Monthly Archives: January 2016

What is the purpose of education?

In their book Most Likely to Succeed, Dr. Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith write, “…people follow the assertion that ‘education is key’ with the concern that ‘our schools need to do much better.’ But few can answer the overarching question: ‘What is the purpose of education?’

First, I’ll narrow the focus by asking myself, what is the purpose of K-12 public education? In other words, for what purpose does K-12 public education exist?

To continue our genetic lineage, we procreate. To continue our national legacy, we educate. America is founded on and fueled by the American dream. It’s not just the freedom to pursue happiness; it’s the ideal that any citizen within our shores can achieve success and prosperity. If we fail to educate our youngest citizens, we will weaken their ability to achieve the American dream, which means we will weaken the very DNA of our country’s strength.

Our public education system is the means by which we make the American dream an achievable reality for our citizens. We invest in public schools in the hopes that our children will be educated well enough to live happy, successful lives while contributing to America’s prominent standing in the world.

 

Entering the conversation

A few weeks ago, I began reading The Global Achievement Gap by Dr. Tony Wagner. It was published in 2008, so I realize I’m eight years late to the table, but I’m still so glad I found this book. On just about every page, I’m tempted to write, “Amen,” “Yes,” or “Preach!”

What’s funny is that at the time this book was published, I was in my fifth year of teaching and feeling many, many of the emotions Dr. Wagner expresses he felt while in the classroom. How I wish I had read his book at that time in my career! Perhaps I would not have felt so alone in my professional frustrations.

Because of my admiration for Gap, I also purchased Most Likely to Succeed, which was written by Dr. Wagner and Ted Dintersmith. As I began highlighting questions they pose, I thought about how great it would be to enter the conversation too. Then I thought – I have a blog! I can enter the conversation!

In their Introduction, Dr. Wagner and Mr. Dintersmith mention that they “have found it invaluable in setting the tone for a discussion about education to ask participants to reflect on their school years. Specifically, we ask them to describe what aspects of their education had a profound positive impact on them” (4).

For me, it started in kindergarten. My teacher Mrs. Sapp was fun, energetic, and loved teaching. I don’t remember anything specific about that year. I’m sure I learned math and spelling, but that’s all faded into the blurred colors of childhood. What I do recall is the joy I felt going to school.

At my public high school I had several amazing teachers and an amazing administrator as well. I had Mrs. Pecor for Algebra II and AP Calculus. She was tough, tiny, and had a raspy smoker’s voice. I was afraid of her in the best possible way – I didn’t want to let her down. Her tough standards did not preclude a willingness to help, and I always felt supported. In this class, I felt challenged as an individual and learned the benefits of working hard on a seemingly impossible task. (Math was never my strong suit, yet earned a 4 on the exam. That’s a badge of honor for me!)

Mrs. Hartley was my AP Lang and AP Lit teacher, as well as my newspaper adviser. We read and discussed and wrote, and then we did it all again. Her classes were the only ones in which I discussed modern day issues through the lens of multiple genres. I enjoyed the creativity behind working on the school paper. As many other people report in Most Likely to Succeed, I too liked working on a collaborative project, being given adult responsibilities, and being challenged in my abilities.

My drama teacher, Ms. Schwarz, offered guidance, humor, support, and opportunities to be both myself and someone other than myself. We worked as groups and teams, learning to perform and how to manage pre-show jitters.

Mrs. Featherstone was an assistant principal at the time, and we formed a bond that has continued into my adulthood. She is working mom who was a teacher, assistant principal, and is now a National Board Certified Principal working on her Ph.D. Is it any wonder why she is a role model to me?

Reflecting on these teachers makes me realize something: the most profound positive impact on my education were these intelligent, hard-working, funny, giving, and talented women. They constantly challenged me and held up high expectations for me, but they were always there to support me as well. I didn’t want to let them down, but I didn’t fear failure. I knew they were on my side and there was a mutual respect for one another.

But it wasn’t like we all sat around singing kumbaya. They TAUGHT me. They made me think and write and calculate and act and learn. There’s no doubt that I wouldn’t have been the teacher I became without those teachers to show me the way.

And now I’ve entered this conversation! Next up is Dr. Wagner and Mr. Dintersmith’s question: “What is the purpose of education?” and trying to find a definition of what “constitutes real learning.”

Using the President’s State of the Union as a Teachable Text

2011_State_of_the_Union

[Note: This year's State of the Union will be delivered on Tuesday, Jan. 12 at 9 p.m.]

Often, secondary English and Social Studies teachers use older texts to teach the standards of our subject areas. This is a good thing; however, in doing so, we are constantly asking our students to look back to the past, when we should also be asking them to think, discuss, and analyze their present and future.

One way to bring our classrooms into the present and to bolster the relevancy of our curriculum is to create lesson plans around texts being created now. One such opportunity arrives every year in the form of the President’s State of the Union Address. No matter whether our current president is a Democrat, Republican, or Independent, he or she must give this address, which makes it a great teaching text – we can count on it every year, yet every year it’s something new.

Below are four steps for using the President’s SOTU as a text for rhetorical analysis in your classes.

STEP ONE: Rationale and Objectives

Before students watch the speech, they need to understand why you are asking them to do so. The objectives must be clear so that students understand this is not a political or partisan exercise, but one in which they are analyzing language and its effects. Here are some sample objectives:

  • Students will understand the rhetorical situation of the President’s State of the Union Address.
  • Students will analyze how the President’s use of figurative language relates to the rhetorical situation.
  • Students will analyze how the President’s use of persuasive appeals works to achieve his purposes.
  • Students will analyze how the specific word choice (diction) relates to the rhetorical situation.

STEP TWO: Understanding the Rhetorical Situation

The rhetorical situation is the phrase used to describe the set of circumstance in which a text is created; in this case, the circumstances in which the State of the Union is being given. In order to write an effective speech, a speaker must have a clear understanding of the following elements:

Method of delivery: How will the speech be transmitted to other people?

Audience: Who is the speaker addressing?

Purpose: What are goals/objectives of the speech?

Speaker: Who is giving the speech?

Context: Under what specific historical circumstances the speech being given?

Prompt: What is the immediate prompt for this speech?

Subject: What is this speech about?

That’s a lot of moving parts, especially considering the fact that there are multiple answers for nearly all of those questions. You can discuss each one with your students or choose the one in which you would like them to focus their analysis. I use the acronym MAPS CPS to help students remember they are “locating” the elements of the rhetorical situation.

STEP THREE: Live Engagement

Ideally, we want students to be active viewers of the speech, just as we want them to be active readers. How to achieve this objective? Well, you’ve got two options: low-tech and high-tech.

Low-tech: As they watch the speech, students should take notes on specific phrases, words, or moments that strike them as important. Since the text of the speech is not released in advance, students can’t annotate while they watch, so this is the next best thing. Additionally, students can write down questions they have regarding the rhetoric of the speech. (You may also encourage them to write down questions regarding the formalities of the event, especially if it’s their first time watching a SOTU.)

High-tech: If your students are able to tweet, create a class hashtag that you will all use while tweeting during the Address. Instruct your students to tweet specific phrases, words, or moments that strike them as important. Since we want them to stay focused on the speech, you can instruct students not to worry about engaging in an actual discussion. After the conclusion of the speech, students should scroll back in the feed and indicate their favorite tweets by clicking the (ridiculous) heart icon. Tell them ahead of time that the most “loved” (seriously, when will Twitter bring back the star?) tweets will be the ones you all discuss in class, so it’s important that they follow through on that last step. You can also encourage students to tweet questions during or after the speech, re-emphasizing the focus on rhetoric and format, not politics and policy.

STEP FOUR: Follow-up Discussion

Using the students’ notes and/or tweets as a jumping point, you are now ready to engage in a student-driven class discussion.

One way to do this is by providing students with photocopies of the actual speech text, which should be released following the conclusion of the speech. Having a hard copy of the speech will allow students to make notes during your discussion and remind them of the context for specific words and phrases. (If you can’t get hard copies that quickly, you may want to delay an in-depth discussion by a day so that students can annotate on the hard copies during the discussion.)

Another way of building upon the students’ observations is to create a Google document of the speech’s text that all your students can access. Again, the objectives should be clear. You may want students want to discuss diction, and so you ask them to highlight specific words and write a brief analysis of the connotation and effect of that word choice. Or you may want them to highlight examples of when the word choice reflects the audience to whom the President is addressing. Or maybe you want students to comment on the organization of the speech as it relates to the achieving the President’s purpose(s).

STEP FIVE: High-five yourself on an engaging, thought-provoking, analytical lesson that also makes your students active participants in the democratic rituals of our great country.

Tina-Fey-giving-herself-high-five