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Foremost, we teach November 28, 2005

Posted by Michael McVey in Students.
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6 Prior to leaving Denver this morning I came across a guest column in the Denver Post by Mark Moe, a retired English teacher. The full column will remind you about the population we hope to reach with our new technological tools.

An excerpt from the article:

Or, perhaps more to the point: “Why don’t we step inside this classroom where, soon, 32 hormonally crazed 15-year-olds – who haven’t done their homework and are already hopped up on that Big Gulp Mountain Dew that was their breakfast – will arrive in various states of virulent adolescence? After you.”

So, you’ve got five classes ahead of you: three sophomore English, one freshman basic skills, and, thank God, a senior humanities seminar where you can actually spend most of the period teaching. Almost 140 students in all, who, over the course of a school year, will collectively write about 800 essays. That’s about 2,000 pages. Ever read a 2,000-page novel? Well, I am impressed! Ever grade a 2,000-page novel? Written by a 15-year-old? No? Then you don’t know what fun is!

First, you need to skim the essay globally to see if it coheres – if it’s on topic and makes sense. If it passes this little speed bump, then you can begin the arduous, painstaking, line-by-line assessment, which includes corrections of grammar, spelling, punctuation, sentence structure and so on.

Reading this and I am reminded of many nights spent grading papers as a high school English teacher. I was reminded of the joke about the next Survivor pitting seven executives in an urban school where they must teach several classes of uninterested and unmotivated ninth graders.

Among the many things I read this holiday weekend, between sudoku puzzles, was an interview with Frank McCourt who has just released Teacher Man, a memoir of his days as an inexperienced teacher. An excerpt:

“I knew I had to find my own way of teaching,” McCourt says, his brogue still present. “I certainly couldn’t be telling them about grammar or analysis or whatever.”

So he told stories instead. On his first day of class, at McKee Technical and Vocational School in 1958, the young teacher learned to keep the students quiet by telling them about growing up poor in Ireland. Then he returned the favor by asking them to write down the best excuse note they could think of.

Today, creative writing classes call this workshopping, but back then it was revolutionary, and McCourt was forever on the verge of getting fired.

I cannot tell you how much his experimental approach to education paralleled my own experiences. Both of us were in survival mode to some degree, always on the lookout for something that would hook our students and connect the curriculum to their lives. Now, many years later, I am still tinkering and trying to see how the new tools of technology can fit into Higher Education.

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