they may be forced to write a greater number of words in formal settings, the number of writing occasions is, I’m sure, skewed far more toward the informal text-message writing side of the equation. The number of times a person prepares himself mentally to write in a certain style will, I think, have a far more significant impact on his “default” style of writing in any given situation in which he is given no specific guidelines.

Consider the section from the book How People Learn entitled “Examples of Effects of Instruction on Brain Development.” It is clear that instruction has an effect on how the brain is organized. If, then, we view each time a person has an occasion for writing as an instructional opportunity, increased interactions with text-messaging and instant-messaging by students can reorganize the language portions of the brain in a way that induces people to write in the abbreviated form of those media. When a person sits down (or stands up) and sends a text-message or instant message, there are clear guidelines. If there are too many characters, the space runs out. If more text messages are sent, the sender will have to spend more money. If too many words are written in a given IM, it detracts from the “instant” nature for which people, especially younger people, yearn. Like any good rubric or instructional activity, there are specific guidelines and outcomes – both good and bad – for the “students.” This is learning.

Is there a solution to this “problem”? Can it be as simple as giving students shorter, more formal occasions for writing more? Perhaps. If nothing else, however, it is time for linguists and the crusading defenders of the language to lay down their grammatical swords and shields and embrace increased communication capabilities as a way to grow the language rather than shun these technologies for fear that they can somehow irreparably damage what has taken shape over thousands of years of evolution.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Ahh the drawbacks of technology

Not that I think anyone will be reading this at this relatively late hour, but if you are then I want to let you know that I will be discussing this article. It's short, much like the last that I reviewed, but it is leading me to my next search: the effects of IM and text-messaging on English in Europe as well as its effect on other languages.

Now I just have to hope that the cable doesn't go out again. I can't believe I'm saying this, but where's dial-up when you need it?

Friday, April 20, 2007

Wriking? Speating?

I unearthed some fairly interesting research on the language used in IMs. It’s a quick read – certainly one of the shorter pieces I’ve found and commented on.

The main point, and that which is presenting new possibilities of research to me, is that instant messaging is more like speech than it is writing. I never even thought of it, but the simplicity of that assertion makes studying the effects on IM and text-messaging on more formal writing a far different task than the one I embarked upon six weeks ago. I think to more accurately study IM and text-messaging, one would have to approach the emergent literacy as a combination of speech and writing, a method of communication that might present far more intricacies than either speech or writing separately.

Social norms must be taken into account, as the audience is a specific, ever-changing one. This is more of a concern for speech than for writing. Most writing occurs with a specific, static audience in mind. How does IM and text-messaging marry these two seemingly opposite purposes together? In this instance, my initial guess is that, if we were to think of writing and speaking as if on a spectrum (with IM sliding somewhere in the middle), this new literacy would lean more toward speaking than writing. Furthermore, the exchange between two individuals is far closer to speaking than it is writing. Even in cases when one is writing a letter (or email) to another person, the receiver can only respond once she is made to read the entirety of the message.

However, it would be negligent on the part of the researcher to disregard facts that sway IM more toward writing than speaking, or those elements that seem to blow IM off the proposed spectrum altogether.

Consider what commonly occurs during IM “conversations.” While one IMer is making a point about one topic, the other IMer may very well, at the same instance, be typing about something entirely different. Once the conversation-starting (-changing) comments are made by one, the other must choose to either respond immediately to that point or continue on with his point. One point may be lost, or returned to only after the other point has been exhausted. No social norms are being followed in this case: each IMer has her own agenda, and is perfectly willing to carry out that agenda at the same moment her “conversation” partner is carrying out his own agenda. Such exchanges would be awkward and, indeed, impossible with speech if two people hoped to take any meaning away from what the other is saying. Clearly this is far closer to writing than speaking.

Sigh. I can’t imagine how my wife was able to set her goals so seemingly effortlessly when it came time to choose her dissertation topic. The more I read the more questions I have. What’s different in my life now than, say, two years ago, is that I want to be the one to answer those questions.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

You Can't Spell Assembly-Line Without...

So I finally got around to reading an article I had bookmarked to read a long time ago. In Whither Educational Technology? Dr. Andrew Feenberg of San Diego State University talks about the choices educators and, more specifically, educational leaders have to make regarding the future of educational technology and, by implication, the future of the teaching profession.

I have to be truthful and say this article wasn’t especially enlightening, not because it was poorly written (it wasn’t), or because Feenberg draws illogical conclusions (he doesn’t), or even because he offers no foresight (written in 1999, some of the things Feenberg suggests might come to pass actually have). Rather, I ended the article thinking to myself “Duh.”

And then I realized the importance of my immediate reaction. See I’m only in the second semester of my Master’s program, yet I feel I have learned enough about educational technology to draw many of the same conclusions that Feenberg did eight years ago. So what, then? Am I done learning? Hardly. Am I an expert in the field? Ha! Sometimes I spend nights pondering what it means to be an expert in anything.

So what are the implications? Without coming off as a brown-nosing dweeb (it doesn’t become me, anyway…I tried it once and didn’t like it, like many things in college) I would not have been able to traverse the e-jungle of literature on educational technology without the guidance of my professors. Sure, my e-machete Google has helped me and my group members find wonderful, helpful articles and journal entries which we have shared with each other and discussed and built ideas from together. Nevertheless, it wasn’t the technology that helped us learn about technology, it was all of us together in the process. Thus, though his article is flat and at times comes off as self-congratulatory, Feenberg makes a valid assertion: no matter the desire of many to make education an automated process, it does not and should not become one if we are to maximize the potential of people and technology alike.

As this is a blog devoted to writing and the effect of technology on it, I feel obliged to draw some connection here. Well, actually I just want to. The connection is clear, I think.

In recent entries, I have begun to refine my attitude toward, and opinion of, the language and literacy of IM and text-message communication. When I began this blog, I sought to find literature discussing instances of poor writing on the internet, in forums such as blogs, MySpace, LiveJournal, and others. I have searched for weeks and found nothing. Maybe I’m looking in the wrong places; maybe I just have to do the research and write the literature myself, something I’m not averse to doing. I have found numerous examples of people butchering the English language, and I could kick myself for not having written them down. In terms of writing, language, and the broad umbrella that is communication, it seems even more imperative that educators work in conjunction with technology rather than having technology take the reins by itself. People want, need, often endlessly search until they find guidance. Some comfortably choose technology as their guide, but for many things, such as writing and communication, this can be a dangerous choice.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

OK, Computer.

In The Media Equation, by Reeves, Byron, and Nass, they propose the idea that humans’ interaction with media occurs in ways that mimic their responses to other people. For instance, people are likely to respond positively toward a computer which asks for opinions about itself from a user. Similarly, when a person asks another person for opinions about himself, more often than not he will receive a positive response (Reeves, Byron, and Nass, p.5).

The interesting thing to note about this theory, and the point with which I most disagree with the writers of this piece, is the idea that the cause of the attribution of human qualities to non-human things is that the brain is not advanced enough to view twentieth-century technology and the “relationships” it offers as not being a recipient of feelings (Reeves, Byron, and Nass, p. 12). The writers propose that our “primitive, automatic responses” (Reeves, Byron, and Nass, p. 13) are an impediment to our understanding that that with which we interact is not “real” and does not have real “feelings” in the truest sense of those words.

Reeves, Byron, and Nass use the idea of people who are able to overcome their “fright” during a scary movie by talking themselves out of it (p.13). What they seem to miss out on, however, is humans’ desire to have social interactions over which they have control. Most people do not seek to put themselves in actual danger, to subject themselves to situations that elicit actual fear. When we go to the movies, we are making a conscious decision to allow ourselves to be frightened because we fundamentally understand that that which we are witnessing poses no real threat to us. Though Reeves, Byron, and Nass would seem to conclude that our brains are not able to differentiate between various modes of interaction, people’s desire to put themselves in situations such as viewing a scary movie or riding “harrowing” adventure rides at theme parks like Islands of Adventure seems evidence to the contrary. We enjoy the rush of adrenaline we get from “fear” so long as we can control the environment, the situation, the setting. We can always choose to leave the theater, not get on the ride.

And what of the other scenarios? Why has research shown that people are apt to give more positive responses to a medium asking questions about itself than another medium asking questions about it? I don’t necessarily disagree with the assertions outlined in The Media Equation. There is, however, no detailed description of the manner in which the research was conducted. I don’t believe it is infeasible to propose that people generally, subconsciously, deeply desire to maintain interactions with non-human things in the same manner as with humans. This implies a far different cognitive process than that described by Reeves, Byron, and Nass.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Romeo, I <3 U

Ann sent me an excellently written paper about instant messaging as a new literacy. Throughout my research and discussions with my classmates, Laine, Ann, and Crystal, I have come to understand that instant messaging and text messages are not the end of the English language as we know it. It is simply a new way to communicate, one that our students have far more access to than they do more classical forms of the language.

David Craig, who wrote the paper, says “the United States is not teaching as much English as it used to.” According to statistics from the College Board Craig references in the paper, “enrollment in English composition and grammar classes has decreased in the last decade by 14%.” That number does not seem like much until one stops to consider the comparable exponential increase in cell phone and instant message use in that same time period. Between 2004 and 2005 alone, IM use was up 19 percent. That’s fairly staggering, considering how prevalent IM was prior to 2004. In terms of sheer volume, Shakespeare doesn’t stand a chance.

Unless we put as much emphasis on reading and writing as there naturally is on math, when students write formally they will, as Craig asserts, revert to the forms with which they are most familiar. In this case, that form is the shortened form common in IM and text-message writing. There are no differing literacies in the mathematical world. 2 x 2 is the same in any part of the world, and students learn this language beginning in kindergarten. The linear nature of math makes it inherently less challenging for most to learn than language and all of its intricacies and variety of forms. Couple this with the ubiquity of math versus that of classical forms of English language and writing, and it is very easy to understand why math scores on standardized exams have increased while language scores on standardized exams have gone down.

So what are teachers to do? For one thing, English teachers alone should not be forced to take on the task of working various forms and modes of language into their curriculum. Rather than maintaining the traditional teaching of social studies – that being asking students to read from a textbook and regurgitate the information come test-time – teachers in this field should consider incorporating primary source materials to teach their students. Most of the best orators and rhetoricians have had major impacts on the shaping of our world’s history. Why not allow students to read the works of Churchill, Lincoln, Kennedy, Marx and others? This would not only allow students to more concretely shape their perspectives on history, it would give them access to language being used in ways that most English teachers do not have time to cover.

Craig is correct in saying the English language is not “under attack” as many English teachers (like me a few short weeks ago) believe. However, as educators we must understand that we owe it to our students to engage them in ways that maintains the knowledge and thoughts of the past as a part of the conversation of the present.

Sunday, April 8, 2007


So I'm reviewing the software I downloaded (I'm really not a procrastinator..this is just when I have time to work), and I figured out something cool I could do. I can add pictures to blog entries using Picasa2.

Cool huh? Assuming this works, that is...

This is me and my wife out...somewhere. She could probably tell me, but she's asleep and I always try not to wake the sleeping wife.

Anyway, I just wanted to share this.
Posted by Picasa


In an online article written in 2004, Steven Krause talks about a failed experiment in blogging. At one point, he references our own Dr. Ferdig’s collaboration with Kaye Trammell titled "Content Delivery in the Blogosphere". I mention this because it exemplifies the power the internet has to connect people. In Jeff Utecht’s blog, for instance, I e-bumped into my former assistant principal. He now lives in Colorado. I never expected to have contact with him again.

Nevertheless, I digress. Krause’s failed experiment, and the circumstances surrounding the incident with the female student and them e-mailing list, led him to conclude the following:

No question, blogs are an exciting writing tool, one of the most interesting and potentially most useful to come to the writing classroom since email. Blogs work well for writing projects like the two I just described, where individual students publishing texts they own. But it's become clear to me that blogs are not as useful as the relatively old-fashioned technology of electronic mailing lists for writing that is interactive and dynamic. How does the saying go? If it ain't broke...

I think our discussions the past few weeks have proven Krause wrong. I do, however, agree that students, even Master’s degree students, need some structure when assigned, well, anything. I know I work better if I have examples to look at, some guiding questions or things to think about, something against which to base my work. I think such structures actually open up creative avenues rather than closing them off, if the structures are implemented properly. I like the idea of grouping students based on similarities, as Dr. Ferdig did in grouping his students together for EME 5404. Even though I’m pretty sure most of the class does “the minimum” three postings and two comments a week, as Crystal has noted a few times, I feel I am getting more out of these authentic discussions than I have in most face-to-face classes I have taken at any level of schooling.

I plan on doing blogs with my students next year, 11th grade AP English Language and Composition students. And I know that, even if I have the top ten students in school in one class together, they will need structure, they will need to know where they are going and what – generally – their work should look like. This is hardly a criticism of Krause as a teacher, because I have made the same mistake he made and admitted to: jumping without a parachute. In some cases I was lucky and landed in a pillow factory with an open window. In most cases, the ground met me, and my students, very hard.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Technology 1, Humans 0?

Editorial Note:
Wow, I'm an idiot! At first I wrote "I searched all my previous posts and comments because I think someone sent me this link to an article about
computers grading essays. I couldn't find the comment, if there is one, so if you sent this to me, thanks. If I found it on my own, well, I'll do my best not to break my arm patting myself on the back." I guess I should have been a better reader and actually looked at the author's name! It's my own group-mate, Laine Harling-Obando. Maybe not having the hyphenated last name threw me off...okay I'm just making excuses now. Thanks Laine! Great article!

Did you ever see The Shawshank Redemption? It's a movie about prison, but more generally it's a movie about what keeps each of us in our own personal prison. At one point about two-thirds of the way through the movie, one of the characters, Brooks, gets released from prison after a fifty year sentence. He is shocked to see so much change around him -- motorized cars buzzing past him, people in suits fast-walking to presumably important jobs -- and remarks in a letter back to his prison-buddies that "The world went and got itself in a damn hurry."

My obsession with the movie to the point that I can call up random lines aside, I worry that what is being described in the article is exactly what Brooks was talking about: everyone getting themselves in a damn hurry.

We can do in a matter of seconds now what once took months. Think about that for a moment. Really. In previous generations, if one wanted to communicate in written form with someone else thousands of miles away, she would have to: write a letter, fold it up, place it in an envelope, buy postage, attach the postage, walk to a post office, place the letter in a slot, then wait several weeks for a response. Now, all she would have to do is sign on to an ISP, type an email, click to send, and wait a few hours (or minutes) for a response. This system is far better, more convenient, and more efficient.

But it seems to me that the overriding principle at work here, the "I can have it now and if I can't I want someone to figure out a way I can" mentality, has become detrimentally pervasive. I don't particularly think we're at some pinnacle of human history: These are not the "end-times"; we don't face more or less moral or ethical dilemmas than at any other point in our past. However, what is different is that we can have more things faster and more conveniently and I think we are becoming spoiled.

Want a master's degree? Send away for one. Want that dress you see on the television? Order it online. Want to see a sporting event? Pay-per-view it or watch minute-by-minute updates scroll across your cellphone or laptop.

I'm not decrying these things, by and large. I am in a distance program for my master's, and I love that I can get a quality education from a reputable institution with progressive educators. I am typing in a blog which millions of people could read instantly if they deemed it worthy. I would be a hypocrite if I railed against the increasing expeditiousness of processes while using the expedited processes, and I'm not into hypocrisy.

But when I see things like computers grading essays, I can't help but wonder, are we in too much of a damn hurry?

Several postings ago I mentioned an article about Les Perelman, the man who found a "formula" for scoring high on the SAT essay portion. If he can find a formula in a system which uses humans to evaluate writing, how soon will it be before someone figures out a formula for the system that uses a computer to evaluate writing? And as soon as someone does, teachers will begin teaching it, or the conscientious teachers who don't will have students who figure out they need to know the "formula" in order to do well.

We don't seem to be very selective as humans. We tend to overgeneralize (see, I'm doing so right now!). If we can have one thing now, we have a misguided belief that we should be able to have anything now. This was the impetus for implementing a technology that evaluates writing.

I don't know about anyone else, but I can't ever imagine wanting a series of 1's and 0's telling me how well I write.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Processed Words Part 2

I finished reading through the meta-analysis study I referenced in my last blog entry. I’d like to focus on the quality analysis section on page 16. As I said in my last post, quantity is one thing: Anybody can be taught to write more. What’s most important and perpetually most challenging for students is to improve the quality of their writing. The study found that there was a positive correlation between writing quality and the use of word processing software. Eleven out of the fifteen studies analyzed showed an overall higher quality of writing from those students who used word processors versus those students who used a writing instrument and paper.

I’ve come to learn that making sense of the data is more important than collecting the data, so I found this part particularly interesting:

These analyses indicated that student supports (i.e., keyboard training, technical assistance, teacher feedback, and peer editing) were not significant factors affecting the quality of student writing. Similarly, the study characteristics (i.e., type of publication, employment of random assignment, employment of pre-post design, single vs. multiple classroom sampling, length of study, etc.) were not related to the effect of word processing on the quality of student writing. However, when examining student characteristics (i.e., keyboard experience prior to the study, student achievement level, school setting, and grade level), a statistically significant relationship was detected between grade level and quality of writing: as school level increased, the magnitude of the effect size increased.

The study offered no explanation for why the quality of writing improved – generally speaking – for students who used word processors. Based on the final point made above, however, I began to think of some possibilities.

Students spend a significant amount of their elementary years learning to read. They don’t, on average, read to learn until the third grade. Conversely, students begin writing the simplest of sentences in kindergarten. A common saying amongst English teachers is “students who write well, read well.” Well, if a student spends most of his time in elementary school learning the basics of reading, it would stand to reason that, regardless of the tool, her writing will probably be very basic and very formulaic. Also, there will probably be many errors in grammar, capitalization, and punctuation.

As students grow and learn, reading more and writing more, the chances are great that they will have learned a fair amount of grammar and punctuation rules. While students know these rules, it does not necessarily mean they will take the time to apply them, especially when using pencil or pen and paper to compose their writing. It is immeasurably more difficult and time consuming to edit words when they are written in ink or even pencil than it is to do so when they are typed on a computer. Within this paragraph alone, I must have moved words, re-worded sentences, and changed marks of punctuation at least ten times. I made most of these changes with a few clicks of a variety of buttons. Making the same changes with pencil or pen and paper would take far longer and likely leave the paper looking like an indecipherable mess.

I made the assertion last time that students, in general, want their work to be visually appealing, especially when it is easy for them to make it so. Thinking back on the two items we read about the mind, especially the Norman piece, it seems to me that word processing offers what pencil and paper were never able to: functionality and appealing design.
Of course, I could be entirely wrong.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Processed Words

I did some thinking this morning about the effects of using word processors in class rather than the traditional pen (or pencil) and paper. I was able to use my e-machete (google) to traverse the forest of available literature on this topic, and I discovered this meta-analytical study.

I’ll probably use this article for a few of my upcoming blog entries because it has a wealth of information. The first topic I want to focus on is the study’s finding that, on average, students write more words on any given assignment when using a word processor than when forced to use a writing utensil and paper. There was little discussion of possible reasons for the difference in writing, other than the same trite assertion that’s been made countless times in literature about educational technology: increased student motivation.

I’d like to propose another idea that I haven’t heard discussed yet. Studies have explored the idea that the current generation of students is more visually literate than previous generations. Primary-school aged children interact with more visuals than ever before, in the form of electronic games, websites, and portable devices such as cell-phones and PDAs. We all judge things based on their visual appearance anyway, but perhaps the current generation does so even more, especially in electronic environments such as the internet.

Word processors generally standardize what a text “looks like.” Most word processors are set to the same font size – twelve – and students would have to go out of their way to change the size or style. Students’ penmanship styles, however, vary greatly. Many of my female students employ what I call “oooooo” writing because every letter looks like a circle on the page. This type of writing tends to be larger than “average” student writing. Many of my male students, conversely, write in a way that necessitates the use of a magnifying glass. The visual difference between 150 words (a decently-sized paragraph) in one style versus the other is dramatic.

Generally speaking, my students who tend to write larger feel as if they are writing “enough” in part because there appears to be more writing on the page. What’s interesting is that many of my students who tend to write smaller have expressed that there appears to be “less” on the page than their classmates because they write smaller. Now, these observations aren’t true across the board (is much of anything?), but I feel that the justifications on the part of my students are enough to make a statistical difference in a study of the kind described in the article. When students type in word processors, there can be no justification, one way or the other, for the length of students’ writing. What they see is what they get, and I think students are aware of that. Furthermore, even for students who write average-sized letters, standard 12 point font takes up less space on the page.

I think it is possible that students feel compelled to write more in part because word processors make it appear to them that they are not writing “enough,” and it is easier when typing documents in word processors to add words, phrases, clauses, and sentences in than it is when handwriting documents. I’m sure the visual aspect of word processing does not completely account for the statistical differences found by the study, but it certainly is possible that it plays a role.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Multiple-Choice Text

I realized that I hadn't yet blogged about text-messaging and instant-messaging's effects on writing, so I decided to search Google and I found this article written by a graduate student.http://www.newhorizons.org/strategies/literacy/oconnor.htm#a

While the writing was so sophomoric I wanted to jump through the screen and write the article myself, the author did make some interesting observations that re-affirmed some thoughts I had already considered and made me consider some new ideas as well.

The first point that I felt compelled to discuss was the need for teachers to teach different contexts for writing. Though many English teachers cringe at the thought or sight of IM and text-message writing, it is not going away any time soon. Thus, it is a new and different context of writing that members of the academic world can no longer ignore. Teachers could, as the writer suggests, use IM and text-messaging to teach students the importance of understanding audience. Another way teachers could use this new form of writing to their advantage is to allow students to write in the abbreviated style of IMs and text-messages when preparing to write longer, formal pieces. Such a strategy might be more motivating for students in that it might make the process of writing formal compositions seem less daunting. If this is the case, however, teachers must take steps to explicitly teach their students how to shift from one mode of writing to the next.

Equally interesting was the fact that, love or hate the new literacy created by IMs and text-messages, this generation of school-aged children is writing more than any generation since before widespread use of the telephone. A positive side-effect that I had not yet thought of, even if the writing itself isn't scholarly -- which certainly not all writing should be -- it still affords students an opportunity to transfer thoughts to written form. One other aspect that just occurred to me is the need to be able to multi-task while navigating the internet. Children and adults alike now intrinsically learn how to separate different cognitive tasks they are performing simultaneously. I think this skill, in part, contributed to the success of most of my AP students, to whom I assigned two books to read at the same time. Many of my colleagues (and most of my students) thought I was crazy, but something told me this generation, perhaps more than any previous generation, would be able to handle such a task. Imagine carrying on three different conversations at the same time in a face-to-face setting. I have a hard time remembering when my wife tells me to take out the trash, and that's just paying attention to one person.

So, we can either see all the bad habits that IMs and text-messages potentially create, or we can extract the positives from it to make our students achieve to their fullest potential through this new literacy.

Thursday, March 29, 2007


This article slapped me in the face and made me remember why I hate the FCAT writes – Florida’s statewide writing assessment. The article discusses the work of Les Perelman. What he has basically done is found patterns in the higher-scoring SAT essays that have been released as samples, and turned those patterns into an easy-to-follow “recipe” for student success on the exam. Based on the score of the essay from which the paragraph in the article was taken, he must be on to something.

This is a far more discouraging problem than I’ve noted on previous posts decrying many of the unintentional, negative outcomes that occur as a result of educational technology. Here we have the ostensible caretaker of higher education in America, the College Board, giving into the same flaw that other high-stakes, partially hand-scored large-scale assessments help spread: proscriptive writing.

Here’s what happens. Schools are under pressure to perform at certain levels: Certain mean scores must be met in order for schools to receive increased funding and prevent school districts from intervening and removing administrators. So, the effects of gravity being what they are, the pressure (and other less mentionable things) rolls downhill and falls on teachers’ desks. “Increase scores. Increase scores. Increase scores.” Beyond the desire to please those above them, teachers – good teachers – feel an intense desire to help their students achieve at their highest level. Sounds good for the students, right?

Not so much. Teachers look at “quality” samples of “higher-scoring” writing samples, whether they be short- or extended-response or essays. Teachers find the same types of patterns Perelman did and teach those patterns in order to raise students’ scores. Now, for those students who are just poor writers, this might be fine. It’s wrong to assume that every student has the ability to write at a high level, so teaching the skills necessary for these students to perform to the best of their ability is not wrong. What is wrong and what invariably happens is those students who have the ability to write at a high level have this proscriptive writing rammed down their throats, they begrudgingly learn it, but they become so disconcerted with the process that they end up hating writing.

Does this always happen? No. But if it happens once that’s once too often. And I’ve seen it happen to students who are currently in my AP English Language and Composition class. My three best writers received scores on their FCAT essay that fell just above the school average. Copious other students, many of whom could never hope to make it in an AP English class, earned scores that far exceeded those of my best and brightest writers.

FCAT essays are scored from 1 – 6, with six being the highest. I have a student who assists me in the morning to earn service hours. On several occasions this past year, I tutored her because she failed the reading portion of the FCAT.

She earned a 5 on the essay portion.

Something is amiss, and this article proves what it is.

So is educational technology off the hook in my eyes? No. Though, to be honest, I’ve never blamed technology, just the people who misuse it. Proscriptive writing is the virus; educational technology just happens to be one way it is spread.

By the way, I typed all this up once, yesterday, and then AOL closed and I lost it all.

And still I love technology.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


One of the difficulties I've come across when evaluating research -- specifically educational technology research -- is determining the reliability of the results. Most articles I've come across have had statements lauding the educational benefits of technology, evidenced by some statistics showing improvements in certain quantifiable areas, such as state achievement tests or nationally standardized tests. And in those cases where there are little explicit improvements shown, the researcher makes some statement along the lines of "students improved in areas that are not currently measured by standardized testing."

This article provides many of the same assertions, but it tempers them by offering some of the pitfalls of assessing the benefits of educational technology. I was pleased to finally come across literature that mirrors some of the same beliefs I have formed over the past several months. One line stood out in particular:

"...we need to remember that technology is only one component of an instructional activity. Assessments of the impact of technology are really assessments of instruction enabled by technology, and the outcomes are highly dependent on the quality of the implementation of the instructional design."

Exactly! For all my cynicism, what I have really been trying to say is technology is not a panacea for all that ails public education, either in this country or abroad. This whole thing about the 100 dollar laptops? Terrible. It's all completely predicated on the idea that, somehow, sticking technology in some kid's lap is going to ensure that he transcends his third-world position and makes something of himself. Please. Such beliefs are misguided and could actually do more harm than good. All the money that has been spent creating these laptops could have been spent putting systems of learning in place that would have done the exact job these machines are supposed -- but can't on their own -- get done. And why on earth would we give an advanced piece of technology to someone who feeds on what most countries feed their livestock? I see a strong correlation between this large-scale misappropriation of time, effort, and funds and the smaller-scale concept that is beginning to be engendered by many educators: If it's technology, it must be good.

No matter what, we need to, as educators, look at our objectives, look at our students, and then scaffold activities to help students meet their goals. If there is a technology out there that can help our students meet their goals, perfect. If not, we shouldn't ram it down their throats just so we can say "I incorporated technology into my classroom!" Good for you! But did your students learn anything other than how to circumvent the school's firewalls so they can get onto MySpace? If not, perhaps it's time to look at instruction first, technology (as a tool) second.

Oh, and maybe watch what your students are doing instead of thinking they'll learn from technology while you get to sit back and play solitaire.

This is what happens when I'm sick, tired, and work with people who allow these things to happen.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

A Farewell to Thought?

I have to apologize for any part of this blog that seems trite, sophomoric, or otherwise unintelligible. My wife and I contracted some nasty cold or flu or something that's bed-ridden us for most of the day.

I found a website that, in the opinion of an English teacher, is a reasonable facsimile of the antichrist. It is an online "thesis builder." I'm really going to try to be positive on this one....

In SOME situations, perhaps for struggling writers, this "thesis builder" could be a decent tool to help students draft a PRELIMINARY thesis statement. It would allow them to be concerned with the content of their argument rather than the initial writing of it. It could feasibly be used to "get students going," as it is often quite the ordeal for some students to begin writing: I have seen many cases where it has taken students an exorbitant amount of time to start writing an essay, though once they actually start writing they have some wonderful things to say. The problem is -- for timed writings -- the clock would run out.

I have my 10th grade students write argumentative research papers; they speak with me throughout the process, and we edit their papers together (along with some peer-editing as well). This "thesis builder" could provide students a starting point; my red pen would immediately bleed itself onto the student's paper, but at least we would have a place to begin talking about her ideas.

One could, however, conceivably encounter students who rely on these types of "editors" to get them through middle school, high school, and even some college courses. I have already seen some of my colleagues allow their students' writing to become watered-down 5-paragraph-FCAT-Writes-essay-driven versions. Other techno-editors exist on the internet (some which require only a nominal fee for their services). One such techno-editor, Criterion, boasts that its services -- which check for grammar, spelling, and organization errors -- allow the teacher to focus on voice, style, and tone.

While I appreciate how these types of programs might help struggling writers, I worry that students who could become beautiful writers will miss out on learning the intricacies of grammar, spelling and organization. Could you imagine if Mark Twain had put Adventures of Huckleberry Finn through such a techno-editor? All the colloquialisms Twain used to recreate the time period would be washed away with the click of a button. Scary. Also, students need to learn when it is necessary to use standard English, and when it is not; students need only read the first chapter of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms to find a butchering of standard grammar that leads to beautiful, natural story-telling.

I think such techno-editors have their place, but educators should be wary. The last thing we want is waves of students who have become automatons as writers as a result of technology that does their thinking for them.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

History Lesson

I think it was my 7th or 8th grade history teacher who bestowed upon me an aphorism that will probably be passed down from social studies teachers to students for generations:

“Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.”

Well, it seems that someone didn’t do his research. In a book excerpt I found
online, David Walker (1984), an educational researcher, was quoted as saying this:

“The potential of computers for improving education is greater than that of any prior invention, including books and writing.”

Now compare that with what Thomas Edison said in 1922:

“(T)he motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.” (qtd by Peerless, Feldman, and German, 2001).

Sound familiar? In between I’m sure many other new technologies have had their fair share of people saying how they would “revolutionize” education. I wonder if overhead transparencies were met with such fanfare?

The excerpt I found went on to discuss the fervor surrounding computer-based educational technologies. It has gotten to the point that many proponents have gone as far as positing the merits of using computers with children in pre-school. Whatever happened to giving kids an empty box to play with? I can’t help but wonder if we are doing more harm than good at the neurological level. If children are not allowed to create their own ideas, how, then, can they be able to test their infantile theories against those of their peers? A computer cannot discuss the flavor of white paste versus that of colored varieties.

For all that it offers, technology will never be able to replicate the intricacies of face-to-face interpersonal communication. And verbal communication is the basis for all that follows; if we do not allow – or greatly reduce the opportunities for – language to be built naturally from interactions with humans and instead place a greater emphasis at a younger age on learning from technology, writing skills are bound to suffer. All great writers and rhetoricians, from Abraham Lincoln to Karl Marx, from Voltaire to Martin Luther King Jr., honed their skills by talking and listening to real people, not interactive Dora the Explorer games from Hasbro.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Charlotte's WorldWideWeb

This article http://www.useit.com/papers/webwriting/writing.html discusses the "proper" way to write for the web, making the point that writing should be "concise" and "scannable." The researchers found that web users rarely "read" the content of a website: They search for information.

Are you really reading this? Just curious; the writers don't mention anything about blogs.

So of course, being the mild cynic of the internet that I am, I immediately extrapolated long-term implications of this phenomenon. As society moves forward and children begin to use computers and the internet as early as 4 or 5 years of age, will "internet reading" become detrimental to their ability to read texts and novels at a later age? Also, will becoming increasingly familiar with "internet writing" have a profoundly negative impact on students' writing skills (specifically in terms of their creative writing)?

What might the future hold, then? Here's a possibility:

First, the internet will usher in an entirely new era of communication, one that we are only now beginning to realize. People will become so comfortable with and reliant upon short quips of information that much longer pieces of writing, either internet-based or not, will become antiquated relics. While the beauty of language will be lost, people will be more apt to be more knowledgeable about a wider array of subjects than ever before. Deeper understandings needn't be reached; basic information will suffice. Novels which explore elements of the human condition will become 15-slide, graphics-based PowerPoints accessible on each publishing house's website. Political propaganda will move from primarily spoken and written appeals to primarily visual elements that Democrats and Republicans alike can download on their iPods and share with their friends. Our world will be one that seeks facts, not truths.

Or maybe I'm wrong. If we, as teachers, take on the task of explaining writing and reading in different contexts -- as we have done for centuries -- internet writing may just be another creative, effective way for people to express themselves. We have to commit to the idea that the internet is an entirely different manner of communicating and understand that humans have been searching for new ways to communicate since our vocal chords could emit only grunts and cave walls yielded the first cross-generationally transmittable stories. Man certainly could not communicate the same manner of ideas with smoke signals as he could with paper and pen. The audiences and the tools are intrinsically different and produce intrinsically different results. So, too, is it with computers and the internet.

It is easy to take one form of writing or reading in one context and transfer it (incorrectly so) to every other context of writing and reading. That is the truth that many students have perenially failed to understand, but one that a spider in a book about a pig did understand. Sometimes, in some contexts, short and to-the-point is the way to go. It just isn't the way to go all the time.

Friday, March 16, 2007

1984 for $19.95

Although I teach high school students, as an English teacher my greatest motivation is to ensure that my students develop quality writing skills that they wil take with them for the rest of their lives. Based on my previous blog, you already know I think the internet could prove a hindrance to that pursuit. However, if nothing else, informal contexts such as MySpace, LiveJournal, and even blogs provide adolescents opportunities to write work that is their own. There are almost always two sides to every story.

Except this one:

The New York Times researched a number of internet sites that allow students to purchase " 'A' quality" college-level research papers for as little as $9.95 a page. My brain wanted to crawl out of my ear: I'm happy to say I was picking my ear as I read the article, so I still have all of my mental faculties.

Two college professors were interviewed for the article, and each offered fairly scathing reviews of the papers obtained by the Times. While both professors agreed that the essays they had read were not "quality" papers, even by an average college freshman's standards, I can imagine, somewhere, that papers purchased from the sites mentioned in the article -- as well as similar sites -- have passed for acceptable. These sites would not continue to exist if this were not the case.

Aside from the obvious, there are several problems here, though two stand out above the rest:

1) The obvious lack of either confidence or pride in one's writing


2) The obvious lack of professionalism of some teachers and professors

Somewhere along the way, we must be cognizant of the implicit messages we must teach our students. As the sites mostly advertise and sell to college students, those purchasing the papers must have some -- if even the most basic -- college-level writing skills. Remedial courses notwithstanding, getting into college would, I hope, be an impossibility otherwise. Therefore, the students who purchase these papers must have learned that it is okay not to take pride in their writing. Teachers and parents alike bear the brunt of responsibility for this lapse.

Also, as it is clear that some professors accept these papers and students earn passing grades on them, we must do a better job as a community of educators in determining clear guidelines for what is acceptable work (as a whole) and requiring students to live up to those expectations. Allowing students to pass without meeting minimum requirements is not doing anyone any favors.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Computers and Writing Assessment

I found an interesting article discussing assessments and their validity relative to the types of learning allowed by technology. The article, entitled Assessing Effects of Technology on
Learning: Limitations of Today’s Standardized Tests
, can be found here http://www.bc.edu/research/intasc/PDF/EffectTechOnLearn.pdf.

The article looks at standardized tests and the effects computers have had on students' performance on these tests. While a portion of the article discusses mathematics assessments, detailing how standardized tests do not adequately assess the types of learning made possible by computer software, the most intriguing point made in the piece had to do with standardized writing exams.

After reviewing several studies, the authors of the article -- Russell and Higgins -- note that, for writing assessments, the scores of students who were accustomed to using word processors to type their work suffered when those students had to write with pencil and paper. Essentially, students are put at a disadvantage given that they are assessed using a different medium than that which they normally use to write papers. Furthermore, Russell and Higgins note that "teachers across the nation ... believe that they are not using computers for writing because the state-mandated test is handwritten" (2003, p.5). It is clear, then, that students will likely not be exposed to computers as much as they could be -- and therefore not reap the possible benefits of using technology to learn -- if state tests continue to be designed in a way that dissuades teachers from including computers as a part of their instruction.

I have experienced the same hesitations. For Florida's state-wide writing assessment, students must hand-write an essay in forty-five minutes. It makes no sense for me, or any of my colleagues, to give students practice writing timed essays on computers if they will be assessed on essays they write by hand. It would be akin to allowing students to use calculators in math to practice for an exam that does not allow for calculator use. The most I have done is allow students to occasionally revise their essays at home to improve their scores on the in-class timed writings I grade. Students often find using computers to type essays easier because it allows them to, with a drag of their mouse and the click of a button, remove sections they find weak, rearrange portions to better organize their ideas, and add words to certain areas to further clarify their writing. Pencil and paper essay-writing simply does not allow this, certainly not with the ease of doing so on a computer.

Russell and Higgins conclude that these standardized tests must be revised in order to truly gauge the performance of students who work with and learn through technology on a regular basis. To me, it seems hypocritical for lawmakers to insist on increased use of technology when standardized tests do not accurately measure the skills that are taught through technology.

Thursday, March 8, 2007


Here I type in a media that has been the subject of my scorn and admiration. The proliferation of cell phone use and the exponential growth of the internet as a communication tool has led to a transmutation of the English language, one that I have seen creep its way into my students' papers and has, thus, been a cause of concern for me.

Consider the following. If I were to, say 10 years ago, express my love for someone in written form, asking her to meet me for dinner later in the evening, it might read as follows (please excuse the melodramatic sappiness, it is done only for effect):

My dear, my breath stops short for you, my heart slows then races then slows again. Your smile makes my soul smile. Please meet me at our place this evening, the place where first we met and fell in love.

Translated in computer or cell-phone language, this might now read: I <3 <3 <3 u! :-) C U l8r @ McD's?

Granted this may be exaggeration, but the Orwellian elements of Newspeak are certainly alive and well in our time. The question I have been tossing back and forth for some time is this: To what extent will these new media affect people's abilties to effectively communicate in a variety of contexts?

I will never forget my first year as a high school teacher, reading my first-ever batch of student essays. I was flabbergasted to see e-Newspeak in my students' papers. "U" as a substitute for "you"; "r" as a substitute for "are" (and in one horrific case, "our"). Surely, I thought, they must jest? However, when I confronted those offenders of good English and good sense, they informed me that such use was acceptable among many of their former and current teachers. In fact, it was the only manner in which several of my students felt comfortable writing. I did my best to teach them that writing in a variety of contexts for a variety of audiences was a skill that must be mastered -- or at the very least, acknowledged as a necessity.

As we teachers encounter increasing numbers of internet-savvy students who navigate (and read) more websites than their predecessors, will we be forced to more aggressively combat e-Newspeak? As more students join sites like LiveJournal and MySpace at the behest of their friends and, therefore, expose themselves to further bastardizations of the English language, will teachers eventually spend more time teaching students to write properly than to write well? While the "world at my fingertips" mentality among students is certainly one I hope they espouse, as I believe this can foster greater critical analysis of ideas and create more informed citizens, the fact that students will -- by sheer probabilities-- read a far greater percentage of poor writing than good writing leads me to fear the inevitability that they will acquire and apply poor habits in their own writing.

My future research, then, must focus on a search for literature related to this topic, and as I move throughout my graduate studies I hope to find evidence that will either allay my concerns or provide me the impetus to do my part to fix this problem. My greatest fear is the realization of Orwell's dystopic, language-impaired society.