kitchen table math, the sequel: Not learning how to write, apparently

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Not learning how to write, apparently

Salon has an article from the point of view of a college comp prof re: just what are high school students *doing* in English class these days?

When I ask her why she thinks there's such resistance to prioritizing and teaching writing, given its numerous applications, given its overlap with critical thinking skills, analytical skills, basic communication skills, she hesitates for a moment, then answers in three words: "It's not fun."

18 comments:

Bonnie said...

That is a great article. However, note that she mentions class sizes as a big obstacle.Since I teach, I can completely understand that. There comes a point when sheer numbers overwhelm any ability to give meaningful feedback, especially if we want to have multiple writing exercises so that students get practice. How are we going to handle that when there is such a push from Bill Gates and his ilk towards larger class sizes?

Also, I want to say something positive about today's schools. My son is in 5th grade. He is a good writer, but his teacher pushes him far harder than any of my elementary school teachers ever did. And they are writing longer, more complex pieces than we did in my day. So there is some good news out there.

Parker said...

From the article: "When you start talking about grammar, it's like asking them to eat their vegetables, and no one wants to ask them to do that."

There is a "social compact" that develops between students and teachers at all levels, even college. I've pushed passed the student allowed expectations before; students stop doing work and refuse to go along. You can hold your ground but it will be painful and your administrator will probably go after you.

Our society has given more and more power to students over the years in this regards. Students have beaten back expectations, such as needing to work hard on grammar, and the desire to keep the school stats looking good, the adults have acquiesced. It is as if the students have gone of strike.

Parker said...

Last part on last post should read:

Our society has given more and more power to students over the years in this regards. Students have beaten back expectations, such as needing to work hard on grammar, and the desire to keep the school stats looking good has caused the adults to acquiesce. It is as if the students have gone of strike.

Parker said...

And the grading is burdensome. This is a place where I think technology (and of course money) could have an impact. Have 150 students in your classes? What if you could submit them all online to a company that can provide good feedback on grammar by a team of people.

Bonnie said...

Why pay extra money to an outsourced company? Why not just use the money for smaller classes? Keep in mind, too, that good writing isn't just about good grammar.

Parker said...

Bonnie, it would probably be cheaper. Instead of 6 teachers, you use the 3 best teachers ensuring that more students get to have better teachers. Yes, grammar isn't everything but with that part outsourced one could concentrate on the other parts of writing. Of course it could be handled very similarly in house.

I just dreamed this up. I haven't thought a lot about it.

Hainish said...

Bonnie, is it class size, or is it total student load?

If you're talking about having to grade 150 students' essays, then the problem is that you have 150 students to teach, not that the students occur in classes of 30 vs. 50.

Bonnie said...

It is both, really. Teaching a class of 150 students all at once is very different from teaching 25. You can no longer really interact in class, and you are bound to have students in the back who are completely zoned out. For K12 teachers, though, who teach 5 to 6 smaller classes each day, I think the total load is the big factor. In a university, you may only have 2 or 3 classes, and if you are teaching lectures with 150 students, you will have a grader or two (although that is horrible in its own particular way)

Lsquared said...

Parker suggested: "What if you could submit them all online to a company that can provide good feedback on grammar by a team of people." which sounds good, but how are you going to find a team of people who can provide good feedback on grammar? I wouldn't trust it to be outsourced to a computer, or India, or some college students working for $10 an hour. Teachers aren't perfect either, but it doesn't sound easy to come up with someone who can competently grade these things for less than you would pay the teacher to do the same thing
(by giving him/her fewer students).

Jen said...

Also, outsourcing the grading would require some sort of a report to the teacher on individual problems and group issues.

That is, when teachers are grading they are assessing student learning and needs. They really do need to see and think about their students' work!

Anonymous said...

@Parker:
I agree with you on this. I saw first-hand what happened to math education at the high school level in the late 1990s. The reform push ignored the warning of the universities that these curricula and methods wouldn't prepare students for college math - and they didn't.

I fled the public schools and got a Masters so I could teach at the college level.

Now of course comes the "crisis" in developmental math at the college level and the push of bad curriculum into the college level.

Anonymous said...

But look at the analogies they come up with:

http://www.etni.org.il/farside/analogies.htm

Redkudu said...

"But look at the analogies they come up with:"

Those aren't from high school essays. They're entries from the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Check Snopes. I hate it when this thing comes around to my email every year.

Catherine Johnson said...

And the grading is burdensome. This is a place where I think technology (and of course money) could have an impact. Have 150 students in your classes? What if you could submit them all online to a company that can provide good feedback on grammar by a team of people.


Actually, there are software grading programs that are apparently doing pretty well when compared to human graders.

The paper-grading issue is HUGE (and I speak as a person who teaches writing at a local college). Huge and overwhelming.

There has to be a better answer (and I bet someone has thought of it - or parts of it).

Even with small class size (which I had), it's overwhelming.

I would want to **experiment** with paper grading software & with outsourcing paper grading as an adjunct to the classroom teacher reading papers.

The software I know about assesses student summaries, not entire papers, and I can imagine that software could do a passable job at that. Good summaries are pretty much the essential building block of good papers since writing is built out of other writing.

(I keep forgetting who it was who said that an author will turn over a library of books to make one new book...)

I can also imagine a reasonably successful algorithm for assessing grammar - which is what Microsoft Word has.

My experience is that the huge burden of paper-grading leads to less practice for students simply because teachers give fewer assignments.

Of course, I also want to see a much more 'sequential' approach to the teaching of writing: first sentences, then paragraphs (LOTS of paragraphs), then 5-paragraph essays, and only then longer papers -- which I think would help ease the burden on teachers and would yield students whose papers aren't so time-consuming to read and assess.

Catherine Johnson said...

lso, outsourcing the grading would require some sort of a report to the teacher on individual problems and group issues.

That is, when teachers are grading they are assessing student learning and needs. They really do need to see and think about their students' work!


Right - and as I recall Summary Street (I think that's the software) provides that.

A major complaint I have with the public school education my own son received is the lack of practice and feedback.

For instance, teachers here stop looking at students' math homework around 3rd grade, I think it is. Teachers in the middle school **never** looked at the kids' homework and didn't give frequent quizzes, either. There was essentially no 'formative assessment' at all. (We're having the same problem with a math teacher now in a Jesuit high school, fyi.)

The same holds true with writing, too.

A good software program and/or some kind of outsourcing wouldn't replace teacher feedback but would give students more practice-with-feedback than teachers can provide on their own.

Catherine Johnson said...

Again, I've read about software scoring - I've never seen it in action & have no idea how I'd feel about it if I did.

Catherine Johnson said...

I like the idea of outsourcing some paper assessment because the assessment of writing produces such a wide range of grades.

Just for the sake of the students, I think it's good to have a second reader at some point.

Bonnie said...

I don't think software is up to the task. Simple grammar analysis is possible, though Word is really bad at it - it gets tangled all the time. The problem is assessing the writing in terms of its meaning. A paper's quality should be judged in terms of how well it conveys meaning. Text mining systems can extract meaning as long as the text is fairly well structured. I imagine the software that is analyzing summaries may be doing something like that, or maybe something even more constrained. But what would a program do with a longer paper? How would it know, for example, that the conclusion follows logically from the points discussed in the paper? Text mining algorithms work by transforming the words in a text to a completely different representation. The structure of the paper would be lost. They are also really slow and resource intensive. I've looked into text mining for a research project that I would like to do, and decided that the technology just isn't there yet.

There are automated systems for grading students programs, and some CS professors use them to save time. I gave up long ago - they are very black and white and can't analyze a program for good design or readability. Grading programs takes a lot of my time, but the automated solutions suck.