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.

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 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

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.