(346) Running from Language

“The best thing we can do for those we love is to help them escape from us.”

Baron von Hugel.

This week I was going over an article about the value of video games with my 7th graders. We had identified part of the text to use as evidence of the benefits, and we were beginning to categorize the chosen pieces of text. One of them had to do with the thinking skills developed through video games.

“The category should be thinking skills,” said Alfonso.

“Well, what about ‘education’ as a category? Thinking skills are part of education,” I offered.

“No they aren’t. Thinking skills have nothing to do with school.”

And thus the conversation went on, with other students weighing in. There wasn’t anyone who spoke up who believed thinking skills were developed in school.

Alfonso stated it plain: “We just do what they show us to do, like in math, and then we just do that.”

Later in the day when we got to the same juncture in the lesson, my 8th graders put “thinking skills” in the category of education. I felt a secret relief. So I told them, “You know, my 7th graders didn’t believe thinking had anything to do with education.”

At first my 8th graders laughed at that. But it didn’t stop there. I went on to explain they said that school is just being told what to do. Education happens outside of school, like with video games.

“Well,” one of my most gifted students said, “they do have a point. We just do whatever it takes to get the grade. The point of most classes is to get the grade. Learning isn’t involved.” There was general agreement around the room on this point.

I moved on, but it definitely gave me pause to think. Once again I was confronted with what I’ve known for a long time: most of the time school really has nothing to do with thinking.

**

On Thursday we had a whole school meeting regarding literacy. We talked about the need to increase reading and writing skills across the school. We talked about the barriers and the need for buy-in on the part of the student. We brainstormed ideas. It had already been decided there will be a new focus on close reading. Although I know that, very often, close reading ends up killing the love of text, I felt that this was at least a conversation worth having. It is better than where we have been, as evidenced by what my students had to tell me on Tuesday.

**

I think too often teachers fall back on the things they did in school as a way to do things. For example, just because we may have memorized definitions does not mean that is the best way to learn new words.

As a Language Arts teacher, my job is to help my students learn to love language. It is a tough sell, especially for those for whom reading and writing is agony – and it is for many of them. Something went awry many years ago and it is hard to undo the sad patterns that developed.

But we must not give up. It is clearly recognized now that hip-hop artists and rappers use more words in their lyrics than any other form of music. This alone can be a motivator for young people to know more words. Kids are writing more than ever – just not in the ways we think of as writing. Complex text comes in many forms, and often does not have to be leveled down if we teach enough about the form of language, the sounds that enhance meaning. There is more to language than just a definition.

This is why I thought our focus on literacy at my school might actually be productive. I knew it wouldn’t happen overnight, but at least it appeared to be a chosen direction that we could grapple with as a faculty.

Then Friday came.

I got an email from my tech department that software was being pushed through to our laptops. Then we were sent an email explaining that we had a passcode to sign into these two new software applications: Co-Writer and Snap and Read.

When I had a chance, I decided to check these two new programs out. After all, here we were embarking on this new literacy focus. What had they found to enhance it?

Short answer: nothing. In fact, the full answer is that these “assistive programs” for “personalized learning” will set our cause back quite a bit.

Co-Writer is a program that will pop up several ideas for the “next word” when a student is writing. As a writing teacher I am highly offended by this. My first thought – here it is again, what Alfonso had clearly stated: Just show them what to do so they can get through it. If the goal is to get any old paragraph written, then Co–Writer can definitely comply.

But what about learning how to use language? What about the nuances? Connotations? What about finding voice through our word choices? After all, the thing that makes good writing is diction. Sure, if I am the science teacher and I want a paragraph written about volcanoes, it can get done easily. But as a writing teacher, I know this sets my cause back. It undoes every damn thing I work for throughout the year – helping my students find their voice, to put their thinking on paper, to show some creative effort, to organize and focus and elaborate.

Do I know that perhaps this type of program is useful for English Language Learners? Yes, it may be – I have some of those as well. But guess what? They’ve been writing in my class. They’ve been getting through. Will this set them back in what they already know?

Then there is Snap and Read. This is a nifty application that can take any text and READ it to the student. Not only that, it can level it for them with a click of a button. The video for this program showed the leveling of the Prologue for Romeo and Juliet — one of the best pieces of Shakespeare’s writing to engage students. I’ve had several instances of choral reading the Prologue and having the students get the meaning quite easily. It doesn’t have to be “leveled.”

Most of this, unfortunately, goes back to expecting students to do a lot of this reading on their own. But as most of us who’ve been in the education game for a while know, the students who will read it on their own will make their way through it. Those who cannot read on their own, or who have no support at home, will not do it anyway – leveled or not. Snap and Read insultingly promotes “data” on how many words the student has read. What can they possibly mean “have read?” First of all, the program is reading it to them. Secondly, if the data becomes the object (which it very well could) who’s to say the student is even sitting there when the text is reading itself out loud? This entire thing deeply disturbed me. I knew, once again, I was going to be facing more barriers in my classroom if teachers in my school use this program on a regular basis.

**

Needless to say, my naïve excitement at the prospect of moving forward as a school into actually focusing on THINKING and LEARNING has been totally squashed. I tried all day today to not write this essay. I can see where this is heading, and I know that I will have to continue to fight the power of poor educational ideas put forth to make money for someone else.

Meanwhile, our students will continue to suffer as they use programs that will do all the work for them. They will never have to struggle with complex text. They will never have to think through a piece of writing. Woe to us if we expect them to.

We as educators should not be running away from language just because we are afraid of the deficits we see. We need to find creative ways to engage and move the thinking skills to deeper and deeper areas, always using right use of language as a means to teach young people how to communicate as speakers, scientists, mathematicians, artists, musicians, dramatists, historians, and writers. It is our job to create the next class of adults who know how to think critically and creatively, as well as communicate effectively. Thinking skills need to be a vital part of the educational life of a student. It shouldn’t just be reserved for the world of video games.

 

 

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