Saturday, March 26, 2011

Need Another Reason to Stop Standardized Testing?

C--- E------
passsedd the exit exam... sooo do i really have to do all these papers and assignments?
41 minutes ago ·  · 

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The other day, this interaction popped on my Facebook newsfeed. If this doesn't explain why we need to get rid of standardized testing, then I don't know what does! The student who posted this is a senior in college. In theory, at this stage in the game, she should understand the value of education for its own sake, but testing is clearly setting up a false indicator.

Maybe, she's right, though. If all we want students to do is pass the exam, then should they have to do any more work after they pass? What's the point? I know I'd find it hard to make meaning of my education if I was simply being pushed towards completing an exam that declared me "college educated."

I learned long ago that if I'm involved in my education for its own sake, I learn. If I learn for a test, I forget it all after I've emptied it onto the exam worksheet. I'm only studying for the test, not to better myself. 

It seems that DePaul University is learning a similar lesson. As recently reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education, DePaul University is the biggest private university to make standardized test scores optional, following in the footsteps of Wake Forest University. The Chronicle states:
"Although ACT and SAT scores are also solid predictors, they provide little additional insight beyond what a student's high-school transcript reveals, according to Mr. Boeckenstedt."
Additionally, administrators at DePaul hope that this will encourage students to believe that their performance in school matters more than a single test.

So why are we still pushing for standardization, especially when it costs students so much, both monetarily and educationally?

When I was in public school, I never gave much thought to standardized testing. I was a good student, someone who never experienced test-taking anxieties. The SATs were just a long morning that I spent filling in bubbles in a quiet classroom. I gave little thought about how the standardized tests I was taking year after year were affecting my thoughts on the education I was receiving. When I think back, however, the list of standardized testing is huge: IOWAs, CoGATs, GEPAs, HESPAs, SATs, AP exams, general GREs, and Literature GREs. Luckily, I had parents who truly believed in the value of education for education's sake, who kept me focused on what I was really supposed to be doing in school-- learning.

Stepping into my first year of writing center tutoring, however, the toll standardized testing has taken on students became immediately obvious to me. The way students were writing papers, over-anxious about grammar and nothing else, trying to fit cookie cutter writing formulas, and having no idea how to practically apply research, were a result of being drilled in writing for standardized testing. Students were looking for time efficiency and "correctness," rather than developing ideas and involving themselves in scholarly conversations. Basically, they didn't know why they "needed to know" anything that wasn't going to insure they received high marks instantly. The same held true in my classroom.

Despite all of these markers, however, I see few places that are hopping on board with what DePaul is doing and more jumping into the deep, dark hole of exit exams. Students resent it. Teachers resent it. Parents aren't sure what to think about it. Ultimately, as Chris Gallagher reminds us in Reclaiming Assessment, these "accountability measures," a word stemming from the business term accounting, will negatively reshape the face of education, from an institution that values individual growth to an institution that tracks numbers. Students will only be trying to "make quota" rather than bettering than themselves.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Put a Cork In It!: and the Worst Essays Ever

Part I:

It's not always easy to get a class involved, especially if your students are shy., however, seemed to really be effective in facilitating class interaction. is a virtual representation of the classroom bulletin board. Students can stick post-its up anonymously and synchronously about just about anything. In my classroom, we use it as a brainstorming tool. My students post their ideas, while we have our Corkboard showing on the projection screen. The sheer number of post-its on our Corkboard show just how well it worked. For the last assignment, about 30 post-its were put up in 5 minutes.

Last semester, I used Wallwisher to have students do some brainstorming for their Writing as Activism projects. They posted problems they foresee the world facing in the next fifty years. As you can see in this older post, students had fun using it and really did a great job of brainstorming and had fun doing it. Many of their thought bubbles were later represented in their projects.

The problem is that Wallwisher couldn't handle the class volume. Some of my students simply couldn't get online to post. There were always "glitches in the matrix." As an alternative, I've settled with, which is working great!

Part II: The Most Boring Essay Ever

In addition to the "How We See the Future" brainstorming, we worked on a new task this semester: the most boring essay topics ever. These ranged from "what basic addition means to me" to "how to use a toilet" and everything in between. I saw the students become animated instantly. Later, I had students chose a topic from the many that were posted on our Corkboard. They proceeded to try to write the most interesting introduction possible.

The next task was to pull an "audience" out of the box and to rewrite their introduction in a way that would be interesting for their selected audience, which could be anything from a lawyer to 200 clowns.

Finally, they added an "role," which they again chose from a box. They had to take on the role, while still addressing the audience, and trying to keep it interesting. Students might be magicians, rockstars, know-nothings, etc.

The results were mostly humorous, but it definitely opened up conversation about how students consciously shift their writing when they imagine an audience or a role. They realized how much vocabulary and tone played a part in the evolution of their paragraph. It was a little harder to get them to see how their ideas and examples were changing, but they did see that too.

Monday, March 14, 2011

NEWCA 2011: Not Your Garden Variety Conference

This weekend, I spent time in lovely New Hampshire at the Northeast Writing Center Association Conference at Southern New Hampshire University. The theme of the conference was writing centers as community gardens, a metaphor that inspired a great deal of thoughtful discussion and insight.

It was a great experience! As a first time conference goer, the relaxed atmosphere and the friendly conference attendees took off much of the pressure I was feeling. It was a mix of writing center directors, faculty, tutors, and graduate and undergraduate students. I met up with some old friends from the Montclair State University Center for Writing Excellence, forged stronger bonds with my current St. John's University Writing Center community, and met some interesting new folks along the way. Throughout the day, conference goers were tweeting about the panels they were participating.

The day kicked off with a keynote by Harry Denny, our own St. John's University Writing Center Director and all around rockstar educator. He spoke about the need to be conscious of the ways in which we interact with others, to remember that what we say does affect others. His biggest concern was for those who become marginalized by what he calls "clubhouse" behavior in our writing centers and elsewhere. As writing centers, it is our job to set the standard and treat each other in ways that encourage growth rather than force exclusion.

With the keynote said, we were off to our first sessions. The panel I chose bridged a broad span of topics. It started with Patrick Ryan who spoke about encouraging creativity and showing students that creativity is part of expository writing. His tutors couldn't find funding to make it to the conference, but did but together a great video about the ways in which they encourage creativity. Underneath all of their different methods, one idea seemed to ring out: helping students write is often about enabling them to discover interest in their writing and removing their fears.

Janet Dengel and Jennifer Ferreira, my pals from Montclair State University, talked next about ways to encourage outreach with other departments. It sparked some discussion about WAC and how we can form relationships with other departments that are mutually beneficial.

At the end, we also came to a discussion about the gap between spoken and written language. One audience member said that she believed the gap was widening and asked the rest of the audience whether or not we believed it was true. It lead to some discussion about the rapidly changing nature of the spoken word, but the static nature of academic writing, which tends to lead towards a conventional middle class ideal. There was no real consensus made, but certainly food for thought.

Can you tell that we were the digital literacy group?
During lunch, we watched a video about community made by some of my fellow tutors from the St. John's University Writing Center. I was really proud of what they produced, though I can claim no part in its creation. I would definitely recommend that everyone watches it!

After lunch, there were two more sessions. The first one I attended was about online tutoring and online discussion forums. A tutor from Long Island's Aldephi University talked about their new online tutoring program. There was discussion as to whether writing centers should be using submission forms for their synchronous and asynchronous tutoring sessions. Do these questions stop students from using online services or weed out lazy students?

A second tutor from University of Connecticutt talked about students' experiences with online postings (such as Blackboard). He reminded us that not all attempts at creating a community through online discussions are successful. Directed questioning seemed to help students find value in online posting. Students found things most valuable that were not simple added work, but that were incorporated into their class. Students from the audience expressed a distaste for anything that felt separate, purposeless, or extra. Community building really seemed to be about finding a shared passion, something a professor couldn't necessarily make happen.

our opening slide
For the last session of the day, it was my turn to present, along with fellow tutors from the St. John's University Writing Center, both from the Queens and Staten Island campuses. Our presentation was called Branching Out: Digital Literacy and Writing Centers. As usual, I was super nervous, but I think the panel was successful. We tried to cram a lot of information into a 75 minute panel, ranging from what defines digital literacy to how our composing process are affected by technology to the politics of digital literacy to using digital literacy to enhance our writing centers. Our audience really picked up on issues of access and social justice. There was also great conversation about how to address the challenges of tutoring students who are participating in digital writing. Harry left us of with a reminder that, though many of us take for granted how digitally literate we are, we should recognize that it's not universal and that in the moments where we come across someone who is not digitally literate, we must use it as a teachable moment, not one for ridicule. (At some point this week, I will post more about our panel.)

I heard a rumor that next year the NEWCA Conference will be held at our very own St. John's University. Whether it's true or not, I do hope to attend next year. It was obvious that the participants all had a passion for what they do and desire to learn more.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Saying Good Bye and Moving Forward: Lessons from My Grandfather

Early Thursday morning, my grandfather passed away at 74 years old. It was not a shock; he had been battling cirrhosis for months. Nothing, however, could soften the blow of seeing the casket shut for the final time, knowing that we would never see his face again. Of course, even in times of tragedy, we learn, and we grow. I know my grandfather would not want me to mope and mourn. Even on his death bed, he never shed a tear for his own mortality. He was a man who believed in loving life and humanity and was satisfied to pass on knowing that he was loved.

My grandfather was a good man. Though he was a skilled furniture maker in Greece, he moved to America with very little money and no knowledge of English to take advantage of the Land of Opportunity and became a union worker, doing construction jobs. He worked in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, for six months, living in a small apartment with several other men, until my grandmother and my father came over to join him unexpectedly. He took things in stride, found a place, and moved them to Brooklyn, where he slowly built his living and watched his family grow. My grandfather truly loved America and the things for which it stands. He told me that he would never have moved back to Greece. 

Though he worked hard, my grandfather never cared about money. He believed that if he worked with integrity, more would eventually come his way. He loved his craft, and he could be found whittling sculptures out of wood or carving masterful clocks and chests in the garage for many years until age took away his dexterity. At his funeral, I learned that some of his woodwork had been featured for several months in the Whitney Museum. He was contacted by artists and buyers who wanted him to do more work, but he refused. He never wanted fame, recognition, or money. He was an artist in the truest sense of the word. It was about loving his art and valuing his work. It was about making others happy.

Though he had very little education, leaving school in the middle of what we would call elementary school, my grandfather was a wise man. For one, he pushed my father and aunt to pursue higher education, though he had done fine without very much formal education. More importantly, though, he knew how to enjoy life. He held no grudges, was generous perhaps to a fault, and held animosity for no one. Every one remembers him dancing and smiling, always the life of the party. And he was a great story teller. He knew that the secret to happiness was not in possessions, but in connections, not in receiving, but in giving.

Sadly, I cannot bring back my grandfather, but in keeping his memory and his lessons alive, I believe that I can honor his life and do better in my own. If I can remember each day to appreciate life, to smile a bit more, to be good to my neighbor, and to write and teach well simply because those are my passions, I know that he will be looking down and smiling. If we all lived a little bit more like my grandfather, the world would be a better place.