Classroom tie-ins

What we did for lesson 12b (Large)

This picture is a PowerPoint slide.  It’s full of illustrations from the previous lesson. While I collect papers in the class, I display this slide as a memory aid for the students. When I finish collecting, we then see how much anybody remembers.

It’s important that they do remember, because every lesson develops something from the previous lesson.  It makes more sense if you see where you are on the path.  If you want to try your hand at curriculum guessing, remember you can get a bigger picture by clicking on it.

I like to teach writing through “Writer’s Workshop,” and I like to teach people here (as well as back home) how to function in a writer’s group.  Students here seem conditioned to offer advice on how to improve their classmate’s writing.  They seem to love to rate each other.  And in fact, a lot of their schooling involves a sort of one-dimensional rating system. Who’s number one, who’s number two, etc.

Behind the Curve

This plays out in the assigning of grades on a curve.

Wherever I’ve gone to school before, there seem to have been two kinds of professors – the ones who grade strictly on percentage (90% = an A, etc.) and the kind who grade on curves.

And for the curves, the professor would simply note the top raw score, and assign an A to anybody within 90% of that score.  B’s would accrue to those scoring down to 80%, etc.  The actual percentages varied, but principle remained the same.   And in the unlikely event that the whole class scored within 90% of the top score, everybody would get an A.

Here, they also note the top score.  But then they line up the rest of the raw scores in a que.  The top few get the equivalent of an A, the next in line get a B, etc.   So you know, before the first day of class, how many A’s, B’s, C’s, etc. you’re going to have.  They don’t actually use letter grades here, but it works out the same way.

To me, this seems odd (or am I just naive?), since I’d never heard of such a thing before. On the other hand, my British colleague argued that it’s done that way in England, too. Otherwise you get grade inflation.  I guess it’s hard to argue that point.

Of course, those of you who know me know that I think grades and over-correction of one’s work by others have a, shall we say, <minimal> significance in the grand scheme of things.  Well, each to his own.

Social Services

But this weekend I read a very interesting piece of research by some guys at Stanford.  I say guys, because I’ve seen their pictures, and they all look like high school freshmen to me.

Anyway, the link to the original paper is here (it’s a pdf file).

And a link to a friendlier analysis of it is here.

They studied social media – group blogging sites, for example.  They found ways to analyze the quality of people’s writing. They followed (by computer) a large group of commentators and writers on four sites.  And they analyzed the consequences of good and bad ratings on their work, both for quality and quantity.

The American education tradition, drenched through with behaviorism, with incentives and rewards controlling everything, would probably expect that both praised and panned work might lead to improvement in quality, since the feedback is clear. One might also expect praise to encourage authors to write even more.

In practice, though, praise has only a marginal effect on writing’s quality or quantity.  Panning has a significant effect, however.  Unfortunately, the authors of panned work don’t “learn from their mistakes.”  Their writing’s quality drops significantly, while their output increases.    Furthermore, panned authors step up their negativity towards others, leading to a vicious circle of negativity.

On the other hand, if nobody comments at all, authors of all stripes tend to stop writing altogether.  Ah, what to do.


Writer's Workshop
An actual writer’s group

In my classroom, the writer’s groups are forbidden to give unsolicited suggestions and criticisms except for minor (but annoying) distractions like using “flied” or “sitted.”  Early in the semester I often encounter trespassers to this rule, not because they’re particularly mean people, but because they can’t get it through their head that it’s okay to enjoy their classmate’s writing  without feeling compelled to tell them what they got wrong and how to improve it.

In fact, it’s fun to catch people caught up in act of criticizing, put a stop to it, and then enjoy the expressions of relief on the face of their most recent victim.

But authors must receive some feedback, so what kind? After all, in the social media study, authors who never received feedback simply lost the desire to write altogether. My rules, which grace the chalkboard for every lesson are simple. Unless the author asks for a suggestion, you can tell the author:

  1. What was interesting
  2. Your own related experience.
  3. Ask Questions

As these rules take hold every semester, it’s remarkable how the class atmosphere lightens, and people discover that they can actually enjoy writing in this odd language called English.

Perhaps if such rules applied to social media, the often acrimonious atmosphere there would also lighten up. Maybe I should write the authors of that paper and suggest it as a new line of research.