Sunday, March 21, 2010
The Sunday Salon - So this is what teaching's been reduced to?
Here in Ontario, our students have to pass a special literacy test in order to graduate from high school (they take it in Grade 10). Called the OSSLT (Ontario Secondary School Literacy Test), it tests concepts based on literacy expectations students should have learned up to Grade 9, so 9 years worth of English literacy skills. I've seen past tests and even administered sample ones to classes I've had, and to be honest, it's not that difficult, the material on the tests is no different from my academic English exams when I was in high school 10 years ago. Here is some information on what the test entails for those who are not familiar:
Even with the realistic expectations (we're not asking for kids to write essays, just multiple choice and short answer questions and reading passages) and a mountain of prep work, kids still fail the OSSLT. In my school board alone, there's about a 15% failure rate. Before you ask, some students are exempt form the test depending on disabilities (case by case basis), and any students who require accommodations are looked after in that regard. So the reason why they are failing is that they don't know the material. Now I won't get into my whole rant about standardized tests, but this is one test I actually agree with, I actually think kids should need to take a test like this to graduate from elementary school (with modified material appropriate for a higher elementary level). Since I began working in the publicly funded education system here in Ontario, I have noticed that even in dealing with the same caliber of classes that I took in high school (academic/honours) the quality of work and what the kids know has gone down. In the same level of class, the kids don't know how to write essays, they don't know how to reference properly, their vocabulary has even decreased. Almost every teacher my age (so was in the high school system 10 years ago), agrees with me. University professors have been saying for a few years now that their first-year students have been coming into the schools unprepared, can't write essays, use MSN speak on their papers etc. We could argue how either teachers aren't doing their job, kids aren't internalizing what they're being taught, parents aren't reinforcing concepts at home, or any number of things as to why our expectations of students have gotten so low, but I am getting to a point with all my rambling.
The other day, I came upon this in the paper:
And I kinda laughed. Then I actually visited the website and did the activities.
Read Write Rock
Now the site does manage to get the basic concepts taught in a fun way that appeals to teenagers, I'll give it that. But what's taught on this website gearing students towards practicing for the literacy test is no different than what they would learn sitting in a classroom listening to their English teacher, half of the lesson sections feel like they came out of the mouth of my grade 10 English teacher. Some teachers even make activities just as fun as what's on the website. Aside from my issue with the overload of slang used by the rocker characters on the website (which we discourage students from using in formal writing), the website only really helps with questions it can easily mark, like the multiple choice in the reading section. The writing section of the website, where students have to write a short paragraph, opinion piece, news article etc., can only provide examples and a checklist to ensure that the kids are doing the exercise correctly, compared to what would normally be done in class by handing in a writing sample and it being marked and taken up by a teacher. So although I think it's a great idea for the reading section and to appeal to kids generally for those that really need the push, altogether kids still need those key concepts reinforced by constant practice in a classroom and reading for pleasure (I still think our kids would exhibit better literacy skills if, you know, more of them would actually read...anything...at all). It's just amazing what teachers have to sink to in order to teach perfectly basic things to kids, things generations of us learned without access to the internet (myself included). So at some point perhaps we have to admit that it doesn't really matter what the teachers do or don't do, kids aren't learning these things in schools. If we learned them 10 years ago in huge classes (can't use the class size argument there), with the same teachers (can't use the improperly trained teachers argument there), without any technological interaction (can't use the kids need more interactive activities argument), then what the heck are we doing wrong? Why are kids failing to learn the same basic skills we learned only 10 years ago using the same teachers and a heck of a lot more resources and technology than what we were given?
I honestly don't know. I'm convinced it's because kids don't read enough or actually reinforce literacy concepts outside of school, call me crazy. When I was in elementary school, more of the boys in my classes read books than what I see in elementary schools today (and I mean really want to read them, not just because they're made to), and I went to a middle-class school where there was an equal mix of blue and white-collar families. More of the families cared about education and actually scheduled their vacations around when the school breaks were so that their kids wouldn't miss any class time for something as silly as a vacation. More of the families would take action if their kid brought home consistently poor grades, although not by using a tutor (none of us had tutors), but by hard work and parental involvement. When I had poor grades in grade 5 math, my father quizzed me every night when he got home from work (and he worked long hours being self-employed, but he still did it), and through a lot of hard work my grades improved. Nowadays kids certainly don't take responsibility for their work (which teaching about a good work ethic would've avoided but I won't get into that), but parents don't either. And if parents don't care and don't intervene to make sure kids get the work done, then teachers can't do much more. Teachers can only do so much, remember, parents wanted teachers to have less power over students but wanted them to be responsible for doing more? When parents teach their kids about having a good work ethic, about doing their work, spend time with their kids, read to them, take them to the library to read books, amazingly, those are the kids who are better students, no matter what income level they come from. When parents let technology babysit, make other people responsible for their kids, don't enforce that schoolwork gets done, and don't set a good example, those are the kids that fail in so many areas of life (and I'm not taking just academically), and teachers can only fix so much.
So yes, that's how one little website is endemic of what's happening in society as a whole.