Time for Education to Change

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I have been commenting on the public school system and how it is failing our students time and again. Ever since social promotion was introduced, students have slowly figured out that they don’t even need to work hard to pass. Couple that with a 50% passing mark and you have average graduates. Worse yet, students earn high marks despite their performance so that when they reach the tertiary level, if they do decide to undertake a college or university course, they do not have the skills they need to excel.

Let me pose a few assumptions:

Assumption One: The public school system does not seem to communicate with colleges and universities and vice versa about what students need to know or be capable of doing.

One would come to this conclusion because students who come from the public school system have weak grammar knowledge and poor writing skills. From experience, I have discovered that they are unfamiliar with research methods and research writing; they are unable to write a cohesive research paper; they use incomplete sentences and dangling modifiers; their vocabularies are limited; they cannot speak in public; they have difficulty understanding and solving basic mathematics problems, and so on. The list goes on and on.

Assumption Two: Pass marks of 50% mean that students have only learned half of what they should.

That, plus the fact that they only perform half of what is expected of them. This is alarming, because students no longer strive to be as good as they can be in school. They are content to pass with only half the marks, as long as they pass. Their ambitions are low and they do not try to aim for more.

Naturally, there are those who work as hard as they can and earn higher marks, some of them attaining the status of honour students. I often wonder about what qualifies students to be honour students in the public school system. Is it that they achieve a general average of 80 and above? How are their grades determined then, if they achieve 80% or more and still cannot demonstrate strong basic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics? I have worked with college students claiming to have been honour students in high school and being told their work was excellent, yet could not submit written work, let alone a research paper, with complete, grammatically correct sentences throughout, nor were they certain of the correct use of punctuation.

Assumption Three: Students who do not make the grade, so to speak, are promoted nevertheless.

I say this because I have not heard of any students who have failed and have been held back to repeat a year or attend remedial classes. All this achieves is send the message to students that they don’t even need to try, because they’ll pass anyway, whether or not they get the 50% mark. If that is the case, what is the point of even having a pass mark? Do students ever attend remedial classes in the public schools?

I’m aware that students who need help are sometimes sent to resource. However, I do question how much help students get, and if resource is uniform across the board. I have heard of resource where students do nothing at all, particularly in cases where students have learning disabilities and are assumed to be incapable of learning. Resource should be tailored to the students’ weaknesses, and even then, a small handful of resource teachers cannot fill in the knowledge that students should have gained over the years.

Assumption Four: The Public School System does not want change.

Why do I say this? The writing is clearly on the wall. Students graduate each year with worsening levels of achievement. Teachers are teaching to the test so that students can score well in the foundational outcomes tests. The teaching is inconsistent and the teachers are not all fully capable of teaching.

We no longer need the factory design that churns children out of school with the barest knowledge so they can find their place among assembly lines. The world has changed; the 21st century demands training in skills that are transferable. While there might be specialized skills, the basic skills still need to be taught well. Math, reading, and writing are no longer valued when they should be at the forefront of teaching. Communication is a huge factor in the working world–it has always been and always will be–and yet very little effort seems to be made to develop this skill among school-age children.

Assumption Five: Teachers are not well-trained.

When learning about education and how to teach was reduced from a four-year course to a two-year course after attaining a regular undergraduate degree, then to a one-year course, churning out new teachers on a conveyor belt, I knew the quality of education would drop even further.

When it was still a two-year course, I had the opportunity to teach a methods class for one semester, and I knew from the beginning it would be a disaster. In the first place, students were allowed to enrol in the methods class before they had taken the theory class, so instead of being able to apply theories they had learned first before working on methods, the students had to be taught theory. I had designed the class to be a workshop-type class because it was a methods class, but a good number of the students expected a full lecture class–all 45 hours of it at 3 hours a week–and for me to teach them everything I knew about teaching English. That expectation alone was ridiculous because what I knew about teaching English was something I had learned over 20 years of teaching. Also, it would be impossible for me to teach everything I knew, because a great deal of what students learn about teaching is learnt in the classroom, doing actual teaching.

The other thing that I found most ridiculous was that many students felt they were being embarrassed in front of their peers when they had to receive a 360-degree critique of a demo class. If they could not receive comments and suggestions from their peers and professor in a safe setting, how much more would they feel when faced with and average of 25 students in each class all ready to criticize them, and in most cases not constructively? Needless to say, I did not regret not being invited to teach the class again.

Assumption Six: Education does not always attract the brightest and best students.

The fact that many teachers are churned out with only one year of teacher training has a negative effect on their ability to teach. I have heard of teachers who don’t even understand what they are teaching, teach to the test, teach to the whiteboard, or even teach to themselves. Some teachers seem to be teaching subject matter they are unfamiliar with and end up leaving students without a clear understanding of the subject matter. Many times, teachers are made to teach subjects they are not experts in, regardless of the level they are assigned to.

In many countries, families have been known to encourage the least scholarly or academically-inclined of their children to take up teaching. The brightest and smartest are encouraged to take up medicine, law, or engineering–still top-rating courses no matter where in the world you go. In highly-religious cultures, the priesthood is the fourth vocation of choice. Parents ensured their futures by ensuring their children covered all necessary aspects of their lives: a doctor to take care of them in their old age; a lawyer to attend to their legal needs; an engineer to build and show off skills; a priest to take care of their spiritual needs. Once all these had been taken, the last choice would be to have a child unsuited to the top choices become a teacher. Admittedly, there are many more careers students can choose from today than there were half a century or more ago, but the elders of society might still assign greater value the same things they would have half a century or more ago. After all, having a son who is a lawyer or a doctor is still more prestigious than having one who is a computer programmer or an actuarian, assuming they understand what a computer programmer or actuarian does.

Assumption Seven: Expectations are unrealistic.

Sometimes, failure in the classroom is not completely the teacher’s fault. Sometimes, teachers are expected to teach a particular subject matter in a particular way that the teacher is not prepared to do or that does not suit the students’ learning styles. There is a problem with knowing that students all have different learning styles, just as teachers have different teaching styles. Are students expected to adapt lessons to each and every student? In an ideal world, yes, but the immensity of that proposition is beyond the reach or ability of any school.

Several theories of education besides the public-school-conveyor-belt system have been proposed, studied, and implemented in progressive schools, many with great success. Common among these theories are the Montessori approach and the Emilio Reggio approach. The theory of Multiple Intelligences has been accepted as a sound theory of learning, as is the theory of learning styles, and yet public school systems have not adapted their settings to reflect this learning. Models of the best school systems have been shown successful in Scandinavian countries, notably in Finland, yet North America has been slow to even explore these models.

Assumption Eight: The bottom line is still money.

I think that bottom line of the North American reluctance to change the way the public school system operates is money. North America’s governments do not want to foot the bill when it comes to overhauling the educational system. The cost of retrofitting classrooms and retraining educators will be no less than staggering, because not only will the public schools have to change, but the way teachers are trained must change. Teachers need to be retrained to change their perspective, their teaching-learning styles, their content learning. Too many teachers have been entrenched in their methods and adapting to new ways of teaching and learning is something they either do not want to do or cannot do.

Assumption Nine: Society’s perception of what education is must change.

Besides changing the system of education and teacher training, how society sees education as well as what society expects of education must also change. Society still sees schools the way they were taught and expects nothing to change. Probably the majority of students graduate (whether they deserve to or not) with the feeling that they are escaping a prison and choose not to look back until they have children of their own who need to attend school. Then they expect schools to teach their children everything the children need to know when they grow up, as if they themselves learned everything they needed to know from school. The attitude towards school and learning is also something society must instill in people. If the majority think going to school isn’t really worth it, is it any surprise their children do not see the value of education?

Assumption Ten: Schools just aren’t teaching the skills needed by society.

If we are teaching transferable skills that will allow students to become successful in multiple contexts, then content should not be the primary focus of education. If 90% of all graduates use only 10% of all the math they are taught, why do we continue insisting on teaching 90% of the content to the 90% and expect them to fail anyway? Why do we not teach the 90% math that they do need and will use 90% of the time? If 10% of all graduates become excellent writers or researchers and 90% of the jobs waiting for them require mastery of writing and research skills, why aren’t we teaching more writing and research? If 90% of all the jobs out there require public speaking and other communication skills, why aren’t we teaching more public speaking and communication? If everything is being done on computers or using digital media, then understanding computers and digital media should be more of a norm than a novelty.

We are approaching a time when we can no longer ignore the consequences of stubbornly clinging to an educational system that does not work. Our graduates cannot read or write or do math properly. The only thing they can do on computers is use social media. They spell as if they were texting all the time. They cannot shake hands properly or look people straight in the eye when speaking. They cannot even speak before a crowd properly. Most of them have no idea what debate or oratory or declamation is. They do not even have manners or social graces so that they know what to do with protocol. There is no denying that education is still entrenched in the 19th century while everything else is straining at its leashes, raring to leap into the 21st century.

I’ve gone on much longer on this than I thought I would, which just goes to show how much of an opinion I have on the state and quality of education today. I am certain of one thing, though: there MUST BE CHANGE.

 

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How acceptable is verbing?

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I am treading on shaky ground here, but as a writer and English teacher, it’s a topic I can’t ignore. There really isn’t any other word for it besides VERBING, which in itself, is turning a noun that isn’t used as a verb into a verb. That’s when nouns that do not have verb forms are used as verbs. One of the most common nouns that I have seen being used as a verb for quite a few years now is the word “gift”. People everywhere, including on the news, have been saying “gifted” not in the sense of the adjective that means “talented” but in the sense that means having been given something as a gift. For example, “He gifted her with a scarf.” What the heck was wrong with the verb “give” and all its tenses? “He gave her a scarf” means exactly the same thing. If you give someone something, it’s a gift. Take this other sentence: “It’s the season for gifting.” Whatever happened to the word “giving”? There was absolutely nothing wrong with the sentence “It’s the season for giving.”

Okay, I’ll look at it another way. You can say “giving” and come up with the image of someone passing out something–anything–to another person. When you say “gifting”, the image you come up with is someone handing a nicely wrapped present to someone else. Looking at it that way, I will very reluctantly admit that “gifting” suggests giving a present that’s prettily wrapped. It’s completely different from someone giving me a pair of scissors, giving me a piece of his mind, or giving me a disease. That said, I still can’t get myself to use “gift” as a verb.

Grammatically, many nouns have verb forms, and we don’t really give it a second thought. Some very few examples are research, produce, comment, fan, walk, sleep, cook, drink, etc. Nobody ever questions their dual functions as nouns and verbs. How did they ever gain that duality? I’m not going into that historical aspect of when they were first seen on record used as either noun or verb, although I’m sure there’s some linguistic study somewhere that does that.

That language is a dynamic form of communication is undeniable. If we still spoke English the way it was spoken during Chaucer’s time or Shakespeare’s time or even during the Victorian era, we would sound really strange–unless everyone still spoke exactly the same way. Grammar most likely was invented along with the standardization of everything else during the industrial era. People in control of things probably felt that they needed to standardize language so that it would be easier to understand across various borders, whether political, cultural, scientific, or even personal borders. Creating rules for how language should be structured and documenting those rules ensured clear understanding by the majority of people throughout the world. That standardization of language has given us a measure for deciding what is correct language or good writing. That said, language changes. It adapts to the times. New words are created and useless words become obsolete. This happens because of changes in lifestyles, in technology, thinking, and just about every area in life. A hundred years ago, the word ‘cellphone’ never existed; a little over a hundred years ago, the word ‘airplane’ did not exist; before it was ever invented, the word ‘laser’ was completely unknown. This list can go on and on. On the other hand, how many kids nowadays know what a ‘bustle’ is–and I don’t mean bustling about or hustle-and-bustle; how many people walk about carrying a ‘poke’ over their shoulder?; how many people keep an ‘inkhorn’ or use the word ‘ruth’ to mean the opposite of ‘ruthless’?; nobody calls a ‘thrift’ shop a ‘frippery’ anymore, nor does anybody say they’re having a ‘rejumble’ when they’re experiencing ‘acid reflux’.

Granted, many terms or words that are now obsolete are in  word museums because whatever they referred to is no longer in use, or a better, more scientific name has replaced it. Other words die because of political correctness, regardless of what they originally meant, and the extent of influence political correctness has on language nowadays is, I think, the far swing of the pendulum. But it is also that sensitivity, rational or not, that has given use new words or new meanings for words, such as ‘gay’.

If you were to ask me, I’d say use the words that are there. I think anyone who doesn’t even try to find the right word or the exact word, is just plain lazy. Even if you don’t know the word, there are all kinds of dictionaries and thesauri that you can refer to. Not having a computer isn’t even an excuse, because before online references, we had real ink-and-paper books! There is absolutely no excuse for not using the right word. Don’t even give me the excuse that you’re being creative by coining new words, because it does take a long process for words to be vetted and added to the official Oxford English Dictionary. Yes, there is a committee that studies  words, their usage, and how well they fill a need. More than any other language, English is a melting pot of languages, more so now that it is exposed to cultures all over the world. Many cultures have languages that have words for things that do not exist in the English-speaking world, or that have words more expressive or more suited to things than what they have been called so far. For instance, what is the big difference between ‘mountains’ and ‘boondocks’?

I am thoroughly appalled when people in media use words wrongly or invent new uses for words when there are more accurate words that already exist but just don’t happen to be in their vocabularies, because I have always believed in finding the right word. My exception is when a simpler word can be used, pick the simpler word rather than the more technical term. While I am a big advocate for using the right word, I am also a bigger fan of simplifying the language. I don’t mean reducing your vocabulary so that it’s at kindergarten level–unless you’re writing for that age group–but avoiding jargon, highly technical language, and 5-syllable words that have 2-syllable equivalents. Unless, again, the 5-syllable word is more exact and more picturesque than the 2-syllable equivalent.

If there really isn’t a word for what you want to say, then by all means, coin one. But don’t do it before you check out the dictionaries. And if you’re stumped and can’t find the right word, ask me! I love looking through dictionaries.

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City Centre Community School 2015 Creative Writing Course

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I’m looking forward to January 2015, when a new round of courses will open at the City Centre Community School.

I will be offering my services again, teaching another Creative Writing Course: Writing the Short Story. This will be a workshop course, as last year’s course, but with a lot more in-class writing, sharing, and critiquing of students’ works.

The best part will be that the students’ works will be published online, in The Writing Pool blog as well as in The Writing Pool Facebook group. Of course, it students choose, they can opt to have their work published anonymously.

See you in January!

Free copy of 101 Fun Games, Activities, & Projects for English Classes, Volume 2

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thanks to everyone who supported my by downloading a copy of vol. 2 of my series! i really appreciate you all for helping me! watch for my next giveaway!

 

Hey everyone! You still have two more days (until July 3) to download your FREE copy of Volume 2 of my series, 101 Fun Games, Activities, and Projects for English Teachers. Even if you won’t use it, please help me get my ratings up by just downloading it here:

Canada: link to Amazon.ca

US: link to Amazon.com 

UK: link to Amazon.co.uk

The Problem with Praise (or, My Case Against ‘Perfect’)

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As a substitute teacher, I have observed teachers, especially in the elementary school level, lavish words of praise on students for nearly everything they say or do. I have heard showers of “excellent!” and “perfect!” and “great job” more often than anything else, even if the answer or action was not truly excellent or perfect or great.

Do these people know what these words mean? Mr. Webster will tell us that “excellent” means of exceptional quality, something superior to others, something that, to be redundant, “excels” — stands out over all others. Synonyms for “perfect” include flawless, faultless, without error, with no room for improvement. “Great” also means esceptional, superior, above the rest, excellent.

Now I ask: How often does one come across “excellent” and “perfect” everyday? And is every effort or action a “great job”? If this were truly the case, then teaching in schools would be the perfect job and practically effortless. Teachers would actually become redundant, if students were all as “excellent” and “perfect” and alsways doing a “great job” as often as I hear it said.

I think teachers need to expand their vocabularies in the praise department. in the same way we encourage students to find other words for “good,” “nice,” “okay,” and “so-so”, we need to find other words to express praise or approval. There are so many I can think of: awesome, wonderful, well-organized, colourful, attractive, well done, good work, nice technique, energetic, nice try, good effort, and so on and so forth. We should be more accurate with the praise we give so that students do not get the wrong impression — that their work is truly excellent or perfect, when it isn’t.

If students always receive the praise that they are doing “excellent” or “perfect”, does this ever reflect in their marks? Do we give them excellent or perfect marks to match the praise we lavish on a daily basis? How do we explain to students, when we release their report cards or return their papers with less-than-perfect marks, that their work is actually less than perfect? How do we explain to parents, after they see the “excellent,” “perfect” and “great job” comments on schoolwork, that their children’s final marks aren’t anywhere near the excellent, perfect and great job comments received on their children’s homework, projects, and other schoolwork?

Such is the incongruity between unqualified praise and reality. If we tell students they are excellent, they will think they are better than everyone else. That certainly isn’t a bad thing, thinking one is better than everyone else, but it tends to create social disparity and a tendency to think one really is better than anyone else. Which may not be the case, developing a superiority complex as opposed to confidence. If we tell them that their work is excellent, then they will not have any motivation to improve on the work, because it already is excellent, and better than any other work done in class.

If we tell students they are “perfect” or what they do is “perfect,” they might develop the belief that there is nothing more for them to improve, that they know everything, and that everything they do is right.

If we tell students they are always doing a “great job” they might just as likely not bother to try doing a better job, simply because they’re already doing a great job.

Some teachers might rationalize that they shouldn’t give negative comments. Indeed, calling students bad, lazy, stupid, idiotic, poor, slow, and other such negative terms is not only derogatory; it is labeling them with negative words that tend to stick and that reinforce negative behaviour. But calling some students excellent, perfect, or great is also labeling, which tends to stick as well, and helps feed egos that, in all likelihood, do not need that kind of pampering.

What’s wrong with simply saying “correct” or “right” if the answer is correct or right? And if a student tries but doesn’t quite get the answer, saying “perfect” or “good job” then seeking another answer from someone else contradicts the praise, because there should be no other answer, since the first answer was already perfect.

How many ways can we provide praise without going overboard? I have compiled a list of several words that can be used alone or in phrases that teachers can use to express praise. You can also, most certainly, come up with your own set of words, or mix and match what is in the list to suit different occasions. Note that some words will work in either list.

I will add to this list as I remember words of praise that suit various classroom situations, and I will also greatly appreciate your suggestions of words that can be added to this list.

A Praise Vocabulary for Teachers, Tutors, Parents and Leaders

Words to praise work

  1. accurate
  2. analytical
  3. attractive
  4. brief
  5. clear
  6. colourful
  7. comprehensive
  8. concise
  9. correct
  10. creative
  11. descriptive
  12. entertaining
  13. evocative
  14. exact
  15. good examples
  16. good reasoning
  17. good word choice
  18. grammatical
  19. illustrative
  20. inspiring
  21. interesting
  22. logical
  23. makes sense
  24. neat
  25. organized
  26. original
  27. pithy
  28. precise
  29. prompt
  30. resourceful
  31. sensible
  32. timely
  33. useful
  34. well-researched
  35. well-written
  36. wide vocabulary
Words to praise action or behaviour
  1. active
  2. affirmative
  3. audible
  4. attentive
  5. careful
  6. clear
  7. controlled
  8. cooperative
  9. coordinated
  10. creative
  11. effective
  12. encouraging
  13. energetic
  14. fair
  15. good initiative
  16. good projection
  17. good sharing
  18. graceful
  19. helpful
  20. inspirational
  21. inspiring
  22. motivated
  23. observant
  24. participative
  25. practical
  26. precise
  27. prompt
  28. quick
  29. reasonable
  30. respectful
  31. responsible
  32. responsive
  33. restrained
  34. rhythmic
  35. shows leadership
  36. supportive
  37. team work
  38. timely
  39. vocal
  40. well-behaved
  41. well-executed