I can’t help it. I guess I am not done with this whole idea of creativity, especially in regards to education’s impact on it.
I just came from a beginning-of-the-year meeting with other college English teachers. And my head is spinning. I have learned that I am a dinosaur, and I need to keep my mouth shut at this point. I wish I did not feel that way, but I have had my share of voicing my opinion and have learned that the system is way bigger than me and the cost of speaking up is very high. Hence my giving up a tenured professorship a few years back to teach part time.
One of the big changes in education is the existence of the online platform, where teachers can create their own web presence for their class, such as Blackboard or Moodle. There are many such companies selling to educational institutions. Here instructors can post the syllabus, any assignments, readings, discussion forums, workshops, grades. Virtually anything.
These are really great for communicating and for saving paper. But I limit my use of them. And I was reminded why in this meeting.
Much of the meeting was dedicated to showing us features of Moodle (the platform we use) that would make our lives easier. Technologically very cool. It’s hard to not get drawn in by the bells and whistles. In fact, ironically, t’s hard to not get drawn in by the creativity of the site. But I am not sure I want to use many of them.
While we were shown how to use questionnaires and create reports, someone asked how we handle the problem of students who do not know how to do things like change the margins or save something as a PDF. As everyone lamented this, I had to speak up. I probably shocked a few people who didn’t even realize I was there until that moment!
I don’t doubt that there are students who do not know how to do these things. Perhaps there are students who have no access to computers prior to college. Who am I to say?
But anyone who has been on a word processing program can see that there is a Help tab on the menu across the top. And anyone who has spent any time on the Internet know that they can find virtually any information conceivable through Google or any other search engine.
My experience has been that often these sorts of concerns are less a lack of exposure as a lack of a willingness to figure out how to do these things. This is often referred to as “learned helplessness.” And I have seen a lot of it!
For example, a student I know is transferring to a fairly prestigious university for her junior year. And she needed to provide a syllabus for a class she took at another university in order to receive credit for the class. Otherwise, she would have to repeat the class at the new school.
This 4.0 student could not figure out how in the world she would ever be able to get a hold of that syllabus. So she wanted me to figure out how to do what was clearly impossible. When I would not do it for her, she decided she would just retake the class. She did not want to go to the trouble of tracking down that syllabus.
What? So taking a semester-long class would be less trouble than trying to figure out a way to get a hold of a syllabus from two years ago? Apparently.
I made suggestions. Go to the school website and email the teacher. Call the department. Call admissions and records. None of these were satisfactory. But the fact of the matter is that I had no more information about how to get the syllabus than she had. She just did not want to go to the trouble of trying to figure out what to do.
During the meeting, I shared this story as I have seen it replayed innumerable times.
One woman laughed and relayed a story about her son who is studying in Italy. He was trying to remember the name of some place the family had travelled to a couple of years ago. His mom decided that she was not going to tell him. Instead, she gave him a list of keywords he could put into Google to find out. She was quite proud of herself for not giving in to him.
But really? By giving him keywords she pretty much handed him the information anyway. Certainly he could have come up with a few keywords himself, couldn’t he have? That’s where the creativity, the problem-solving comes in. Because after all, problem-solving is the ability to think creatively, right?
These students are handed everything. These online portals give them everything they could possibly need in one place, which sounds like a great idea. But if something is not there, they seem to become paralyzed. They have no idea what to do. So they often do nothing. After all, it’s not their fault. It is the teacher’s fault for not having that information available right there on the site.
The other part of the online platforms that I struggle with is the grading of essays. Turnitin.com provides an easy way for teachers to detect plagiarism, which is fantastic. And I am not going to get into an argument about whether it is better for students that papers are graded online or on paper (although I prefer paper for a number of reasons).
What concerns me is the bigger philosophy which diminishes writing to a mathematical problem. The professor presenting the tools available on Moodle at our meeting mentioned that grading in her class totals 3,000 points. Talk about micro-managing. This is a writing class.
We also spent a lot of time learning how to write quizzes online so that students can take them on the computer. Then the program will grade the quizzes and drop the grades in the grade book, which calculates the student’s overall grade.
“I’ve heard that there are some teachers who do not use the grade book! Who wouldn’t use the grade book? asked a woman in the room. I looked away. No one needs to know, I thought.
I am certainly not opposed to quizzes. They aren’t my favorite exercise in class, but unfortunately, most students will not read anything assigned unless there is a quiz attached. So, yes, I sometimes give quizzes. But I figure this is a writing class, so the quizzes are all short answer. Yes, I have to grade them and that takes time, but students need to write complete sentences that are grammatically clean. They need to practice, perfect, and display the craft.
I don’t know why all of this makes me so depressed.
After the meeting, I had an opportunity to meet the TA assigned to my freshman comp class this semester. I started by saying that I am a bit of a rebel and will be doing things a bit differently than most teachers. He laughed and said that we would probably get along just fine then (as he pointed out his own rebellious gauges and tattoos).
So I explained that I would be collecting essays on paper and grading them that way. That I would be giving grades and not points. That I would be focusing on thinking. That grammar matters. That I would be using Moodle very little. That there would be no PowerPoint presentations. Oh! And that they would be required to take notes by hand.
His response? “Wow. I wish more teachers would be like that.”
Now, I am not so naive to think that he may have said that simply because I am his “boss,” so to speak. But this seems to be the reaction I get from my students too.
Thanks for letting me get that off my chest. I remember one of my colleagues back from my tenure days sharing his thoughts on creativity. He had published a couple novels – satires and hilarious. But he concluded that writing non-fiction actually required more creativity that writing fiction.
Being creative is not simply about making up stories, painting a picture, or choreographing a dance, something that few feel competent at. It is, according to dictionary.com, “
My goal as a teacher is to help students exercise their creativity muscle, the muscle that has atrophied so much that they cannot come up with keywords to find desired information.
Most importantly, students need to understand that anyone who exercises their creativity can then create any life they want. And that is the power I want them to have when they leave my class. This is not necessarily a message that is conveyed enough. Instead, they so often hear the opposite message. They are victims – of the economy, of misogynists, of the rich, of racists, of their families, of the educational system.
It is only each individual’s creativity that will stop them from being a victim and start them on a path to the life they want.
The good news. I am ready for the semester to start. I have important work to do!