Grammar: conforming or improving?

I have been struggling with something for a few years. Who says that a specific set of grammar rules is right? While I have not specifically studied the history of grammar of the modern American English language, it is my belief that it is based on the writings of the white, elite men. That is to say, it is the “white” culture that decided what was proper English.

But stating that it is “white” culture is another one of my points. There is country and inner-city English, neither of which conform to the standard rules of English grammar. And within each of these cultures can be found people of all different skin colors.

So why do we teach a certain set of grammar rules? Because they are what is considered intelligent, as deemed by elite, white males. In order to succeed in this world, an individual must speak using proper English grammar.

But do you believe this is conformity to the standard, a killing of culture, or is it teaching success? How important is it that we kill this culture? How important is it that we make American culture conform to succeed? We teach other aspects of conformity, nudist colonies are considered outside of the realm of what is appropriate, but it is simply the human body that is freed.

My point is this, if an individual can string a series of words together and can communicate and be understood with this string of words, why can these sentences not be accepted? What makes one sentence more acceptable than another?


Be the grading difference

I have written a previous post on grading called The Potential of Success talking about my fear of failure in writing this blog. Well, I was right, I haven’t been posting twice a week as I promised myself, but I am still posting twice a week as much as I can. I have “failed” as I set out on goals, but I am no longer afraid of “failure,” I know I will continue to improve, and in the meantime, do the best I can.

But just as the letter “F” scares me, upon reflection, I don’t know what the other letters mean. My understanding is that “A” means I couldn’t have done better and “F” means I couldn’t have done worse, but can’t I always do better and worse? I actually made this comment on a post about teacher feedback by Starr Sackstein and then realized I may have stumbled upon something.

Starr bounced off of the realization that grades were not good for students, and thus teachers should be given more than a “satisfactory” as well. Administrators should give feedback instead of words with no real meaning.

I realized that, even though we have realized that grades are not beneficial to students, our society is still based off of them. A percentage of correct answers on a multiple choice test gives some information, but even that doesn’t tell a student what he or she is struggling with. Instead, teachers should begin changing the importance of grading by giving feedback and emphasizing the importance of this feedback to students and parents.

While some students will still make sure to always get As in school, this may be most beneficial to the students who are failing. Encouraging them to find out what they did well in may encourage them to improve other areas. Rather than focusing on the “F” on their paper, encourage them to focus on the sentences that outline the strength of their idea, their ability to be creative, or even as simple as their understanding of a certain aspect of grammar. It would be nearly impossible to do everything wrong, but an “F” can send this message across.


Grit, Money, and Moral Support in Education

Americans have a long tradition of throwing money at a problem. Our focus on the government budget is just one example. But money does not resolve every problem, or even most problems. Andreas Schleicher, in his TED talk goes into great detail about data mining and the findings as a result of research done on education systems from around the world. What he found was that money does help education, up to and including a certain point. Basic supplies and well paid teachers are very necessary to a good classroom. However, he goes on to explain that at a certain point, money does not improve education, the way money is spent is the deciding factor. In America, we have surpassed the level at which money improves education, and yet education has not improved as rapidly as in other countries.

So what can we do to graduate productive students ready for the real world? Angela Lee Duckworth completed an interesting study in which she talked about hard work, what she called “grit,” and how this trait can be the difference between a productive individual and an unproductive individual. Surprisingly, however, the findings showed that the students who did well in school never developed this “grit,” simply because they didn’t know what it was like to have to struggle. Instead, the students with “grit” were those who struggled. These are the students who succeeded in the real world.

So how do we create a work force with “grit?” While some personality traits and personal interests do assist students in school, there is nothing that should prevent a student from doing well in school. In my experience, the most common factor in whether a student will succeed in school and in life is the students’ belief that he or she can succeed. There are other factors, money, other aspects of home life, etc, but I firmly believe that any individual who believes he or she can succeed will succeed.

Support at home cannot be controlled. Teachers can send emails and letters home every day about the role of support, but if a parent or guardian is working multiple jobs, or is simply disinterested, nothing can be done at home. Support at school can be controlled. Placing students in the optimal learning environment, doing one on one work, not comparing, and celebrating goals met are all ways to facilitate a more supportive school environment.

This is all easier said than done. But we need better teachers, we need go pay the profession better to better motivate teachers. We need to do more research on how to discover the best learning environment for each student. There is no one solution, smaller classrooms won’t fix it for everyone, technology won’t fix it for everyone, we need to be able to observe a student and know how he or she learns and produces best.

What do you do to motivate and support your students?

Where should we draw the line regarding computers?

As my father would have said in the 1980s, computers are the future of education. He went on to work for Person County Schools in North Carolina promoting the use of technology before I was born, received his masters in education from North Carolina State University, and in the process was promoted to work for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction from which he retired when I was in grade school. He created his own company when entrepreneurship and small business was not common, but had the right idea at the right time and was named one of the top ten education innovators by an education magazine. While he was deeply honored by his inclusion in this category, he was almost giddy over the caricature they drew of him. My father set out to improve education, but not be the best. He saw flaws in the education system and foresaw how it would change with the technology revolution long before most homes had computers in them.

Clifford Stoll, I’m sure, sees the benefits of computers, but my fathers introduction to his TedTalk was that he doesn’t believe computers belong in the classroom. I am torn on this idea. Computers, from laptops to cell phones, are drastically decreasing our ability to communicate with others. But they can also be used to portray problems without bringing in costly equipment. I came up with this happy medium:

Clifford Stoll showed an experiment in his TedTalk about sound and wavelengths. He brought in several large pieces of equipment that would be too costly for a teacher and would require a large amount of storage space. Instead, a teacher can use a computer and project the beginning of the experiment onto a screen. To facilitate experimentation, the teacher then asks the students to discuss what will happen next in groups. The students must then do research to discover the outcome of the experiment. They can use discussion, their bodies, instruments found in the classroom, or even the computer. They will be assessed based on their methods, such as discussion or technology, and, if they use the computer, their sources. They will not necessarily be assessed on their answer, but on how they find their answer.

I believe two things have become too much a focus in education, the answer and computers. The answer is important, but what is most important is how one finds the answer. Those who can do math in their heads may not enjoy this, and this ability should be celebrated, but in the beginning a teacher needs to make sure a student is going through the correct steps. These steps won’t be the same for everyone, but they must be analyzed. Secondly, computers are great for finding information, experimenting, and collaborating. These traits should be taught, but also human interaction and that computers do not provide every answer. If there is a temporary power outage, people need to be able to continue being productive. Skills outside of the computer should be harnessed as well.

The potential of success

When I began this blog, I wrote at least five blog entries without even seriously considering publishing. I have a history of beginning blogs and then forgetting about them. I was afraid of continuing this pattern. I was afraid of failing again.

I feel as though this was instilled in me early in grade school. Just like many students, I have fear of the letter F on a report card. I am afraid of failing. It kept my ideas from spreading to those with other great ideas and more experience, and our ideas coming together to find solutions.

I heard a TedTalk by Carol Dweck on the power of “yet” in education. One problem in education is that everyone is on a timeline. This timeline does not factor in the different learning abilities of every student, as each student learns every concept in a different way at a different rate.

Carol Dweck proposed the idea of instead of assigning students a failing grade and demanding they create the course, we assign students a grade of “yet.” The students must retake the course knowing that, instead of failing a course, they have not “yet” mastered a course. The word “yet” provides hope.

I propose we go a step farther. Students master subjects at a variety of different paces, each subject requiring different learning abilities. For instance, I am not a science nor a math person, but I do well in some aspects of these subjects. I propose we have more of a self-paced learning strategy, incorporating a variety of tools including computers, student collaboration, and teacher support. In essence, students learn everything in the same order, as every concept builds on each other. Each mastery is celebrated. But as one student masters a concept, they move on to the next, independent from the rest of the class.

Because of my experience in the current education system, I feared the potential of failure at a new blog, and this kept me from publishing this blog. Students should not fear the potential of failure. Failure is a potential of everyday, but potential success should be more important. In taking risks, breakthroughs can be accomplished. We do not want our students to fear failure and prevent these breakthroughs from occurring.

The Public Education System Failed Me

As I have developed a passion for reinventing education, I have looked at the educational background of those I aspire to be. What I found were many Ivy League undergraduate degrees, a path that was not open to me based on my grade school academic achievements. I am intelligent, I got good grades, I have supportive parents, I was never wanting for anything. So why am I only now finding my passion, and realizing how detrimental my educational background is on my future.

I can probably trace my problem back to Elementary School. I was taught the same way every single other student was taught, but my personal strengths and weaknesses were not addressed. One example involved second or third grade English. We were given reading assessments in the beginning of the year, and I was placed in the middle level group. My personal weakness was reading comprehension, but I was placed with students with a variety of weaknesses. I was never taught specific skills to help strengthen my weaknesses.

This practice continued throughout grade school, average classes, average grades, with no attention paid to the fact that I did well on homework but not on tests. I did not understand where my deficiency was.

In my semester of student teaching American History and my year as a second grade Teacher’s Assistant in a low income school, I know that some of my weaknesses would have been addressed now. Through these experiences I have learned elementary skills such as reading comprehension, as I learned how to teach it to different students. But we still have a long way to go to address the weaknesses and celebrate the strengths of every student.

I have traveled and spoken to well educated people in New York City and Washington DC. Without exception, they were surprised to learn I had not been a successful student. I take this to mean that I come across as an intelligent individual with ideas to contribute. Why am I just not considered intelligent? Is this not what public education should have done?