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."

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