Tuesday, May 29, 2007

When Students Write Online

When students write online, they use the Internet abbreviations that can test the nerves of readers used to standard written English. “Kids Have Their Own Language,” an article from WCPO-TV9, discusses how language shortcuts like LOL and G8 have become part of the everyday lingo for today’s students. The article touches on the conflict between this online language and the language of standard written English:

Given the popularity of texting and instant messaging, she said it’s no surprise that educators are finding more of the language in school classwork.

“They use it as a communication tool and, so when they write quickly, they will in a journal or informal writing assignment, it will come out as their shorthand for what they write.”

Rather than be viewed as a negative, [Beth] Rimer said at least kids are communicating . . . even if we don’t always know what about.
Student sending text messageAs Rimer suggests, we need to focus on the fact that kids are writing. They are communicating with other friends, expressing themselves, and having fun with language. What more could a writing teacher ask for?

I know. I know. We want them to make informed language decisions, but this challenge is not new. The slang and lingo of the moment has crept into students’ writing for as long as there have been students. All we have to do is talk about how audience and purpose relate to language use in a wider range of circumstances.

When I talk about audience and purpose with students, I usually propose writing situations and ask students to decide what kind of language is appropriate: What kind of language do you use in a letter to the editor of the school paper? What word choice is appropriate in a lab report? How would you adjust the language of a message about the same topic to two different audiences? In addition, however, we need to talk about the times when students are welcome to use Internet abbreviations. Consider the following possibilities:
  • What abbreviations are appropriate in personal journal entries?
  • What kind of language should you use on a peer review form?
  • What abbreviations can you use in the comments you write on someone else’s draft?
  • Can you use emoticons (or smileys) on the class e-mail list?
  • What language is appropriate for class blog entries and comments on class blogs?
In all of these instances, some form of Internet abbreviations is probably acceptable, and it’s just as important to talk about when Internet abbreviations are welcome in the classroom as it is to talk about when they should be avoided. If we’re lucky, some of the fun students have when they write on the Internet might transfer to their writing in the classroom—and what teacher wouldn’t be happier when students enjoy writing? :-)

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

To Bee, or Not to Bee?

Flip your television to ABC at 8:00 EDT on the last day of this month, and you’ll catch the Championship Finals of the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Tune in to ESPN earlier that day, and you’ll find the semifinals. Spelling has apparently become prime time entertainment—but spelling bees still aren’t good pedagogy.

As a recent Washington Post article suggests, spelling bees provide limited support to students learning about words and the ways that they work. Sue Ann Gleason, the teacher quoted in the article explains the spelling bees “honor the children who already know how to spell, but they do little to support those who need explicit instruction.” If students truly prepare for a bee, they can certainly learn some spelling rules, and the allowances to ask questions about a word’s definition or language of origin encourage students to think of the quiz word in a variety of contexts. Those very questions, however, demonstrate the problem.

Spelling bees ask students to look at words in isolation. Students have to ask for a context because there is none. In fact, the words are frequently ones that students themselves would never use. When was the last time a student you taught needed the word appoggiatura or Ursprache (the final words in the 2005 and 2006 Scripps Finals)? With such words, what context could ever be authentic for a student?

The most effective way for students to learn spelling is in the context of the reading and writing that they do—not word-by-word in a parade of spellers on a stage. To bee, or not to bee? I‘ll take authentic spelling instruction over a spelling bee every time!

For more resources on authentic spelling instruction, check out the Spelling Teaching Resource Collection on the NCTE site.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Why I Don’t Worry about Plagiarism

The EdWeek story on the anti-plagiarism service Turnitin.com discusses how concerns over plagiarism and cheating cause conflicts between students’ rights and teachers’ strategies in the writing classroom. We expect the texts students turn in to be original. Students should be the authors and owners of whatever compositions they submit. Yet anti-plagiarism services take away that ownership.

It’s not just the legal problem of services like Turnitin.com. It’s a deeper pedagogical problem when we ask students to take ownership of their work and then deny them ultimate authority over that work.

Preventing PlagiarismLike Laura Hennessey DeSena, author of NCTE’s Preventing Plagiarism: Tips and Techniques, I believe that the best way to avoid plagiarism is to focus on strong writing pedagogy. When students are engaged in the writing process and share their work from inspiration to polished copy, plagiarism problems disappear. Practices such as these can help eliminate any worries about plagiarism and cheating:

  • Encourage students to choose topics that matter to them. When students want to know more about a topic, their research is authentic and meaningful.

  • Ask students to share their drafts (all of them, from jotted notes to sloppy copy to published submissions) in class and in conferences. When everyone in the class sees texts from beginning to end, students’ work is obvious and open.

  • Have students write and revise drafts in class. Writer’s workshop models not only produce stronger student writing but also focus on authentic student writing. When you see students writing, you don’t question where student writing comes from.

  • Invite students to share their process and the thinking behind their compositions. When students show how they move from outside resources to specific references in their own work, they identify their sources and open the door to discussion on any questions about formatting and citations.

Perhaps it seems simplistic, but the real solution to plagiarism from my perspective isn’t having (or forcing) students to turn in their work to a faceless clearinghouse. It’s asking students to turn in drafts and journals and snippets of their work throughout the inquiry process.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Taken Out of Context

Context matters. When someone’s words or ideas are taken out of context, things don’t make sense. The ideas can end up twisted, unclear, or contradictory.

We hear about such situations all the time. In the last few weeks, for instance, ex-CIA director George Tenet has been making the talk-show rounds talking about how his “slam dunk” comments on the Iraq War were taken out of context. Such cries of “out of context” raise red flags for listeners and readers. No matter how closely we read the text, we know the original meaning may be lost in the new context.

Yet in the world of grammar instruction and assessment, things are taken out of context all the time. The Sun-Sentinel article “FCAT Writing Scores Show Many Students Struggle with Grammar” explains, “teaching grammar in isolation isn’t effective because even if students complete worksheets on language rules, they may not apply those skills in their own writing.” In other words, when grammar is taught out of context, students do not learn how to use the strategies in the essays and stories that they write—and they may not recognize the correct (or incorrect) usages in a new context.

This conflict is not new to me. I’ve taught English for years. I know the various rules of grammar and mechanics. When I see grammar questions out of context, I can adapt. I’m an English teacher. They can’t trick me with their out-of-context grammar and punctuation questions—or so I thought when I decided to try my hand at the sample FCAT grammar questions included as a sidebar to the Sun-Sentinel article.

Sample FCAT question
As I worked through the sample, I came to a series of questions on crocodiles and stumbled on question 7. I read the question to myself: “Some of a crocodile’s teeth can be seen when its mouth _______.” That sudden burst of test-taker’s anxiety rushed through me.

I’m well past the age when I would have memorized random animal facts. I’m lucky if I get the dogs’ names right. So here I was trying to remember the details on crocodiles and alligators, panicking about science facts that I forgot long ago. Open? Closed? Underwater? Damn! Oh, wait, context doesn’t matter. Factual accuracy isn’t important. Sigh. They got me.

Ultimately I earned my 100% on the sample questions, but I was also concretely reminded of the difficulty of asking people to complete grammatical tasks that have been taken out of context. Perhaps one day students will be assessed in a world where no context is left behind.