Meaningful Work Study

It was an exciting day at the high school: alumni returning to share college life, academic and social, with high school seniors. Fortunately, it was an intimate setting — the classroom rather than the large distant space of the auditorium — and so students were comfortable asking questions and alumni were comfortable sharing and thinking aloud rather than reading from prepared scripts.  A panel of former students set up in my classroom and spoke, in turns, about dorm life and the rigors of college academic courses, college clubs and frats, socializing, budgeting time, costs of college texts, laptops and notebooks, but mostly about independence and freedom and how it is empowering and overwhelming at once.   But the most important information came from a former student, who had gone off to study at a prestigious and large university.  It was timely information for me, personally, because my own daughter was off to college in the fall of that same year.

I am enormously indebted this forward looking and tenacious student (because my son and daughter successfully followed his path in their college — setting this up as work study options in their college when no student at that particular college had ever pursued this approach before) and I share his story with all of my seniors every year, but I think it is important to reach out to all college bound seniors and so I am sharing it here. This young man was studying engineering and he wanted a college professor in his chosen field as a mentor — from day one — even as he was just beginning his Gen Ed requirements.  He ingeniously decided that work study could be used to help him secure a mentor and allow him to work (not in the traditional work study assignment –typically,  the university bookstore) but side-by-side a professor, who was doing research in the field he wanted to major in at the college. He made it happen.  The summer before he went off to college he did some research on the professors in the engineering program and selected approximately 10 (based on their unique research studies in the field and his level of interest in those studies) and he emailed all of them to inquire whether they needed help with their research projects.  The email introduced him as an incoming freshman who had work study and was looking to gain research experience and wondering if it was possible to do both at the same time. Of the 10 emails sent, 6 professors enthusiastically responded.  Now the choice was my former student’s and he selected the professor whose research study was most exciting to him.  At that point, the professor’s academic department set up this work study assignment with financial aid.  When the young freshman arrived at the university in the fall of that year, he had made for himself a unique, personalized learning experience with a scholar expert in a field he was passionate about entering, and for his work he earned money via federal work study job to help him with his education expenses. This student gained a mentor, real world experience, an enhanced job resume, a glowing letter of recommendation for graduate studies, and a confidence in making meaningful things happen when you have a vision and you make a way.

Student as Disrupter: Launching Peer Academy

Students as Content Creators: Peer Academy

My colleague, Mike Padilla, and I are launching a Peer Academy Fall 2013 at West Milford High School in New Jersey.

What is a Peer Academy?  It is modeled on Khan Academy, but what it promotes (beyond what Khan Academy ‘s vision for flipped classroom model) is an invitation to students to be the creators of content.  Our student tutors will be teaching lessons in History, English, Art,  Music, Mathematics, Science for their peers in all grade levels (recorded lessons will be vetted by teachers but students will be content creators and content instructors). The lessons will be archived on our district’s website and will be accessible to students throughout the district.

We will use our TV Science Program (headed by Mr. Padilla) as the hub for development of videos and our TV Science students will be directing, editing and producing these video clips for Peer Academy.  Mr. Padilla and I will facilitate as we stand on the periphery of this hub,  but it will be the students  who will create and curate the videos.  Look for our launching in Fall 2013.  I will blog on our progress.

We know that Social Media is so popular with our students because that is where they connect.  We see students tutoring students as valuable to both the tutor and the tutee.  Beyond the flipped classroom is the flipped paradigm:  student as role model/mentor and content expert.

The Sources of Plagiarism

IMAG0079Devices will not save us – here is what we must do:

Embrace the 21st century in which student assignments are project based collaborative pieces and testing assessment is the open e-resource exam (akin to the open book exam).

1. Collaboration eliminates copying  as students hold each other accountable for parts of the assignment or for equal input into an assignment.  Google docs for collaborative composition and Prezi for organizing data are two Web 2.0 tools that lend themselves to these types of assignments. Discussion board postings, which synthesize ideas of the collective group,  challenge plagiarists as students cannot copy from one another — there is a thread and the posts are in plain sight (identical postings would obviously jump out at the instructor).  If teachers pose a prompt or topic thread that requires authentic thinking – see my Hamlet and Machiavelli’s The Prince example below – then the instructor is likely to get original work from students.

2. Open e-resources exams emphasize critical thinking, demonstration of skills in use of data, and analysis of readily available e-resources.  Information/data at one’s fingertips means higher level thinking skills will be engaged. The “test” has to be designed with this in mind.  Data will be absorbed more thoughtfully in application and analysis.  This will mean secondary education assessments will be more aligned with higher education assessments.

Sources of plagiarism (pun intended) sometimes rest with the instructor:  we need to rethink assignments.

My AP English 4H students are currently analyzing Prince Hamlet through a Machiavellian lens (synthesizing Machiavelli’s The Prince and Shakespeare’s Hamlet).  One complexity is the assignment is inherently flawed:  I want my students to identify this flaw as they move through this assignment — on wikispaces as discussion board postings.  They will take academic risks, they will collaborate, and they will explore their authentic understandings of both texts.  This is an open e-resource exam.  I expect them to have an e-copy of Machiavelli’s text (via Project Gutenberg)  and an e-copy of Shakespeare’s text to cull evidence from as they work on this assignment.  I insist they do so because I am requiring quotes and details in support of interpretations and connections.

Let us cultivate academic risk-taking beyond mere memorization of data.

From Teacher to Entrepreneur–an unwieldy but ongoing journey

Sitting in my Adirondack chair one summer morning, I had an entrepreneurial moment – yes, an epiphany of sorts — achieved through a synthesis of my professional experiences:  teaching experiences as an adjunct professor at NYU, as a full time high school English teacher and — formerly — as a homebound instructor.  It was  2007, I had just finished my book, Preventing Plagiarism for NCTE, and I was restless, wanting a new challenge for myself. I am one of those people who are virtually always pre-occuppied with one idea or another.  I am accused of reclusiveness sometimes, but at such times I am fully engaged — free writing ideas on an abstract canvas — via my mind’s eye.

NYU had recently offered me free training in online instruction.  Because I live in Sparta NJ, my one day a week commute to NYC, was not too arduous but certainly the idea of teaching my composition course synchronously via my laptop at home, in my pink fuzzy slippers, and with hot cocoa at my side – was certainly highly tempting.  I could still do what I loved, and now in the environment I most loved, ensconced in my writing space (I am also a playwright) — teaching writing from the place where the muse met me from time to time.  I certainly embraced the concept but I would not be in a position to assess its merits or flaws until I started teaching my first course online. My composition students met me in the virtual classroom.  The class was live and the critical discourse even more engaging because I think we felt we were overcompensating for lack of body language. So expression became even more precise – diction, emoticons, clarification.  I found new paths to teaching, which re-invigorated me.  The passion was still there and we (my students and I ) inspired each other, learning  new ways to communicate and allow our minds to meet up in this new virtual place. Online learning is certainly not devoid of inspiration and critical discourse – odd condemnations that are floating around out there.   And the marvelous thing was, after these wonderful online sessions with my students, I would close my laptop and not have to commute home to NJ at 9:50 PM.

Eventually NYU went asynchronous (to accommodate international students) and I received additional training  to meet new challenges in pedagogy and online tools for the asynchronous environment.  But the classroom experience went a bit flat for me.  I missed students’ verbalizing and presenting their work, and their collaborating in breakout sessions, but mostly I missed the teaching that is of the moment – the tangents, the genuine epiphany of a student in response to Morrison’s Beloved or Roy’s The God of Small Things.  I found ways, in discussion forums, to engage and share but, as a teacher,  a light had gone out for me.

So, sitting in my Adirondack chair that summer day in 2007, I reflected on my various experiences as an instructor and asked myself if, after 23 years, I was ready to stop teaching at NYU.  At this point, I still view it is a temporary leave of absence. But, in reflecting on the past, I found myself needing the challenge of the present and I met that need for a challenge via synthesis:  how could I take what I learned about online instruction and apply it to the secondary school environment — my full time experience of teaching high school students in the brick and mortar environment? I pulled in an element from my past, my teaching of homebound students, and a light went on.  Why not enable teachers  to connect to homebound students (who are out for the short or long term and who often fall through the cracks) via synchronous online instruction? What if I could bring the subject specialist into the student’s home via the virtual classroom?    Typically, a homebound teacher instructs a homebound student in all required subject areas – staying two math problems, or one history chapter, or one poem ahead of the student.  World languages make the homebound assignment evening more challenging and usually language instruction becomes a monitoring of the student working through assignments independent of any instruction. Usually, the teachers who are willing to do homebound instruction are those that have lighter paperwork loads (grading) and that often means they are not academic subject area teachers.  What if I could secure the AP Chem teacher to teach the AP Chem class to the homebound student?  What if the Spanish IV teacher was wiling to go home and open her laptop (rather than apportion time to visit the student at his/her house) and teach the lesson of the day via the virtual classroom?   Then, what if I could place homebound students across the state of NJ together in the virtual classroom?  Other students, who are out due to illness or disciplinary action, were missing Algebra I, Biology, and English I classes. That would allow homebound instruction to be more like brick and mortar instruction because these students would no longer be isolated at home, but mainstreamed with other students who found themselves in the same circumstances.  The social element of learning would no longer be compromised in homebound instruction. In addition and equally impactful,  homebound instruction would no longer be tutoring but teaching.  My online instructor would teach lessons and assess his/her students.  Students would not be catching up, but keeping up.

Secure in the merits of  my vision for my company, I launched Innovations in Online Education in 2008.  I currently partner with districts in NJ to offer homebound instruction, semester and full year academic courses to supplement their course catalogues, and summer school.  We are a synchronous-only online education program – a decision made based on my firsthand experiences in both online education contexts. I currently employ a staff of over 20 part time teachers  but I am hoping one day to employ them full time.

The hardest part was the journey from idea entrepreneur to actual entrepreneur,  but I think the virtual element of the company allowed for this:  what could have remained merely surreal ( a product of my imagination)  found a home as a virtual reality (oxymoron intended).

10 Assignments to Cultivate Authentic Writing in an English 4 Class (World Literature)

To avoid students’ cutting and pasting in response to writing topics/prompts, design is crucial.  Students often need to be coaxed out of regurgitation mode (lethargy, comfort zone, apathy) – at its worst, this mode takes the form of cutting and pasting or direct transcription.  In Stolen Words, Thomas Mallon writes these compelling thoughts about this transcription mode:

For student, especially, the Internet may sap the very need to create, it’s all there already, or so it seems; all the knowledge on a given subject, and all the competing viewpoints, in a machine you can carry around like a book.  What’s there to add – and why dig a well instead of turning on the tap? (246)

Alice should go down the rabbit hole rather than pass through the looking glass that merely represents the environment. The experience must be a journey, in order to be meaningful.  She must interpret rather than merely report. She must take intellectual risks and shape understanding from primary source information. Students today are inundated with the secondary: immerse them in the primary.

For example, Meursault in The Stranger (primary source) makes for an excellent character analysis discussion board posting and if students search online they will come up with ample e-resources (secondary sources, for the most part) to integrate into their response.  And there may be some genuine dialogue among students in the asynchronous forum, substantiated with details from the novel, the primary source.  But often — because students lack confidence and then find information readily available, as Mallon points out — they may merely report the findings of — at worst — the diluted study guide sites or —  at best — scholarly sources (secondary materials).  Authentic interpretations may be few and far between.  Consider other ways of getting an authentic response.  Encourage them to wade in the primary only and take interpretive risks.  Later in the process open up access to a variety of e-resources, when they are prepared to meet them eye to eye: to recognize that some of these scholarly ideas validate their own authentic responses, while others challenge them (they will find points of intersection and paths of divergence).  The foundation for research and exploration must be established by allowing students to think for themselves so when they encounter the ideas of the outsider (scholars/specialists) they better understand them because the student has been through the journey him/herself.

My topics are somewhat broad to allow students to find a path into the topic on their own:  an authentic journey.  Students are encouraged to document their own interpretations using primary sources only.  I am constantly working on designing assignments — as I travel through life: in art museums, at the movie theatre, listening to music, reading (literature, history, science, social science).

The following may be used as topics for blogging or for discussion forum postings. I encourage students to free write responses rather than have them work toward constructing formal compositions in their blogging or posting. I think an informal response imposes fewer parameters to constrain their ideas and is better suited to blogging and forum posting (conversations).  Quality of ideas/interpretations and substantiation (details from the primary source only) are assessed.  I do not emphasize writing structure in these assignments. (In my next blog, I will include a sample rubric.)

  1. Compare/contrast Meursault of The Stranger with Munch’s subject in The Scream.
  2. Referencing Machiavelli’s The Prince, determine whether or not the fictional Prince Hamlet would be praised or upbraided by Machiavelli.
  3. Study Madeline Usher of Poe’s story and Beloved in Morrison’s novel.  Note points of intersection and paths of divergence in a synthesis response.
  4. Synthesize Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, with particular focus on Godot and Hamlet.
  5. How is the ending of the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink en homage to the epiphany scene in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?
  6. Write a dramatic poem from the point of view of one of  photographer Diane Arbus’ subjects.
  7. How is the tarn in “The Fall of the House of Usher” like the pond that Flora crosses in “Turn of the Screw”?
  8. In what ways is Roderick Usher’s character somewhat derivate of Prince Hamlet’s.
  9. Collaboratively, using a google document, write a short play adaptation – one scene of 10 pages only (10 minute play is a legitimate genre) of Camus’ The Stranger or Kafka’s The Trial.
  10. Consider the broad theme of the flesh versus the spirit as it emerges in Dostoevksy’s  Brothers Karamazov and Hamsun’s Hunger.

*My book, (Preventing Plagiarism: Tips and Techniques NCTE, 2007), explores the topic of authentic writing (cultivating an authentic voice and vision in student writing) in greater depth.

Read Chapter 1 of the book using this link:

Online learning: through the looking glass

Online learning is learning in an environment without parameters. Without direction, an initial point of entry, a student can be overwhelmed, wandering through endless portals without arriving at solid (credible) information. The teacher must become the role model of excellent curation skills.  The instructor’s most important role is mentoring the process of discriminating among sources of information. Alice should go down the rabbit hole, rather than merely pass through the looking glass of reflection, one that only represents the environment for her.  Part of the problem of the research of credible e-resources is that the journey may seem endless, hyperlink after hyperlink — portal after portal.  Students can become frustrated, overwhelmed, lost in the moment.  The looking glass is the replication of information without engagement. All research projects require an engaging in conversation: a dialogue with the source, a response to the source: content replication is tempting in the world of cut and paste.  Students must interpret and synthesize the information for the experience to be meaningful.  A subjective stance (a thesis idea in the broader sense or an interpretation in the more narrow sense) is a journey element.  It means immersion in e resource information and then direction (determined by the student). If a student merely collects then a student is reporting not analyzing.

The experience of learning must be a journey, if it is to be worthwhile. But it must be a journey that is grounded in the authentic and not lost wavering in the illusion.

The teacher should actively role model the accessing of e-resources, which is essentially research. Critical discourse via posting (wiki or discussion board) allows for the challenging/testing source information: these are the important conversations — whether the teacher will have students curate or create a project or a blog.

But curation is merely a collage of data if synthesis of information collected is never achieved. 


Evolving Identity

I started this blog post to share my ideas in Elbow’s free writing form on the topics of writing authentically in the online environment, research and discrimination among sources of information in the online environment, synchronous and asynchronous online learning, teacher as entrepreneur — among a few that occur to me at present. My topics are culled from my background:

I wrote a book, Preventing Plagiarism: tips and techniques, published in 2007 by the National Council of Teachers of English, on cultivating voice and vision in student writing in the age of cut and paste.

I founded an online education program, Innovations in Online Education, Inc  in 2008 to partner with school districts to connect state certified teachers with students in the virtual classroom — to supplement districts’ course catalogue, to provide instruction for homebound students, to offer summer remedial and advanced courses.

I served on the expert panel for CCCC on Online Writing Instruction — in 2011 — to generate best practices for writing instruction in the virtual environment.

I teach online composition and research writing for NYU’s SCPS and serve as a faculty observer of online writing instruction.

Looking forward to taking intellectual risks with you!