Thursday, November 15, 2007

What Is A Serious Student?

Every other week, the English department meets a large group (largest dept. in the school) to discuss courses, initiatives, school business, and overarching questions. Yesterday, we revisited a conversation about homework that's been going on school-wide for a few years. How do we use it? Why do students gain from it? Could we get by without it? And so on. And we ended up discussing what some of us perceived as a move towards a school culture that doesn't foster serious students, specifically in English. Physics and Math maybe a different story?

Many great questions came out of the discussion:
*Is there a difference between being good at something and being a student of something? Waterpolo was the analogy.
*How do we balance encouraging the skills of a good student with the necessary pace of the curriculum?
*Should we expect all student to have passion for English? For example, do we expect all student in orchestra to be serious musicians?
*Is being a serious student, a mastery of skills or an investment in content?

So I left the meeting thinking about these questions, and thinking about how I might present some ideas in a post here at WatsonCommon. Considering myself a serious student of several things, English, leadership, educational technology, surfing, mountaineering, racquetball, marathoning, I thought I'd take inventory of all the things I do as a serious student (maybe learner is a better term).

1. I keep a small notebook with me at all times to quickly jot down ideas, reflections, and observations. This is also where raw ideas are born. Often, what's written here is in the form of lists, pictures, webs.

2. I write in a personal journal, at least 10 minutes a day, for nobody but me.

3. I keep a professional blog and read blogs of people who do similar work, creating a network of creative collaborators. Before blogging, I documented all my work and organized it in binders and folders, ready to reference and share.

4. I try to build a professional library of thought-provoking reading. I think this too is encompassed by the read/write web.

I'm probably missing things. But these are the habits (I wouldn't call them skills) that I believe make me serious. Is this what we expect of students? Or is it something else? Something more?


Bruce Schauble said...

Well, I was gonna write about this too, and here you went and beat me to it (not for the first time either.) But yeah, all of the things you mention. Writing figures in three of four items in your inventory, reading in the fourth. It seems to me that reading and writing are critical: reading allows us to broaden our understanding, writing allows us to shape it, extend it, deepen it. I'd three things to the list:

5)Reflection - staying with an idea inside the mind, turning it over, rotating it, looking at it from different points of view, and conversation

6)Conversation - talking about something is a way of honoring its importance, and there's something generative about talk as well, putting something words is clarifying and often surprising when it leads you to say things you didn't know you knew or believed

7) Action - putting ideas into motion provides the real test of their validity. A lot of things sound good but don't work in the real world.

I took the position in our meeting that many of our students, including many students who are earning grades good grades, are not what I would consider to be serious students. How many of our students do even half of the things that are on our emerging list? They do what they are told to do, yes. But how many of them write for their own enrichment? How many of them read beyond what is strictly required? (Many of them do not even do that much.) How many of them do we see making any kind of active effort to put the ideas they do care about into practice? How much of their complacency is a result of the climate of expectation we set for them? And if we wanted to change that climate, where might we begin?

So yeah, it was an interesting discussion. Those are serious questions, and deserve serious answers.

Lindsea said...

I agree with what Mr. Schauble was saying, but I don't think anyone can force the kids to "put the ideas they do care about into practice". Of course you can't expect all the students to have a passion for English (or Math, or Science, or Social Studies, or Art), it's something that only a percentage have. And a smaller percentage of that percentage will go on to study it in college, and most likely even less of that will use it in a job environment.

Many teachers that I've had in the past have a tendency to assume that their class is the most important class that the student will ever take. Another typical problem is that the teachers will forget that the student is taking five other equally (if not more) challenging course that require equal (if not more) homework to be completed. Plus tests to study for. And sports to do. And volunteer hours to rack up. And clubs to participate in.

I know for a fact that most students take all of their classes very seriously. They do their homework, and try to survive this huge challenge called growing up.

Regarding the "climate of expectation", I personally believe that the teacher should not put too much expectation on the students. I mean, obviously due dates and such would be nice. But the only way the students will truly grow is if the expectation comes from within. Intrinsic motivation is very important, especially in high school, because this is where the teachers are supposed to be training the kids for Life Outside the Stoney Punahounian Walls, and if we are ever going to survive out there, we need to be given the chance to sink or swim in a safe environment. And to be honest, the question of our complacency is a good one, because where does it take its root from? Is it because of our teachers? Is it because of the system? Whose responsibility is our complacency anyway? Whose shoulder's does our inspiration fall on?

To finish this off, I'd just like to say that because you're a teacher, it's natural for you to want us to learn all we can from your stores of wisdom and knowledge so painstakingly accumulated throughout your lifetime. But it's also important to realize that most of us are trying our hardest to be serious students, as well as trying to shoulder all the stress that we're dealing with (concerning the whole going to college, becoming adults thing) the best we can. So cut us some slack :)

sorry this comment is so long!

Anonymous said...

I wish more students would weigh in at length! I noted this post in my blog and was thinking there about what makes serious college students (I think there are some major differences and similarities)... and what does it mean if we really become lifelong learners?

All educators thinking about this should read your comment...

Mark Hanington said...

I need to think for a while on the English Department's apparently instinctive use of the word "serious" to describe a desired student attribute. Did anybody define what he or she meant by that term?

I am inclined to advocate for light-heartedness in teaching and learning. Passion is passionate because it's fun. Frankly math is useful pretty much only because it's fun, at least in my life.

Light-hearted, as I mean it, does not mean shallow. It means that all senses are fully awake and revelling in the moment.

Seriousness is serious business and should not be taken lightly. English, on the other, like math, should only be taken lightly.