By Travis Feil
Last week I was sitting at my desk working on American Literature lesson plans. Exhausted and overwhelmed from moving into a new classroom, I sat staring at my computer, knowing students would be arriving for the first time the next day.
My yearbook editors were also there doing some planning. A popular element in our book is daily coverage highlighting school, local, and national news events from each day of the school year. One week, Monday through Sunday, runs along the bottom of each page of the book. When they began talking about this element, I shut my computer and listened to them talk.
“If we have all the pages on the ladder, we need to figure out how many weeks there are in the school year and start assigning those weeks to the spreads,” senior and editor-in-chief Alyssa Johnson said.
Before she had finished speaking, the assistant editor, junior Lydia Lambert, finished her count.
“There are 40 weeks including this week and all the vacations,” Lambert announced.
“There are 47 spreads if we don’t count the title page or colophon,” Johnson calculated. “We need to ditch seven spreads.”
And they did. No weekly coverage on the opening spread, the closing spread, or the division pages. Forty weeks, forty spreads. Simple enough.
But I was impressed. Not by their ability to subtract 40 from 47, but by how their conversation illustrated precisely the kind of thinking that, according to the latest trend in educational reform, we ought to be asking students to do.
Another Wave of Reform
Before I had finished my first doughnut at our first inservice this year, the discussion had turned to common core standards training and the soon-to-be increasing focus on students’ ability to interact with information, synthesize it, and reproduce it in a meaningful and accurate way.
In the context of language arts, this might look like a student reading several related texts, linking the commonalities and producing a research product that demonstrates connected understanding. Benchmarks and indicators that were once measured separately on standardized tests (reading, writing, speaking, listening, etc.) will eventually be measured as a cohesive unit. To prepare in our classrooms for this change in testing, they say, a student’s ability to read and comprehend should not be evidenced not by his selection of the appropriate metaphor or Latin root from a list of choices but by the quality of an end product that showcases his assimilated knowledge.
We’ve Trained Them Not to Think
To demonstrate how one is to teach toward this end, Robin Webb, a math instructor in our district showed a video from Ted.com that truly got me thinking. (See video below.)
The video began with Dan Meyer, a math teacher from Santa Cruz, Calif., asking his audience when they had ever encountered a real problem in which all the necessary information was provided, had been filtered for distracting information, and was complete with a formula computing the answer.
Obviously, Meyer pointed out, those types of problems don’t exist in reality – they only exist in classrooms.
He showed an example problem from a math text that asked how long it would take to fill a given container with water. The question provided both the rate of flow from the water source and the volume of the container.
Some might call this type of word problem scaffolding; the students have already been taught how to calculate rate and volume independently, so this problem is simply building upon that knowledge and asking students to demonstrate how rate and volume are related.
That’s fine and good, but what struck me was not what this single math problem was asking a student to demonstrate but rather how problems like this one are indoctrinating all students not to think. As Meyer stated, such example problems (and thousands others like it in textbooks of all disciplines) are perpetually training students to believe that “problem solving” only involves recognizing the difference between numbers and letters and being able to plug those numbers into a formula located on the previous page of the text book.
No wonder we educators complain that kids don’t know how to think anymore. And no wonder 37 states have collaboratively signed onto completely revamping the way we measure learning.
Meyer suggested reducing the problem to its basic question and allowing the students to not only generate the answer but also the problem itself and the method for solving it. To do so, he used his cell phone and created a video of a hose (very, very slowly) filling a container similar to the one in the example problem. Without providing the front-loading context educators have been told for years is so essential, he simply started the video and let his students watch. After nearly seven minutes of awkward silence and anxious seat shifting, someone in his class finally asked, “How long is this going to take?”
What was intended as a sarcastic and impatient remark actually began the real learning and demonstration of comprehension. He asked the class to figure it out, so they started talking.
One student suggested they needed to know how much water the container would hold. Another recognized that language and labeled it “volume.” Yet another said they had to know how fast the water was coming out of the hose, and a fellow classmate provided the term “rate.” Before long they had, of their own curiosity (or, perhaps, impatience), orally drafted the word problem and were well on the way to solving it. In the process of discussion, they had proven who really knew what rate and volume were, how the two were related in this context and what mathematical computation would be required to answer their original question.
Looking for Applications
If any educator, regardless of his area of concentration, can imagine students in such a dialogue and not become intellectually euphoric, he should not be teaching anymore. My mind started reeling for applications to my language arts and communications courses.
Look No Further
It wasn’t until I overheard my editors’ conversation about weekly coverage that I, to torture a math cliché, put two and two together. Sure, the problem they had just solved only involved some counting and subtraction, but they had defined the problem, generated the methods required to solve it, and had completed the mathematical computations necessary to find the answer.
Just as I was thinking how great journalism is for teaching just about everything, their conversation got even better.
“If we include this week in the reporting, we have to start coverage with this past Monday,” Johnson said. “Students don’t come until tomorrow, so we need to think about what’s been going on since Monday.”
Lambert chimed in. “We’re starting late because of the construction. I bet a lot of schools have started classes already.”
“We could cover that,” Johnson said. “It’s relevant. Especially if kids complain about coming back to school. We’ve had more vacation than most schools.”
“So let’s do it.” And Lambert started to research school start dates. “Do you want to do national or just Kansas schools?”
“Let’s stick with Kansas schools,” Johnson answered. “When you get the total number of schools in Kansas and how many have been open since Monday, let me know and I’ll figure the percentage.”
I was at a loss for words. How many times during a publication cycle, I wondered, do journalism students engage in exactly the kind of mental exercise I had just witnessed? While I was sitting at my desk thinking about how I could make my American Literature course more in line with the new focus of the common core standards, my journalism kids were, without any interaction from a teacher at all, proving their comprehension of a whole set of logic, reasoning, research, and even math skills.
Recently, journalism teachers have been fighting valiantly to prove the validity of media courses in a secondary curriculum. How much more obvious can it be?
The common core standards ask students to comprehend information, analyze and synthesize it, and produce a product that proves they understood and learned. I ask this: how can a good student journalist create a publication and not do so? These teenagers in these elective courses observe the events of an entire student body over the course of a complete academic year, analyze and synthesize their observations in compelling images, carefully chosen words, and story-telling design packages, and then offer it back to an audience in an objective, accurate, and engaging publication. What more could a common core proponent ask for?
I didn’t work on lesson plans the rest of the day. Don’t get me wrong; I am going to adapt the literature courses I teach. But after thinking through all this, I had a simpler solution to meeting the demands of yet another wave of educational reform: require every student to enroll in journalism.