Valerie Strauss ("Putting Parents in their Place: Outside Class", Washington Post) writes,

They are needy, overanxious and sometimes plain pesky -- and schools at every level are trying to find ways to deal with them.

No, not students. Parents -- specifically parents of today's "millennial generation" who, many educators are discovering, can't let their kids go.


Teachers and principals in the early grades began noticing changes in parents in the 1990s. Parents began spending more time in classrooms. Then they began calling teachers frequently. Then came e-mails, text messages -- sometimes both at once. Today schools are trying to figure out how to take back a measure of control.

My first thought when reading this was, Take back control? You must be kidding. When I enter my 6-year-old son's school, they are in full charge. I have to push a buzzer by the locked door, wait for them to open the door, and then go directly to the main office to explain my business. Now, I appreciate that security for my son. I wouldn't have them change it. But what "measure of control" is left for them to take back?

My second thought was, Well, there are "abusive" and "intrusive" parents. At the exteme end are those parents who riot at sports games and assault and even shoot their children's coaches. And I can imagine at the less extreme end are others who interfere with the running of schools and the education of the children.

Even so, I get the feeling from this article that the schools and teachers (not all, mind you) are not receptive to parents coming to school unless asked, sort of a "closed door" policy. From NY's Channel 13: Concept to Education, we read advice for teachers to work with parents:

It is important for teachers involved in family and school partnerships to truly play the role of "partners"-- working with parents as equals rather than coming from a position of power and authority. It is also important for teachers, who may be working in very wealthy communities, to be able to work effectively with parents who may be very empowered, both economically and politically. Either way, teachers should come to see parents as resources rather than adversaries, which unfortunately happens in many schools. Teachers and families can improve outcomes for their students and children by working together on the common goals of improving the education of children. Through this process they will learn to understand differing communication styles prevalent in various classes and cultures.

Note that this excerpt assumes that some teachers, and I would include schools, see parents as "adversaries." That's a rather odd position for a school to take.

This adversarial position is found at the university level, too:

"Our aim is not to tell parents to let go completely because, of course, parents want to be an integral part of their children's entire lives," said Walter of Seton Hall, where orientation includes sessions for parents and students -- both separately and together. "Rather, it is to discuss how to be involved in their children's lives, while allowing their children to learn the life skills they will need to succeed in college and beyond."

Note that Walter says they don't want to "tell" parents, but that is exactly what the educational institutions in this article are doing. Most discussions like these occur between "experts" and "non-experts" with the implication, You should listen to us. We know what are are talking about while you don't.

Of course, I would hope that the schools know more about education than most parents do. That's their job. Yet, the amount of involvement of parents is related to cultural expectations, too. In some countries, children live with their parents until they marry. In fact, while in Turkey, I heard of some families who moved to the city where their teenager entered a university so they would be able to continue to live together. I've never noticed or heard that they didn't pick up "life skills." I'm not sure educational institutions are "experts" on what amount of family cohesiveness and interaction is suitable for "succeeding in life."

Someone who knows considerably more about the workings of public schools than I do said that districts generally want parents to become involved, although in some districts, "Parents are a pain in the neck." These tend to be districts with parents who are well off and accustomed to telling others, including school staff, what to do. She asks, "When do parents belong in schools? What's their proper function?" Those are good questions. Certainly better than beginning with the assumptions in "Putting Parents in their Place: Outside Class."

NewsForge (via LifeHacker) has a good tutorial for using Audacity to master podcasts:

Open source software makes podcasting easy -- too easy. Listening to a playlist of first-timer podcasts can leave your ears ringing from sudden changes in playback volume. The problem is audio mastering. Recording sound is simple, but mastering that sound -- compressing volume differences, maintaining a decibel ceiling, and similar operations -- is anything but. Fortunately, an open source tool offers everything you need for mastering podcasts and other spoken-word recordings. Audacity is well-known among podcasters on all platforms for its ability as an editor; here are some tips and tools for mastering and adjusting volume, aimed at podcasters, but they could apply to anyone who needs to produce a spoken-word recording under less-than-perfect conditions.

For a listing of Web2.0 awards of over 300 web2.0 websites in 38 categories, visit here. It's a great round-up of not only the well-known sites like but also less-well-known ones.

The Economist has an excellent article "Open, but not as usual" on the strengths and limitations of open-source software.

However, it is unclear how innovative and sustainable open source can ultimately be. The open-source method has vulnerabilities that must be overcome if it is to live up to its promise. For example, it lacks ways of ensuring quality and it is still working out better ways to handle intellectual property.

But the biggest worry is that the great benefit of the open-source approach is also its great undoing. Its advantage is that anyone can contribute; the drawback is that sometimes just about anyone does. This leaves projects open to abuse, either by well-meaning dilettantes or intentional disrupters. Constant self-policing is required to ensure its quality.

Plagiarism was a hot topic at TESOL 2006 with presenters giving strategies for preventing it and quite a few resources online. From Joel Bloch at The Ohio State University is a site with a tutorial and lessons for students and a link to the journal Plagiary. Thomas Leverett of Southern Illinois University and Laurie Moody of Passaic County Community College posted their presentation "Internet Plagiarism: an esl/efl learning experience," which has suggestions for dealing with Internet plagiarism. Gail Fensom, University of New Hampshire-Manchester, provided a bibliography and online resources, a few of which are:

"Avoiding Plagiarism: Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL)"
Turn-it-in's "" site
Robert Harris's "Anti-Plagiarism Strategies for Research Papers."

And for those students who need help in learning to paraphrase, there is Arizona State University's site "Paraphrasing".

One quotation from Robert Harris (I believe it was in Fensom's handout) is on target:

In my experience, other than the whole paper or paragraph-after-paragraph type of plagiarism, much plagiarism occurs through the student's lack of understanding about how to quote, paraphrase, and cite sources. Many students simply do not know what they are doing. Providing them with clear instruction about plagiarism and how to avoidit will help reduce the amount you see.

Parallel to Harris, a few years ago, comments of mine on the TESL-L listserv on plagiarism were posted on the ESL MiniConference NewsLetter. In brief, my point was that plagiarism is a cultural phenomenon, not a moral issue. Thus, in addition to doing exercises related to plagiarism, it would be helpful for our students to investigate the warrants and values that lie behind various contexts and situations (e.g., how having a ghost writer is not considered plagiairism, and so on), so that they can understand better the construct of plagiarism as perceived through academic and other lenses.

Thomas Leverett of Southern Illinois University, as part of one of his TESOL 2006 presentations, provided this site with many good links to a variety of web resources covering podcasting, audio and visual files and storage, weblogging and videoblogging, and others.

Leverett also posted on the web his paper "Daring to Enter the Blogosphere." This site also has quite a few links, some the same as above but including many others focused on weblogs.

Anne Fisher ("Be smarter at work, slack off," Fortune Magazine) writes,

In a world of too much work and too much multitasking, the best way to beat the competition may be to do less.

Although talking about businesses remaining competitive in a global economy, Fisher's article is pertinent to any endeavor. That is,

it's really, really hard, if not impossible, for the human brain to come up with fresh new ideas when its owner is overworked, overtired, and stressed out.

Fisher quotes Peter Drucker,

The late Peter Drucker agreed. He wrote in The Effective Executive (an eerily prescient 40 years ago), "All one can think and do in a short time is to think what one already knows and to do as one has always done." Gulp.

Moreover, in Drucker's view, simply working longer and longer hours won't help. "To be effective, every knowledge worker, and especially every executive...needs to dispose of time in fairly large chunks," he wrote. "To have small dribs and drabs of time at his disposal will not be sufficient even if the total is an impressive number of hours."

Fisher cites a study by University of Michigan psychologists that shows that multi-tasking leads to inefficiency ranging from 20% to 40% due to the time needed to redirect and refocus one's attention. Other psychologists have found that

The unconscious mind is a terrific solver of complex problems when the conscious mind is busy elsewhere or, perhaps better yet, not overtaxed at all.

Despite the research and common sense behind the notion that having free time leads to more productivity and creativity, consider the work schedules of medical interns, untenured professors, and students who maintain a full course load (and more) while working full time. Any solutions?

Friday at the TESOL conference was blog day: I attended four sessions on blogs, all interesting. I have a few highlights on two sessions, followed by notes on Joel Bloch's work.

Charles Schroen, a professor of English at Geogia Perimeter College, uses blogs in his courses to expand the course outside the classroom and to promote interaction. He crafts the blog assignments so that they build in complexity. Students (provided with detailed instructions online) begin with creating a blog outside of class. After several assignments of posting, he begins having them interact with a simple activity of going to 5 classmates' blogs, finding one grammatically correct sentence, and noting in the comments the one thought to be correct. I asked Schroen, "Yes, this creates interaction, but what is it good for?" He responded that it was for getting the students' feet wet for their later assignments that would develop interaction in more substantial ways. Schroen is on target. I think we sometimes forget that students don't have our background, that it's better to ease them into accomplishing future goals.

Christine Meloni, Donald Weasenforth, and Sigrun Biesenbach-Lucas presented the results of their research on students using blogs. They had two different groups of students using class blogs, and the difference between the two groups due to teacher influence was tremendous. One teacher evaluated blog entries, participated sometimes in discussions, and talked about the blogs during class when appropriate. The other teacher didn't. The ratio of blog postings for 7 assignments in the classes (former to latter) was 517 to 63, or a little more than an 8:1 ratio. The presenters also noted that other research has shown that blogging can have a detrimental effect on reading and writing (blogging is not academic writing) and that critical evaluation is made more difficult due to being innundated with information. Technology is not neutral.

Besides the presentation sessions, I went to Joel Bloch's discussion session on blogs. Although we didn't discuss them, he had a list of ten questions/statements, which are posted at his TESOL blog. The first on on the list is, "Technology is never neutral; it affects the writing process and is affected by the writing process." He also has posted on his blog podcasts of his papers at TESOL 2006, one on "Intercultural Rhetoric and ESL/EFL Writing: Cyberspace: The Search for Intercultural Rhetoric Online" and the other one titled "The Institution and Globalization of Plagiarism: Bringing Students' Voices into the Debate over Plagiarism in the Academy."

I've always wondered how well most writing instructors would do if we had to write what we have students write,say, for example, a coherent, developed essay in 30 minutes. Well, today, I'm wondering how most of us would do at writing about a presentation we attended, at least writing in such a way as to be interesting and useful.

Another thing I've wondered about is why do presenters at conferences read papers to the audience. I know it's standard practice in many disciplines, but if someone is going to just read, I'd just as soon have the paper and read it in my own time. Having academic papers read to one is simply boring! I'm at the TESOL conference in Tampa right now, and the difference in my interest level is inversely proportional to my being read to.

One interesting presentation was by Jennifer Granger, who is teaching as a Fellow at a university in China. To improve students' vocabulary, listening and research skills, and cultural knowledge, she uses episodes from "The West Wing." Besides TV being more interesting than textbooks, she writes, "This drama series promotes critical thinking, as well as shows different facets of American culture, history, and language usage." It's not just listening. They read about the series from several websites, including one with transcripts of the episodes. They look at current online magazine and newspaper articles related to the episode. And so on. I wish I had had her as a teacher when I studied my foreign languages.

Sometimes, simple methods work well for students. Students often have problems analyzing the information in their readings, especially if the amount of text is large. Gigi Taylor, a doctoral candidate at Purdue University, in her presentation "Teaching Academic Writing" suggests having students construct "Key Point Charts," a grid in which author's names are at the top of columns and "salient points" are on the left side. In this manner, students can visually compare the same point across authors to see the similarities and differences.

Beata Chojnicka, a 31-year-old immigrant from Poland one year ago, won (with three others) the Marion Drysdale award for her essay (Daniella Girgenti, The London Free Press).

This year, the essay theme was on "thinking globally." Chojnicka's essay -- entitled Will traditional cultures be eaten by hamburgers? -- concerns her fear that cultural diversity is disappearing.

"People are losing their national identities, languages are disappearing and other cultural things are going away."

I've been reading up on course-embedded assessment, which I mentioned in an earlier post, and am wondering about the implications for my own classes. As a member of the ESL Program, I use the program's rubric for assessing my students and also to help focus them on areas in which they need improvement. Apparently, however, the rubric's criteria are somewhat elusive for my students. Actually, there are two elements out of the ten that I have to think about, too. If I want my students to better understand criteria of good writing, I've been considering ways to incorporate the rubric in other ways than simply their final grade.

One way I have recently incorporated the rubric is to use it as the basis for my feedback on rough drafts. Another is to have students use it to guide their reviews of classmates' papers. A third way I'm considering is having students write a paragraph to hand in along with a following essay on what aspects of the rubric did they work on to improve the present essay with respect to the previous one.

For students to grasp these criteria that I've been working with for ten plus years, consciously and unconsciously, using them 3-4 times a semester, once per paper is not enough. They need to spend time with them, to reflect on them, and to use them throughout the course on a variety of assignments.

For assessment to be formative, it should be embedded pervasively throughout the course so that the students continually receive feedback and so that they internalize its criteria. Such course-embedded assessment seems common sense to me.

Patrick Keefe (Can Network Theory Thwart Terrorists?, New York Times) looks at the use of network theory by the National Security Agency to find terrorists with its controversial eavesdropping (and warrantless) program. He discusses the civil liberties issues and the obstacles involved in detecting terrorists, such as information overload, identifying hubs and the "strength of weak ties" notion, a concept that important information can be exchanged between individuals in different networks that are not closely related to one another.

Granovetter, a sociologist at Stanford , originated the notion of the "strength of weak ties" in 1973 to explain the spread of information among people, asserting that diversity and new knowledge comes through distant connections rather than close ones like friends or relatives--an important point in finding jobs. In a 1983 article (pdf), he wrote that

individuals with few weak ties will be deprived of information from distant parts of the social system and will be confined to the provincial news and views of their close friends. This deprivation will not only insulate them from the latest ideas and fashions but may put them in a disadvantaged position in the labor market, where advancement can depend, as I have documented elsewhere (1974), on knowing about appropriate job openings at just the right time.

Obviously, the classroom would be a hub of information with strong ties rather than weak ones. I suppose weak ties would be responsible for spreading what was learned in the classroom to outside the class. I've seen this in my own first-year composition classes. One student helped a graduate Middle Eastern Studies student organize his paper. Another student helped her older brother, a graduate student in pharmacy, create a questionnaire that eventually was sent to more than 1000 people. I've seen the reverse, too, as when one student used a computer flow diagram to help organize his paper. What I'm wondering is, In what ways, if we can, capitalize on weak ties in order to promote the diffusion of knowledge across classroom boundaries to strengthen learning. Such diffusion would help classroom learning to become more real to the students, of course. Beyond that, however, what else might there be?

I'm reading an article by Marinara, Vajravelu, and Young on assessing learning in a general education program. With respect to the composition aspect, they include its mission statement:

First-year composition introduces students to the skills necessary for critical literacy. Students will be expected to practice and revise their writing in contexts that mirror tasks they will perform throughout their academic and professional lives.

The mission statement took two months of discussing, arguing, and revising to craft, with one point centering around whether the word "literacy" should be in the statement. The authors don't go into why that point got discussed, but I'm curious, too. Literacy is related to composition, as one needs to critique texts that one uses in one's writing, in fact, to critique one's own writing. However, when crafting a two-sentence mission statement, one might think that the focus would be on writing itself. Although the statement mentions that students will "practice and revise their writing," it doesn't mention introducing students to the skills necesssary for composing.

I wonder if the term "literacy" is required due to the list of writing characteristics" they found crucial in the teaching of writing":

  • Students will demonstrate an understanding of process-invention, drafting, revision
  • Students will demonstrate an understanding of audience and context
  • Students will demonstrate critical thinking about their chosen topic
  • Students will demonstrate knowledge of the conventions of academic writing, including an awareness of sentence structure, mechanics, and spelling
  • Students will demonstrate an understanding of the research process and documentation styles
  • Students will demonstrate an understanding of diversity and social justice

Critical literacy and "an understanding of diversity and social justice" go hand-in-hand. As Ira Shor, a professor at the College of Staten Island, writes:

We are what we say and do. The way we speak and are spoken to help shape us into the people we become. Through words and other actions, we build ourselves in a world that is building us. That world addresses us to produce the different identities we carry forward in life: men are addressed differently than are women, people of color differently than whites, elite students differently than those from working families. Yet, though language is fateful in teaching us what kind of people to become and what kind of society to make, discourse is not destiny. We can redefine ourselves and remake society, if we choose, through alternative rhetoric and dissident projects. This is where critical literacy begins, for questioning power relations, discourses, and identities in a world not yet finished, just, or humane.

In other words, such a mission statement is necessary if composition should be an arena for social and political change. Karen Welch (Social Issues in First-Year College Writing, Academic Exchange Quarterly) writes on the debate concerning the nature of First Year Composition. Welch cites Maxine Hairston as opposed to this re-design of first-year composition:

I see a new model emerging for freshman writing programs…that disturbs me greatly. It’s a model that puts dogma before diversity, politics before craft, ideology before critical thinking, and the social goals of the teacher before the educational needs of the student. It’s a regressive model that undermines the progress we’ve made in teaching writing, one that threatens to silence student voices and jeopardize the process-oriented, low-risk, student-centered classroom we’ve worked so hard to establish as the norm. It’s a model that doesn’t take freshman English seriously in its own right but conceives of it as a tool, something to be used. The new model envisions required writing courses as vehicles for social reform rather than as student-centered workshops designed to build students’ confidence and competence as writers. It is a vision that echoes that old patronizing rationalization we’ve heard so many times before: students don’t have anything to write about so we have to give them topics. Those topics used to be literary; now they’re political. (180)

Some would say that the problem remains of how one can write about any topic without critiquing deeply the language on that topic, which implies the sociocultural elements of the topic, thus justifying introducing their own social agendas into the classroom. Perfect neutrality is not possible, but to the extent we can approach it, perhaps we should ask, How can we help students in composition courses to write more thoughtfully (i.e., critically) without injecting our own biases into the process?

Andrea Elliott (New York Times, "A Muslim leader in Brooklyn, reconciling 2 worlds") reports at length on an immigrant imam who attempts to reconcile Islamic tradition with the American lifestyle, to answer questions never asked in Egypt, quesions such as:

A teenage girl wants to know: Is it halal, or lawful, to eat a Big Mac? Can alcohol be served, a waiter wonders, if it is prohibited by the Koran? Is it wrong to take out a mortgage, young Muslim professionals ask, when Islam frowns upon monetary interest?

In attempting to answer the never-ending flow of questions, he suffered a physical breakdown, but he also has become a flexible thinker:

"America transformed me from a person of rigidity to flexibility," said Mr. Shata, speaking through an Arabic translator. "I went from a country where a sheik would speak and the people listened to one where the sheik talks and the people talk back."

He has also become creative in resolving his congregant's problems. As he says,

"Here you don't know what will solve a problem," he said. "It's about looking for a key."

I think we can learn from him. In education, we often believe we know what will solve a problem, that we must stick to our "principles," as in the case of adherents of bilingual education and English immersion. But as noticed in earlier postings, such "sticking" can blind us to potential keys that fit local conditions.

Part of his ability to begin to see was moving to a foreign land in which the new land clearly contradicted the old ways, a land in which the old ways obviously did not apply. I wonder how we can create our classrooms and schools so that they become strange to us, contradicting our previous understandings, facilitating our seeing anew.

Another part was his compassion for his congregants. When he fainted during the service, he had to stay in the hospital for a week. Ali Gheith, the counselor who treated him, "called it 'compassion fatigue,' an ailment that commonly affects disaster-relief workers." Although it was recommended that he distance himself emotionally from his congregants, the imam replied,

"I did not permit these problems to enter my heart," said Mr. Shata, "nor can I permit them to leave."

Compassion for students can help us see past our traditional theories of learning to the living complexities of human beings in our classrooms.

Louis Menand reviews the book “Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?” by Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at Berkeley. His research asserts

that people who make prediction their business—people who appear as experts on television, get quoted in newspaper articles, advise governments and businesses, and participate in punditry roundtables—are no better than the rest of us.

In fact, Tetlock says that the best known experts are worse than the average person on the street in making predictions. As Menand writes,

The experts’ trouble in Tetlock’s study is exactly the trouble that all human beings have: we fall in love with our hunches, and we really, really hate to be wrong.

Just like the other psychological study that found that staunch Democrats and Republications rationalize facts away that contradict their position, Tetlock found that well-known predictors did the same, plus they also gave information supporting their position more leeway, a double whammy on predicting.

I wonder how this applies to teachers' expectations on which students will perform well in the classroom, to instructors' theoretical positions in designing curricula, and to researchers' defense of their theories.

A review of Proposition 227's effects commissioned by the State of California has English immersion and bilingual education at a draw, according to Sarah Tribble of the Contra Costa Times (via Kimberly Swygert):

It doesn't matter whether California students who don't know English are taught in bilingual classrooms or fully immersed in the language, according to a five-year study of California's Proposition 227. What matters is the quality of the education they receive.

Some findings from the report:

"we conclude that Proposition 227 focused on the wrong issue. It is not the model of instruction employed, or at least not the name given to it, but rather other factors that are much more operative in distinguishing between failure and success with ELs."

Comparing English immersion to bilingual education, "the best analyses we have been able to conduct given data limitations indicate that differences across models of instruction—holding constant such critical factors as student demographics—are minimal or nonexistent."

"the strongest predictor of academic underperformance" is poverty.

These findings probably apply to instructional approaches for subjects other than just English language learning. That is, social, cultural, and economic factors play a greater role in academic achievement than the method of instruction. Designing curricula requires taking the local environment into consideration.