Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Problem with the One Week Workshop

During the summer months, teachers around the country often seek professional development opportunities. To this end, many turn to the one-week workshop to fill gaps in their content and/or pedagogical knowledge.

One-week P.D. serves a vital function, and I've been fortunate to attend some terrific summer sessions ranging from one to four weeks. Note: I'm not talking about summer classes from which one earns university credit, although workshops often offer credit opportunities.

The College Board encourages current and new AP teachers to attend their workshops, theoretically so that AP teachers will be prepared to teach AP classes when school commences in the fall.

So what's the problem? Simply, a one-week workshop is no substitute for an advanced degree or a graduate-level course in rhetorical theory or rhetorical analysis.

Recently, as the summer draws to a close and teachers return home from their AP workshops and begin preparing for the coming school year, I've seen an increase in the number of online inquiries from teachers seeking assistance in preparing to teach AP, particularly the AP lang and comp class.

Teachers who acknowledge doubts about their preparation and who seek help in online forums certainly deserve accolades. I admire their willingness to say "help, please." Their willingness to take advice from other teachers shows a desire for excellence in their teaching.

At the same time, I'm troubled that some teachers enter the AP lang and comp class not knowing the meaning of rhetoric, even as they ask about the difference in rhetoric and style. Most English teachers focused on literary analysis rather than rhetorical analysis in their university coursework.

Unfortunately, rather than actually preparing teachers who lack a background in rhetoric and / or communication studies, the one-week AP workshop diminishes the worth of those teachers who do have substantial knowledge in rhetorical studies, whether through an advanced degree or grad-level coursework.

Put another way:  The one-week workshop doesn't sufficiently fill gaps in knowledge about rhetoric. It merely gives the false impression that a teacher has sufficient knowledge. The one-week workshop (read: The College Board) is guilty of what Tom Newkirk calls the "deskilling" of teaching in Holding Onto Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones. 

At this juncture, I feel compelled to offer a little self-disclosure: I do not teach AP lang and comp. I do, however, have substantial grad-level coursework in rhetoric and communication, including courses in argumentation theory and rhetorical criticism.

I don't blame teachers for wanting to teach AP courses and for grabbing the opportunity to do so; after all, AP students are generally more motivated and easier to teach than reluctant learners and students with poor reading and writing skills.

However, I do hope these teachers will seek to improve their knowledge by taking grad-level courses in rhetoric and argumentation.

I hope they realize a one-week workshop is no substitute for intensive, long-term study at the graduate level with a professor devoted to "the art of persuasion, beautiful and just."

I hope teachers realize that identifying chiasmus, litotes, synecdoche, etc. is no substitute for constructing essays using Neo-Aristotelian Criticism, Fantasy Theme Criticism, Cluster Criticism, Pentadic Criticism, Generic Criticism, etc. Sonja Foss's Rhetorical Criticism: Exploration and Practice is a good source for learning more about these methods of critiquing rhetorical artifacts, which, incidentally, aren't limited to nonfiction texts. In communication studies, pretty much anything has rhetorical value and, consequently, is subject to critique, including architecture, fashion, music, art, speeches, etc.

And while these methods of rhetorical criticism may not be necessary for one to teach the AP lang and comp class in its current incarnation, it certainly behooves teachers undertaking such an endeavor actually to know something about this communication field--something more than one learns in a week.

Revised: 8-22-2011

Monday, August 8, 2011

Cheating Teachers: A Crucible of Character

At the end of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, John Proctor refuses to nail his verbal confession that he's guilty of witchcraft to the church door. When questioned about his refusal, he shouts: 

"Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!" 

Those educators involved in the litany of cheating scandals have blackened the name of our profession. They have sold the soul of teaching, and now many defend their failure of character and refuse to own their choice to cheat. Their refusal to do the honorable thing and resign testifies to their poor character. 

As have many teachers, I have followed the Atlanta testing scandal and have given it much thought. Similar cheating scandals have occurred in Washington D.C. during Michelle Rhea's tenure, in Baltimore, in Philadelphia, in New Jersey, and in New York. And these are the ones we know about. I wouldn't be surprised to learn standardized test cheating is both systemic and epidemic. 

The rationalizing, the efforts, however well-intended,  to explain how and why cheating occurs bothers me. 

Writing about the Atlanta scandal, Maureen Downey says this on the ajc blog: 

"I think some of their motivation was less self-serving; they wanted to fulfill Dr. Hall’s vision that low-income children from single parent homes and tough neighborhoods could and would succeed at levels comparable to suburban Atlanta peers and that such performance could be achieved system-wide by adopting best practices and by working harder and smarter.

The APS teachers, principals and administrators wanted to prove that the faith of the Broad and Gates foundations and the Chamber of Commerce in the district was not misplaced and that APS could rewrite the script of urban education in America and provide a happy, or at least a happier, ending for its students."

Is Ms. Downey really saying educators cheated for the students? 

Vicky Davis, writer of the Cool Cat Teacher Blog, is quoted in the Huff Post as explaining teacher's cheating:

"[Teachers'] funding and their lives and their money is based on that. When the stakes are extremely high and it's very competitive but you add in the fact that the teachers feel that they don't have control over the results, some will cheat."

As an article in Education Week notes, many see these cheating scandals as a byproduct of our testing culture and cite them in calling for an end to testing:

 “If the stakes are so high that the teachers don’t even believe the measurement itself, they’re going to try to cheat," says Yang Zhao.

Nationwide teachers have questioned the educational benefit of high-stakes testing. This lack of faith in the
tests doesn't create a cause-effect scenario in which all teachers will cheat on the them. That's because the vast majority of teachers possess honorable character that prevents them from cheating. 

Rather than attempting to explain the why behind the cheating scandals, educators should acknowledge that  the decision to cheat constitutes a test of character. Those who cheat fail the character test, their students, and their profession.  They have nailed their name to the door and they need to leave the profession on their own. If they choose not to leave, educators throughout the country should call for their dismissal and the revocation of their licenses as loudly as we call for an ending to high-stakes testing.