Monday, June 25, 2012

Raising a Writer

For many families, including ours, summer is a more laid-back time where students have fewer classes and ongoing assignments, and thus more time to devote to activities that might be squeezed out during the traditional academic year.  For many families, this is a good time to explore creative writing, since creative writing, particularly for young and emerging writers, often blossoms better in an environment with fewer deadlines and distractions.

But raising a writer is not an obvious thing.  What can we do as parents to help encourage our children to write?

This blog post has some fantastic suggestions by M. Molly Backes, who works in a writers center in Chicago and has just published her first YA novel, The Princesses of Iowa.  It is all about giving our children space, freedom, permission, and love--which, really, is probably the way to raise children period.  But it is a lovely and beautifully written post, so I won't ruin it by summarizing it for you--you'll just have to go check it out yourself.

One thing I can add to Ms. Backes' advice, however.  She advocates giving children journals and a really nice pen, and letting them go to it.  And while that will undoubtedly work for many children, it (like any educational technique) will not work for all.

I may be wrong about this, but it seems to me that journal writing is something that is more attractive to girls than to boys.  Certainly, the idea did not go over well with my son when I suggested it several years ago.  However, we found something that worked better for him--blogging.  Writing a blog was more attractive to him because:

  • it was physically easier for him to type than to hand write
  • it has the "computer cool" factor
  • it has the ability to incorporate graphics and videos and other media files
  • it allows other people to read your content and post comments about it (which my son LOVES)
So, obviously, blog writing is very different than journal writing.  It is usually not going to encourage the heart-felt dream-making, the honest self analysis, the often painful search for one's identity and one's own truths that is often the task of journaling.  But again, not that I want to be sexist, but in observing my own son and his peers and talking to other moms, I don't find a lot of boys who are doing that kind of writing, although it seems a number of my friends have daughters who do.

Ideally, students would do both, especially if they really have a dream to be a writer.  But if the quest for more writing is coming from you at this point rather than them, give them a choice.  If you've been trying to get them to journal and they refuse try, see if writing a blog is better received--and vice versa.

It has certainly worked for us.  When my son started middle school, I asked him to start blogging.  And, as I've stated before, since I don't believe in giving my son assignments that I wouldn't or haven't done myself, I started this blog at the same time.  We have both really enjoyed it and grown and developed tremendously.  It has been almost two years now and my son has written hundreds of posts--varied in length and quality, of course, but written consistently and usually fairly well.  It has improved his writing, his spelling, and his grammar.  And it has turned out to be a way for him to connect with his grandfathers and aunts and uncles who live far away and don't get to see him on a regular basis.

Of course, there are those who don't approve of encouraging middle school blogging.  I thought this blog post and resulting comments on Why Should Middle School Student Blog? was an interesting exchange about the pros and cons of blogging.  But for us, the experience has DEFINITELY been a great area of growth and learning.

Finally, I would say that my son was not a reluctant writer.  But if your children are not self-starters when it comes to writing, you may need to give them writing prompts, regardless if they are journaling or blogging.  There are many, many sources for writing prompts, but I'm liking the ideas being posted daily (during the week) on Pinterest by Atlanta-based writer Anjali Enjeti.  I find them varied and interesting, and the whole Pinterest thing is novel for digitally-aware students like my son.  Plus, by being on Pinterest, they are more visual, which I think make them more attractive to visual learners like my son.

If anyone has any other great resources for getting young adolescents and teens to grow as writers, please post them in the comments below.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Doing the Right Thing at University of Virginia

I have been following the recent tumult over the secretive ouster of University of Virginia's first female president,  Teresa Sullivan.  We don't know exactly why the Board acted as it did--since they won't tell us.  But based on what we do know so far, it seems like a bad move, and as an educator, I'm delighted to see the UVA community rising up in protest.

I'm sure that the main plotters behind this academic coup d'etat, Board leaders Rector Helen E. Dargas and Vice Rector Mark Kington, sincerely believed that they doing the best thing for Virginia's prestigious public university, which was founded in the early 19th century by Thomas Jefferson.  However, from what I've seen from the limited information available, I think they were mistaken.

Here are my concerns in regards to their actions:

1.  Lack of knowledge of and respect for the academic procedure and community
Dargas and Kington are politically-appointed business people, with limited experience in education (as far as I have seen).  The way they went about this decision is completely out of line with the general academic commitment to dialogue and deliberation.  Quietly turning individual board members against the popular president through secret, one-on-one meetings that subvert the open meeting laws that govern public institutions like UVA is, at the very least, skirting the spirit of the legislation.  But it is a direct affront to the academic values of openness and discussion and developing consensus that are still strong in higher education.  Frankly, for them to think they would get away with this without raising a major stink among the UVA community just shows how little they understand about the core values of what, in the end, is what makes UVA a school that was ranked as the #2 public university by the 2012 US News & World Report -- namely, the people, particularly the faculty and academic leadership.

2.  Lack of understanding of the double-edged sword that is online learning
The rumor is that Dargas and Kington wanted to replace Sullivan because she was not willing to make deeper cuts into the existing academics and to leap more rapidly into the world of online learning.  Certainly, the emails that the UVA student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, received in response to their Freedom of Information Act request that does still legally cover public universities, show Dargas and Kington emailing each other pieces hyping the move towards online learning in higher education.  They cited the examples of Stanford and Harvard as the direction in which they felt Sullivan should be embracing more eagerly.

However, there is no indication that there is any deep understanding among these people about how or what or even why UVA would be doing in the online education field.  There seems to be an assumption that online learning would reduce costs while maintaining the university's reputation.  But, uh, how?  The classes profiled in the articles they eagerly shared with each other are available to anyone for free.  They are not bringing in any new revenue for their respective institutions.  They are also not eliminating any of the costs of the on-campus classes.  These online offerings are not related to the finances of Stanford or Harvard.  Rather, they are simply methods of sharing information and expertise to a larger audience.  While helpful, do they come anywhere close to replicating the experience of a Stanford or Harvard education?  I think not.  (For more information, see the excellent article by Stanford professor Larry Cuban, "Three Ways of Integrating Technology in Schools," which talks about how we tend to confuse mere access to information with education itself.)

It is not easy to do online education well, nor is it always a money maker.  It takes discussion and consideration about how it can be used appropriately and effectively, which is not always obvious for a large and selective university like UVA.   Again, the Board is showing its ignorance if it wants to jump into this field willy-nilly without a well-thought-out plan.  (For more information on this issue, see George Washington University professor David Karpf's article "UVA Board's Lazy Business Sense" on the Huffington Post.)

3.  Lack of commitment to low-income and minority students
So this has not been discussed in the papers, and I may be making it up.  However, another item that these two board members emailed each other about was about another university cutting back on expensive financial aid packages.  This concerns me because in 2004, UVA became the first public university to guarantee full financial aid to low-income applicants.  It has a strong commitment to enabling low- and moderate-income students the opportunity to attend without acquiring massive amounts of debt.  It has also had the highest black graduation rate among the so-called Public Ivies.

Perhaps scaling back on these aid packages is not part of the Dargas and Kington agenda; but, then again, since they have only given vague reasons for the differences in opinion that required Sullivan's resignation, perhaps they are.  It would be a shame for UVA to give up the great strides it has made in this area.  Also, statistics generally show that low-income and minority students tend not to do as well in online education as do wealthier students--one of those pesky details about online education that needs to be examined if it is to be done right.

So we will see how things shake out.  But let me end with something I wish Dargas and Kington had seen before they headed down this contentious path.  It is another commencement speech by Salman Khan, this time at his own alma mater, MIT.  While continuing the positivity prescription of his Rice graduation speech, at MIT Khan talks about MIT's free online classes, and how proud it made him as a graduate that his university was sharing its knowledge for free because it was the right thing to do, and how it influenced his own decision when it came to Khan Academy. 

Because, after all, isn't that really what we want our universities to do?  To encourage its graduates to do the right thing, not just the cheapest or most expedient or most profitable thing?  And how will a school teach its students those things if it doesn't do it itself?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Graduates Should Increase Positivity in the World

I apologize for the lack of activity on my blog lately.  Between getting to the end of our school year, and going out of town for a family graduation, I've just been too busy to post.  But I hope to be getting back into the swing of things now.

But speaking of graduation, here is something that I've been meaning to post for a while now.  It is the video of Salman Khan of Khan Academy speaking at the 2012 Commencement Ceremony at Rice University.  Regular readers of my blog know that I have my doubts (see this post and this post) about Khan Academy being the shiny new vision for all of education, although I believe it is a fabulous resource, and do use it on occasion myself.  However, I have nothing but respect and admiration for Salman Khan himself, who seems like a fabulous person.  And this talk at Rice University has only increased my opinion of his fabulousity!

I've not done it myself, but I imagine it must be terribly difficult to come up with a graduation speech that is not trite or overblown or that doesn't leave out some portion of audience listening.  But Khan's talk is personal, uplifting, and believable.  I like it not because he shares his own story (which is inspirational), but not in a way that assumes everyone will be following in such transformational footsteps as his.  Instead, he encourages everyone to do the small but achievable feat of increasing the net happiness in the world.  And yet, if everyone would do that, our world would be transformed.

Anyway, watch it for yourself below:

Saturday, June 9, 2012

World Oceans Day Pledge

Yesterday was World Oceans Day, an effort by conservationists to focus global attention on improving our oceans.  Since one of our major focuses this year has been my son's environmental group, Healing Oceans Together, this is a cause that is close to our hearts.

The group is currently concentrating on two projects:  continuing to grow the community-based Craft Coral Reef, and developing a card game to teach people about the coral reefs and to encourage to take actions in their lives that will benefit the coral.

So a couple of H2O members got together to post a photography of their pledge on behalf of World Oceans Day:

So while we are still in fundraising mode, the students remain positive and committed enough to the project to make a public pledge.  We know we will figure out a way to get the money we need to make this project happen!

For more information about the Cards, Coral & Kids campaign, visit our campaign website.