Poor Writing Costs Taxpayers Millions

According to a July 4 AP article, “states spend nearly a quarter of a billion dollars a year on remedial writing instruction for their employees, according to a new report that says the indirect costs of sloppy writing probably hurt taxpayers even more.”

Writing is an essential skill for just about any job in today’s market. “‘You have to be able to write, convert an idea and turn it into words,’ said Bob Kerrey, the former U.S. senator and governor from Nebraska, who is chairman of the [National Commission on Writing].”

Some figures:

  • Two-thirds of companies surveyed in the commission’s 2004 report said writing was an important responsibility for workers.
  • 100 percent of the 49 state governments who responded to the survey said writing was an important responsibility for workers.
  • More than 75 percent of those state governments said they take writing skills into account when hiring.
  • 70 percent of state managers said large majorities of their professional employees had adequate skills.
  • Only one-third said clerical and support staff had adequate skills.
  • The report estimates the states spend $221 million annually on remedial writing training.

In public office, “I read things that were absolutely incomprehensible,” Kerrey said. He shudders to think how Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, published 229 years ago Monday, would have read in standard, government-worker bureaucrat-speak. “It would be 10 times as long, one-tenth as comprehensive, and would have lacked all inspiration,” Kerrey said.

Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee added, “there are some really bright people who can’t communicate and as a result their ideas probably aren’t given the attention they deserve.”

The College Board believes the addition of the writing component on the SAT will help. “Critics, however, say the essay is formulaic, coachable, and a poor way to test the kind of writing skills students need in college.”

Frankly, the critics are right. For one thing, students only have 25 minutes to complete all steps of the essay, which discourages students from editing and proofreading. They don’t have time. The topics are, well, lame.

One idea… reduce English class sizes so teachers have time to give writing instruction its due. Writing takes a long time to grade properly, and teachers with three or four preps, five classes of 30 or so students each, and all their other teaching duties and responsibilities don’t have time to give writing evaluation justice.

Read the commission’s report (PDF).

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London

I want to extend my sympathy to the victims of the London bombings and their families. I first learned of the event in the Blackboard Jungle, then turned on the television. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to teach during a crisis like this. When 9/11 happened, I wasn’t teaching at the time. I admire Lectrice for keeping the students calm and putting them first.

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More and More E-Savvy Educators Using Blogs

On Tuesday, The Palm Beach Post reported that “more and more e-savvy educators [are] using blogs.”

One concern addressed by the article is that of student privacy concerns. This is a very real concern, and it is something I need to figure out when my classes begin in August and my classroom blog is going full steam. One teacher mentioned in the article used ID numbers for students rather than names. She also uses comment moderation to ensure that inappropriate comments from visitors (or for that matter, students) do not appear on her site. Many publishing platforms offer some kind of comment moderation. Comment moderation is used on this site, for example, mainly because comment spam is such a problem.

The Palm Beach County school district’s official policy on teacher blogging, related via technology programs specialist Kim Cavanaugh: “We’re certainly not encouraging it, and we’re certainly not discouraging it. There are so many security and privacy issues.” Cavanaugh added, “We’re certainly exploring some safe ways for us to do that. In a perfect world, every teacher would be able to sink their teeth into it.”

However, Will Richardson, who keeps a blog at Weblogg-ed: The Read/Write Web in the Classroom believes “it’s less a safety issue than a control issue. It just poses some very new challenges that they don’t really want to deal with because it’s easier not to. They have the easy excuse of saying it’s not safe.”

I think he has a valid point. There are new challenges, and I think teachers need to be cautious and protect their students. I think a lot of teachers will use that as an excuse not to try it. I ran the idea of using a blog with my students by my own administration, and they seemed excited about it, but my headmaster seemed concerned about the extra time involved for me and the possibility that inappropriate content could be posted by students. Once I assured him at least that the latter was not a concern at all, he was all for it.

However, concerning protecting students, I happened to read a few entries of Will Richardson’s blog, and he brings up a valid concern in The Blogger Problem:

I got an e-mail from a teacher who had just done a Weblog training using Blogger, and the issue of the “Next Blog” button in the top right corner came up, as in what if students click through to some inappropriate site? Oy.

I actually hadn’t thought about that, but he is right. Keeping a class blog on Blogger introduces this concern if the teacher does not disable the nav bar on the top of the site, but doing so also disables searching for the blog. Of course, the teacher could probably add a Google search box to counteract the loss. When Richardson tried surfing from a test blog he created at Blogger using the “Next blog” button, he encountered several spam sites designed to increase Google ranking and a blog dedicated to nurse porn. Clearly either disabling the nav bar or using another service would be in order, but Richardson explains the larger issue: “We need to continue to try to convince schools to teach students how to deal with the crud that they are going to land on whether they hit it from a Blogger site or not.”

That is certainly true, but I can only imagine the parent and administrator complaints that would ensue if Johnny surfed from his class blog to a nurse porn site. Oy, indeed.

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Teacher Education

Reforming teacher education or preparation programs is critical to the future success of education. I have heard inducting new teachers into the profession compared to dropping them into the gladiator arena and stepping back to watch until the carnage is over. Those that survive the first several years will probably make it as educators. One-third of teachers quit within the first three years of teaching, and almost half quit within five years. I almost quit after my fourth year, but I came back. I don’t think I would have if I had not had excellent teacher preparation. There was something inside me that was different as a result of my teacher education program, and it saved me from becoming a statistic.

I wonder if teachers who happen by this site could comment and tell me how they were prepared for teaching and whether they would consider themselves well prepared (I started to write “adequately prepared,” but then I thought to myself that “adequate” isn’t enough).

I feel extremely fortunate to have gone through what I have come to believe was an excellent, innovative teacher education program at the University of Georgia called UGA-NETS, the University of Georgia Network of English Teachers and Students (the website has been under construction for a very long time, which is something that makes me nervous). This teacher education program was pioneered by Dr. Sally Hudson-Ross and Dr. Peg Graham.

UGA-NETS is a year-long teacher education program for BSEd and MEd candidates seeking certification in secondary school English. Teacher candidates (TC’s) in the program are paired with mentor teachers (MT’s) in UGA’s surrounding counties’ public schools. I student taught at Winder-Barrow High School. I did not actually participate in pre-planning, because I was not yet enrolled in the program. Perhaps one of the most serendipitous moments of my life, a TC dropped out of the program, already having decided teaching was not for him, and a vacancy opened up just as I moved to Georgia and applied to continue my interrupted education. Sally called me the day before the quarter was set to start to tell me about this vacancy. I didn’t know what to think — start now? But… was I ready? She said it was now or next September, because I couldn’t enroll in the program mid-year. So I took a deep breath and jumped in the pool.

It was an incredible experience. I kept a fantastic dialogue journal with my MT and Sally about experiences and observations I had in the classroom. I observed long before I began teaching in the classroom, which is something that TC’s don’t really get to do enough. We wrote weekly “think pieces” about issues that concerned us and used those think pieces to generate discussion. We conducted research, participated in collaborative inquiry, and developed true camaraderie. I really felt much more prepared for my teaching experiences, and I look back on my preparation with fondness — and not a trace of resentment.

As I entered the program, Sally and Peg were in the final stages of writing a book about UGA-NETS: Teacher/Mentor: A Dialogue for Collaborative Learning (also available from NCTE). My first year of teaching, I participated in a discussion forum: ETEACH-L: Dean’s Forum Discussion for High-School and College Teachers of English (you can still read my contributions under my former name, Dana Cooke — it has been entertaining to review my thoughts as a first-year teacher seven years later).

I think perhaps one of the most valuable lessons I learned in my teacher education program was the importance of participating (through conferences, professional development, professional organizations, and reading) in my profession. I am always amazed at the number of teachers who do not participate in their profession. Conferences, to me, are energizing. I love to discuss ideas with my peers. Another critical lesson I learned at UGA-NETS was the value of honest reflection. Constant evaluation of my practices has been critical in my improvement as a teacher. Einstein’s definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Sally retired in June 2004, and Peg went on sabbatical. To mark the occasion, UGA-NETS had a gathering of participants — MT’s, TC’s, and professors. It was a celebration of the work Peg and Sally have done in English Education. I will never forget one of the participants fighting tears as he expressed fears that the program might not continue, now that Sally and Peg were not going to be able to run it. “And that can’t happen, because it just has to continue,” he said.

I would love to hear from any past or current participants of the program who want to share their thoughts.

Of course, preparation is key, but another critical element is implementing a mentoring program in schools for new teachers. I cannot say I ever had a really solid mentoring experience in school, despite participating at one school where I taught in a mentoring program that looked good on paper, but didn’t really accomplish its goals.

You can read more about UGA-NETS at these sites:

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Teacher Bloggers

I have been missing out. Since I started this blog a little over a week ago, I have been scouting for other teacher bloggers, and I haven’t been disappointed. I think I’ve added about ten teacher blogs to my blogroll. I have noticed that the majority of the teacher blogs I’ve found are run by Blogger (BlogSpot). I was curious about this. Obviously, Blogger is free and looks very professional. It’s user-friendly, and has an easy-to-learn interface. It’s also very popular for blogging in general — in fact a recent study concluded they were the top hosted blog site. On the other hand, I have not found that many teacher blogs hosted on their own domain and run by either Word Press or Movable Type, like this one. I suppose one reason for that could be that teachers are not paid well, and domains are not free (though you can find deals that make them pretty cheap). I don’t think it is a question of technological proficiency, because Blogger is not any easier or more difficult to use than Word Press or MT. If one wants just blogging space, Blogger is probably the best bet. I just found it curious.

You know what I’d like to see? Jim Burke blogging. That would be a hell of a daily read. Jim, I volunteer to install MT for you! Free!

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Americans Concerned About Public Schools

A poll conducted by Educational Testing Service (ETS) demonstrates Americans’ lack of confidence in their public schools. Some figures, courtesy the Santa Cruz Sentinel:

  • Only 9 percent of Americans believe high school students are being academically challenged by their course work.
  • An overwhelming 76 percent of adults surveyed believe the country will be less competitive in 25 years if reforms aren’t made.
  • While 54 percent of adults and 60 percent of parents feel unified standards should be applied to all students, only 26 percent of teachers and administrators agreed.
  • Without being given a description of the law, 45 percent of adults and 46 percent of K-12 parents favored No Child Left Behind.
  • In contrast, 75 percent of teachers surveyed who gave unfavorable opinions, including 50 percent strongly unfavorable.

The results of this poll are not surprising to me. I taught for six years in public schools before making the move to a private school, and the struggles were legion. It worries me that parents do not feel their children are challenged, but often complain about teachers who have high standards. I don’t think most parents really know what it would mean to apply unified standards to all students. All students? Meaning that special education students and ESL students must meet the same objectives as gifted students? Or am I just reading too much into that statement? It seems really sweeping, and it is no wonder so many educators disagree with it. It is disturbing to me that more people do not educate themselves about NCLB. If parents really understood what NCLB was measuring instead of what sort of accountability they are looking for (and deserve), they’d be shocked. In a time when fears about school violence are at a high, my former principal avoided suspending violent students at all costs, because she was afraid it would affect our absentee rating for Adequate Yearly Progress. That’s patently ridiculous — that suspensions should count against AYP. If she’s right about that, then it is no wonder so many schools are failing to make AYP.

Public perception that schools are not doing enough is nothing new. I would hope that the concerned parents surveyed by ETS are doing everything they can to be involved in their child’s education, but somehow, based on the numbers of parents who attended PTA meetings, Open House, and non-sporting school events, or who contacted me with concerns, I doubt they are.

However, I was pleased to see the following, courtesy ETS:

  • 74% of the public strongly favor measures to ensure teachers are experts in the subjects they teach.
  • 80% strongly or somewhat agree we should increase teacher salaries to hire and retain more well-qualified teachers even if it means increased taxes.
  • 64% strongly favor emphasizing real world learning opportunities in high school through work study, community service, and vocational courses.

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Site Building

I want to thank anyone who happens to be coming by for their patience as I build this site. There are currently some holes and dead ends, and I am well aware that it is frustrating for browsers. Building a site is slow work.

I am still working on my Lesson Plans page, but an incomplete version of my Ideas page is available. Currently, I have several links to ideas for teaching units in American literature. You can find links to a lot of my lesson plans on those pages.

I have several online units or ideas available already:

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Standardized Testing Hurting Our Students

The Montgomery Advertiser reports that students are increasingly unprepared for college, and many blame standardized tests. It should come as no surprise to any teacher that our nation’s focus on standardized testing is hurting our students’ success in college. Instead of teaching real critical thinking skills and writing, we teach to the test out of fear. Ideally, if we teach objectives required by our curriculum, students should be prepared for standardized tests; however, many of us with jobs and schools on the line because of NCLB are too afraid not to teach to the test.

One of the things I’ve noticed since teaching at a private school is that students are much better served by learning how to write well than by taking a language arts test mandated by the state. Georgia has high school graduation tests, as well as writing tests in the 5th, 8th, and 11th grades, and end-of-course tests. Over time, the curriculum has been eroded by all the test preps. My students are mandated to take the PSAT and have the option to take the SAT or ACT. Most do, because they are college-bound students. It has been so freeing not to worry about constant tests.

I wish we could figure out how to hold schools accountable through some other means. It would be better for our students, many of whom wind up in remedial classes in college because we have not properly prepared them.

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The Teacher’s Daybook

While perusing the most recent issue of English Journal, I saw an ad for The Teacher’s Daybook (purchase from Amazon). I went to the publisher’s website only to discover that it was not for sale. As soon as it became available, I ordered it. The year has not yet started, so I’ll have to update my relative happiness with it periodically on this blog; however, so far, I am extremely happy with it.One of its strongest features is its insistence, if used as the author intended, to make the user more reflective about his/her teaching. I am fairly reflective already, but I realized this will really make me think about my lessons and my efficacy as a teacher. Another strong feature is it aids the user in maintaining balance between all the roles in his/her life.

Nice bonuses include reproducible handouts, which are also available on the website that accompanies the daybook. It is also spiral bound, so it lies flat, and it has three holes punched in it so that it may be kept in a notebook. There is much more space for weekly plans than in any school or district-purchased planning books I have owned. It is simply packed with tips for organization.

Perhaps the strongest recommendation I can give it is that the daybook’s author, Jim Burke, uses it himself. He has a great website with lots of handouts; his collection of handouts on note-taking techniques is especially valuable.

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