Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Recipe for success

One of my classes has been working on Cause and Effect writing. To make things somewhat interesting, I first asked students to list something they're good at and then write a quick essay explaining how someone else can become good at it. One student selected baking, another illustrating. A boy decided to be interesting by writing about raising dragons (well, bearded dragons, to be exact). And two boys thought they'd have some fun by revealing, in one case, how to trick teachers into thinking that you're paying attention when you're really not, and in the other, how to do well without paying attention.

As is always the case, this kind of assignment reveals so much more than you'd expect. First, that students recognize bad teaching and can easily outsmart lazy teachers. "Students can sleep or doodle during class and later copy down friends' notes after class," one wrote. "This helps students' grades because in some classes, note-taking is summative. Summative note-taking is annoying."

And speaking of required note-taking, the other student wrote that you can trick teachers into thinking that you care by writing something, anything, in your notebook. "What you write doesn't matter at all," he wrote. "It can be a complaint or something else. However, it's important to write in medium-small letters using weird handwriting so that teachers won't try to look at your notes very closely."

So of course, as always, students quickly figure out which assignments are BS and act accordingly. Even supposedly hard-working Korean kids.

Students also know what it takes to succeed at something, even if they don't necessarily connect success with school work. The students who wrote about being good at baking and illustrating both wrote about the importance of practice. "There are some people that have the 'god's hand,' who have true aptitude in drawing," one of them wrote. "However, those kinds of illustrators can be found once in a blue moon. Most illustrators are mainly composed of people who practice hard. They draw pictures all day until their fingers become paralyzed. ... It doesn't matter whether your drawings are good or bad. If you practice more and more, your drawing skills will develop."

Exactly, I wanted to yell out as I was reading this. In fact, the students were in the middle of sustained silent reading as I was glancing through their essays. I eventually interrupted their reading. 

"You guys all know the secret to becoming good readers and writers," I said. 

"Let me guess, practice," said one of the boys who knows how to trick teachers.

"Yup," I said. "You do exactly that with things you love. And if you did the same with schoolwork, you'd easily succeed."

"But who wants to read or write for two hours a day?" another boy said. He admitted he practices on the piano at least that much. He's brilliant.

"I especially love one paragraph in this essay about baking," I told them. "Listen to this, and in your head, imagine this is about writing."
The most important thing is that we need a lot of practice to bake well. For example, I could bake a chocolate sheet after having three failures, and I could make a tiramisu after having four failures. It is natural to fail many times before baking well, and we will get better and better as we practice more and more. There are many skills in baking, which we can use after being able to do the basic things easily and properly. After practicing and when we can do the basic things properly, we can move on to the next skill. For example, we can improve quality of chocolate by tempering, but before tempering, we should be able to melt the chocolate well, being able to control the temperature so that the chocolate wouldn’t be changed. More and more practice means better and higher quality dessert.
The students pointed out that baking is completely different from school, because failure when baking is OK. It means you're learning.

"If you fail four times in school and then get one good grade, you still fail," I was informed.

And this is when I reminded them that they can revise an essay as many times as they want, until they succeed, and that the last grade is the one that counts. I also reminded them that, just like in baking, there are many skills they are learning in my class, and they can improve the individual skills through practice and failure.

"See what I mean?" I asked. They dutifully nodded their heads. Maybe they understood my point and are now willing to practice. Then again, one of the boys had written, ""If you make a very profound expression and look at the teacher or your book, the teacher will think that you are concentrating and learning and will think that you care. You might even earn some good grades using this method."

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Positive or negative? It depends

My students are fascinated -- and baffled -- by stories of American university life. They're a small group of Koreans, their English isn't perfect, but they have opinions that make me appreciate their cultural wisdom and question my philosophy of education.

A recent assignment had my ESL Writing class read a simple cause-and-effect essay titled "Why College Students Are Poor." In it, the author describes college students as shabbily dressed individuals who work part-time jobs or make sacrifices in order to get a degree, hoping that their efforts will pay off in the long run. One of the questions was: Does the author have a positive or negative view of college students?

"Negative," one of the students responded. "He says that college students wear old pants or jeans and T-shirts."

"Really, you think so?" I pointed at another student: "How about you?"

"I think negative, too. The introduction describes them as poor. They eat pizza and drive used cars."

Our discussion quickly got sidetracked as I told them a popular fashion choice in college: the baseball cap, put on when rolling out of bed ten minutes before class. The kids were amused and said that Korean college students dress fashionably and wear lots of makeup. 

We returned to the essay. "What about the conclusion?" I asked. "What does the author say is the students' motivation? Do you still think he has a negative view?"

"He says they hope the education will pay off, so that means he's not so sure," the class contrarian said. "That doesn't sound very positive."

Little by little, they started to convince me. Not that the author has a negative view of college students, but that a lot of things Americans do seems a little wrong.

"Why do they have part-time jobs anyway?" a student asked. "Why don't they spend their time studying?"

"Because they have to pay for school," I said. They were shocked to learn that more than half of American students take out loans to pay for school, which they then pay off in subsequent decades.

"It makes sense that, if you are independent and have a good job, you should pay for everything," the contrarian said. "But we believe that education is the responsibility of the parents."

We believe. He wasn't speaking for his classmates. He was speaking for his entire country. His culture.

It must be nice to have cultural norms. Expectations. Beliefs that even middle school students understand about life. In the U.S., there are some abstractions -- we believe that all men are created equal and something about pursuing happiness -- but what about the responsibilities of every mother and father? what about the responsibilities of the government to its people, or basic rights like education? What are the priorities of the country?

Koreans perhaps are unhealthily obsessed with education. After-school academies until late night. Standardized test preparation. Insistence on brand-name colleges. All of it is expensive, and all of it is shouldered by the families. Is it sustainable? Maybe not, but neither is the trillion-dollar debt in the U.S. 

Ultimately, I was unable to convince the students that the author has a positive view of college students. How could I? I certainly couldn't convince them that graduating with an average debt of $30,000 is somehow a good way to start adult life.

The problem for me now is that I had previously insisted to this same group of students that there are definitely right and wrong answers in English class. But how can I say that something is right when that answer is so wrong in so many ways?