Words of Wisdom

Youth is wasted on the young.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

In Which I Am Forced To Confront My Cynicism

Following from my despair at the lack of initiative of the younger generation and my affront at the dumbing down of the curriculum, I received some interesting responses to my horror at the idea of trivial internet based assessment tasks for Shakespeare.

Jill (a pre school teacher) from Twipply Skwood said this:

Actually I'll bet the Romeo and Juliet myspace pages could produce some interesting stuff. You know, they'd have to do the blog entries and bios and interests and all that. They could think up what to substitute for certain categories - like there wouldn't have been any movies for them to have for favorite movies, so what would they put in that area? They would have to make a page for the parents so R&J would have "friends". It might be a kind of neat project - like maybe whoever was done with their regular work ahead of time could do it for extra credit or something. :-) :-) :-)

A Free Man (a University lecturer) said this:
I know you disagree, but I think that the latter idea is a really good one. You have to get kids interested, engaged and if you use their choice of media to do so, they'll be more interested. Do you remember the Leonardo DiCaprio/Clair Danes Romeo & Juliet? Got a whole generation interested in Shakespeare, but it certainly didn't deviate that much from the intent of the author. You could do the same thing with modern social media. Although MySpace is a bit dated, Facebook would be the way to go. The more I think of it, the better idea I think it is. The kids would have to read the play in order to do a decent job. They may not read it in a traditional classroom setting.

And Just Jessie (a brilliant home school-er with two super intelligent, creative boys) said this:
Okay, I think they're on the right track, they just need more depth. The avatar thing could be cool if they flesh it out more. Make them draw their own and put them in period clothing and in a scene from the play. You know, sort of make them think it through. Could be a good thing.

Due to the fact that they are all qualified professionals (although I think they are all also Gen-Xers) I considered their ideas very carefully.

Yes, they have merit.

I mean, how different is an avatar from the 'Wanted' posters we did for characters in novels back in primary school? The implications of transferring life in Elizabethan England (or Verona in this case) to MySpace or Facebook is loaded with opportunities for humour, originality and creativity.
With a bit of research.

And this is where I come up against it.

A Freeman: You said that setting this project would encourage them to read the play in order to do a decent job. You assume that they even CARE about doing a decent job! And let me tell you, nothing will make them read that play if they do not want to. Hell, even when you read it to them it does not dent their e-clad psyches. (Thank heavens for Baz Luhrman I say.)

Jill: You suggested setting it as an extension project or for extra credit. Unfortunately we have enough trouble getting them to hand up even the most basic of projects let alone doing something for extra credit.
The Y Generation are all about 'that'll do' , 'good enough' and 'maximum result for minimum effort'.

Jessie: 'Sort of make them think it through'? You have hit the nail on the head. They have no desire to think anything through and the nature of this assignment encourages this.

Look, as an older person with life experience; a familiarity with Shakespeare; a love of spoof and plenty of exposure to irony and satire in a range of genres; I can think of so many things to bring to this project. Unfortunately the pupils we teach have very few of these attributes.

I think it would be an excellent extension project for an advanced group; a group with skills. My concern is that as English teachers we should be developing skills and skills will not develop spontaneously and without practice.

The problem with giving this type of task to the mainstream of students is that it encourages superficiality. Myspace does not have a spellchecker or a requirement for anything written there to make ANY sense at all. I know. I have seen some of the pages belonging to my daughter's friends. Hell. I have seen my daughter's page! Avatars, like wanted posters, are a primary school activity. They require a student to understand only the most basic qualities of a character and do not encourage exploration of motivation or personality traits which drive a character to make certain choices.

I know technology and the use of familiar, popular cultural tools can motivate kids but we risk sublimating the wealth of history and literature available to our species by moving down the road of 'least resistance'. Use technology where you can to get your message across but do not allow it to replace the original form of the message altogether. Use technology as a vehicle for expression but not as a way to avoid having anything to express.

If you want to add a 'pop' flair, ask them to construct a series of email exchanges between the lovers in the language of the day! At least then they will need to familiarise themselves with the text, construct a narrative of sorts and formulate grammatically correct sentences. Without txtspk.

I would like to set a task for student teachers. Analyse the 'Create a Myspace Page' task and list the elements of the english curriculum that it either teaches or assesses. What steps would pupils need to take to complete the task adequately? eg research skills, reading the play, analysing, summarising. Do they have the skills to take these steps? If not, how would you structure the task to ensure that they were supported in developing these skills?

On a less cynical note, for pupils with learning difficulties, a task like this could remove the fear of the written word and provide a comfortable context in which to experiment with ideas.

Thanks for the thought provoking comments folks.


natalie said...

As a primary teacher, I always struggle with "meet them where they are and take them where they need to be." I'm sorry, but there are times when I just CAN NOT meet them where they are. If I struggle with that in a second grade classroom, HOW IN THE WORLD WOULD A FIFTH GRADE TEACHER DO IT? Or an eighth grade teacher? If we constantly use what they are familiar with (myspace, avatar (what is that???)), then are we really doing our jobs? How about S-T-R-E-T-C-H-I-N-G them and requiring something MORE from them? I certainly had to perform in uncomfortable ways when I was in high school, doing things out of my comfort zone. I remember one evening meeting at a friend's outgrown playhouse in her backyard and creating a movie trailer for Silas Marner. We had to cram all the important story elements into just a few minutes, convey the nature of the character, etc, not to mention, ACT.

Elisa said...

Great conversation going!!

I read both sides and think that sinking to - oops - I mean reaching to their level is not always the answer. If students need to be "spoon fed" the very basics then certainly they are not ready to handle such a potentially creative project.

It might be a great assignment for an advanced group who does have that internal drive to do the best job possible. Those kids would realize they need to really understand the material in order to get creative.

Sometimes the basics are best served up with repetition and practice. Kids should be able to construct a basic essay before they are allowed to use the looser format of a myspace or facebook page. Otherwise they'll never learn how to write a decent essay.

I'm probably an ol' fuddy duddy...but there is some discipline involved here, too. Learn how to do it the right way and learn how to do your work well BEFORE you get to "play" with the assignments.

Sometimes you just have to do things BECAUSE! :)

A - remind me sometime to share the very creative mytholgy projects that are assigned to the advanced 6th graders! Quite creative but definitely must show an understanding of material in order to get a good grade.

Stacy said...

Wow, you have a lot of work trying to get those kids to read Shakespear. I like the idea of Myspace, but understand where you are coming from. If they don't have the basic skills to actually understand the text, how are they to bring it to a modern medium? I see what you are saying about the Y-er's and their "good enough" approach. At least when e-mail was all the rage they actually wrote sentences with *mostly* real words. Now with texting they don't have to do that and have their own little language. It should be interesting seeing how they turn out.

A Free Man said...

They aren't going to acquire the basic skills without going out on a limb now and again. I don't know about middle schoolers, but if forced to put something up on the web for all to see maybe they would be more interested in generating a decent site? I don't know. What I do know is that any gimmick that will force these apathetic bastards to engage is worth a shot. If they're as bored as my uni students, then you've got your hands full.

Jill/Twipply Skwood said...

Hey!!!! I helped force someone to confront cynicism?!?! And here I was on vacation... :-) :-) :-) ;-)

It is way more complicated than it seems, isn't it? You're faced with a dual problem I guess, lack of motivation and lack of proper skills. It almost seems like they're sort of exclusive, like you have to confront them separately.

And it seems like part of the motivation problem can never be removed because education is no longer considered a privilege the way it once was. And something forced on them the way we do will never be as motivating as an education that they undertake on their own. So then we set up all these artificial motivations to get them to work (grades, rewards) that can never be as motivating as them just needing to learn xyz because they need it in order to function or because they have a true interest in a certain subject.

Speaking of which, I have to leave now to force my children to go to their guitar lessons... KIDDING!!!!! They both really did want to take guitar...

Very interesting topic though!

April said...

My father just retired from being a history teacher for longer than I've been alive. I know, especially in the US since the passing of no child left behind, he's felt like education is going down hill. He has to do so much so kids can pass and has to give them chance after chance even when they put in no effort. We're taking away the responsibility of the students to their detriment. How do these kids function in the real world, unwilling to put forth any real effort? I'm curious.

Arizaphale said...

That's what I want to know too April!