Monthly Archives: March 2015

Problem Statement for Adaptability Project Meeting on 3.23.15

The Adaptability Project is comprised of a group of George School faculty members who will come together over a two-year period to study the new landscape of secondary education. We will share readings, discuss vision and strategy, and engage the community in a larger conversation about how the school can adapt as we strive to remain vital and relevant.

It looks like we are finally getting down to brass tacks on the Adaptability Project. This coming Monday we will begin to focus in on the actual areas of interest we each hope to explore over the remaining life of the project. To whit, we’ve been asked to bring a “problem statement” that we can work on with a partner using a Design Thinking framework. Here’s mine:

How can our school remain relevant in the face of disruptive new players entering the market? How do we respond to technological disruption with a value proposition of our own? How do we continue to offer “transformational teaching” when more and more instruction is being delivered digitally?

We’ve been asked repeatedly throughout the project not to prejudge the outcome. That is tough for me, but I’m trying my best to comply. To address the problem I’ve identified above, I want to explore blended learning, unbundling, BYOD policies, STEAM, the Maker movement, 20% time, and other recent pedagogies. I’ve already been experimenting with some of these concepts in my class this year. For instance, I’ve flipped my vocabulary instruction (a blended learning strategy), and I’ve instituted a BYOD policy that has students using their devices productively in class. I stopped short of putting 20% time in place this year, but I am still considering it for next year. The STEAM and Maker movement concepts are less relevant in my English classroom, but as a former art history teacher, I try to integrate an analysis of design from time to time as the opportunity arises.

Without prejudging the outcome too much, where (in broad strokes) do I think this is going? What do we need to do in order to remain relevant? Instruction is going to need to become more personalized. The needs of each student are going to have to be met with greater individualization, and that will be data-driven. Technology will play a significant role by helping teachers assess what each student’s strengths and weaknesses are, and less and less time will be spent in a “sage on the stage” mode in the classroom. A teacher who today teaches four class sections might in the future teach two or three, but she will spend the freed-up time in one-on-one instructional (or very small group) meetings.

None of the thoughts in the previous paragraph are revolutionary. They are threatening to traditional classroom teachers who fear change, however. As for me, I side with Eric Shinseki on this issue: “If you dislike change, you’re going to dislike irrelevance even more.” The focus of my Adaptability Project problem is staving off irrelevance.

Spring Break Reading

I’m always trying to keep up with my independent reading in order to set a good example for my English students. Long vacations are an opportunity to unplug and just sit down with a good book. I brought two books with me on my recent spring break getaway.

I started off with New York 1, Tel Aviv 0, a collection of short stories by Shelly Oria. I found the book displayed on the featured new fiction table at Labyrinth Books in Princeton. The stories feature characters who are astride two worlds; most are Israeli expats living in New York. They are both Israeli and American, they think in English and Hebrew, and they are often bisexual to boot. The tales are often so direct in their frank delivery that you could accuse them of being too blunt, but that’s an Israeli personality trait that the the author occasionally references within the fictions themselves. I enjoyed the collection so much that I’d like to find one of the stories to share with my students this spring. (Many are too explicit, I’m afraid.)

I’ve wanted to read something by Edna Ferber for a long time. She is often an answer to NYTimes Crossword Puzzle clues (“______ Ferber, author of Giant“); they like four-letter words with useful vowels. While rummaging around the English department office looking at essay collections to use with my students, I found a musty old hardcover copy of Ferber’s So Big. Actually, the book was one of the ones owned by our school library and slated for the trash bin. I have a colleague who likes to rescue these books and rehabilitate them. In truth, I don’t think anyone was ever going to pull this copy of So Big off the shelf in our office if I hadn’t done so, but just by finding one additional marginal reader, my colleague has made his point. So Big is the kind of novel that I typically don’t like; a multi-generational tale of the rise and fall of the fortunes of an American family. But Ferber creates wonderful set pieces and describes early 20th century Chicago with such energy that I found myself engrossed. I wasn’t as emotionally involved as I was when I read Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons (which is a masterpiece of the genre), but I appreciate that the author’s moralizing was a little gentler.

I have a little under a week of vacation left. Maybe I can squeeze in one more book before it’s time to get back to class. Suggestions?

Millennials and Writing

This article from last week’s NYTimes about digital punctuation and text-message style writing has generated a lot of buzz among secondary school teachers. Coincidentally, I’ve just finished grading forty-four short stories written by my ninth graders, so the stylistic hallmarks of people born in the year 2000 are fresh in my mind.

Nearly every student in this cohort spells the word “okay” without the “ay.” They just render it as a lowercase “ok.” I diligently write each of them a note in the margin telling them that they can either use “O.K.” or “okay,” but never “ok.” I have no doubt that this habit comes from growing up in an SMS/Twitter environment. Whether or not this is a stylistic fight worth dying for is an open question. After all, “okay” isn’t really a word with a long and dignified etymology in the first place. It is relatively recent slang, so why should English teachers defend officially “correct” versions of it anyway? (I fight hard to keep them from spelling “judgment” with an extra E, however.)

Another interesting quirk of these true-Millennials is that they virtually never indent the first line of a paragraph. It’s like they think everything they are writing is a business letter. Ironically, I am composing this blog post inside WordPress’ blogging platform, and the theme I chose for my blog defaults to no paragraph indents. Still, this seems like a change in students’ writing habits that has just occurred in the last few years. I never used to need to remind students to indent each new paragraph.

My own role in all of this is a little ambiguous. I led a school-wide blogging effort, and I am the only teacher at my school who requires students to use Twitter for class. If I am pushing students to work in new media that have their own formatting quirks or character restrictions, am I to blame for the collapse of stylish writing? I don’t believe that to be the case. Students should be able to communicate effectively and with situationally appropriate style in a variety of media. Being able to “code switch” from a formal essay to a blog post to a tweet to a job application is a skill that well-educated people will need in order to find success in our multi-platform, media-rich, first-world environment. In this case, I think more is more. And by the way, many of my ninth graders’ short stories are literary masterpieces. Just because they text a lot doesn’t mean they can’t write like young Salingers or Atwoods when the assignment calls for it,