Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Data-Driven Schools: Sleep

Over the last few years there have been many articles regarding the research surrounding sleep. These articles not only focus on health, but frequently focus on the importance of adequate sleep for learning, and often focus on the need for teenage brains to get enough sleep (most of the articles seem to indicate that, for most teens, 9 hours is the minimum they need). The most recent, of course, was the recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics:
Pediatricians have a new prescription for schools: later start times for teens. Delaying the start of the school day until at least 8:30 a.m. would help curb their lack of sleep, which has been linked with poor health, bad grades, car crashes and other problems, the American Academy of Pediatrics says in a new policy.

The influential group says teens are especially at risk. For them, "chronic sleep loss has increasingly become the norm."

The policy, aimed at middle schools and high schools, was published online Monday in the journal Pediatrics.

Studies have found that most U.S. students in middle school and high school don't get the recommended amount of sleep — 8½ to 9½ hours on school nights — and that most high school seniors get an average of less than seven hours.
This is a topic I've brought up frequently over the last few years, but it has gained very little traction. It's not that folks disagree with the research or the recommendation, it's mainly the problems it causes in three areas: after school daycare (older students watching their younger siblings), after school sports (practices and games), and after school employment. While I agree that those are real issues we should consider and tried to help mitigate, I don't think they should take precedence over our students' health and learning.

(I'm not sure I agree with the Executive Director of the National State Boards of Education who is quoted in that article suggesting that it's costs related to busing that's the problem. All school start times could simply be shifted later, or secondary schools could be shifted to start after elementaries - neither would affect the cost of busing.) 

Our student newspaper staff just did a survey where they asked a variety of questions and, interestingly, one of them was about sleep. Let me be clear, this is not a scientifically valid study, but given the sample size (323 students out of roughly 2150) and the distribution method (all students received a link in their student email accounts, so decently random), I think the data is going to be reasonably accurate.

The newspaper staff polled upperclassmen (11th and 12th graders) separate from underclassmen (9th and 10th), although the data for sleep was fairly similar. The choices students had were: less than 5, 5-6, 6-7, 7-8, and more than 8 hours of sleep. For both underclassmen and upperclassmen the median response was 6-7 hours, with the distribution of both groups skewing toward the left (fewer hours of sleep), with upperclassmen a bit more skewed than underclassmen.

So now we have some reasonably actionable data about our students. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 8½ to 9½ hours (with some studies recommending slightly more), and our students are reporting they get between 6-7 hours a night, with a significant number getting even less than that. (I should probably also mention that first period for us starts at 7:21 a.m.)

So I find it interesting in this age where schools are increasingly "encouraged" to be data-driven (at least when we're talking about test scores), that this set of data doesn't appear to be driving anything (except decreased health, increased accidents, and decreased learning for our students). While I frequently question data-driven decision making related to test scores (because I question the quality and meaningfulness of the data itself), in this case I think the data is pretty clear-cut: our students are not getting enough sleep, and it's adversely affecting their well being.

I wonder if we're willing to take on the challenge of making the right decision for our students' health and learning, even if it means inconveniencing adults?

Saturday, September 20, 2014

troll

This is a great example of poetry and digital storytelling to share with your students, not to mention a subject worth discussing.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Little Respect Goes A Long Way

A few years back Daniel Pink wrote about emotionally intelligent signage in A Whole New Mind. It's the idea that we have choices when we create signs, and that if we create them with how humans will react to them in mind, we will likely be more successful. More recently, Thaler and Sunstein wrote about the idea that we can subtly "nudge" people into behaviors that are more productive for them - and for society.

Here's an example of an emotionally intelligent sign, instead of the typical "Slow Down" or "Fines Doubled in School Zone", they went with:


To me, a lot of it comes down to respect, and to making the conscious choice to assume that people will, more often than not, make a good choice rather than a bad one. In general, I think my school does a pretty good job with this. Compared to many high schools of our size, we give our students a fair amount of freedom, and assume that - with help - they will usually make the right decision. But that doesn't mean we can't improve.

Eight years ago I wrote this post when these signs started appearing around the building:


In response, I posted a sign outside my room that said something like:
Please get out your Cell Phones, iPods and Electronic Devices and use them to enhance your learning during class.
I felt it sent a much better message to our students. Regrettably, I still see many of the "no cell phone" signs around the building (in fact, I took the above image today), yet none of the "use them to enhance" signs.

I was reminded of this issue because we have new digital signage around the building this fall. Typically the slides are created once a week, with occasional additions or subtractions during the week. We are now in Week 5 and I believe this is the only slide that has appeared every day this school year.


Let me be clear, I think it's important that we have an open campus and I think it shows respect for our students. I also agree that some students struggle with this freedom and so therefore need some help managing this, which sometimes means they have their open campus privileges temporarily replaced with Study Center until they get the hang of it. Having said that, I'm not a fan of the above slide (or having it play over and over again on the digital signage).

I think there are a variety of ways we could communicate this message in a more positive, emotionally intelligent way. Here's one, although you can probably come up with some better ways.


I think this communicates essentially the same message, only in a much more positive, respectful way. The way we currently have it phrased, it's threatening: "screw up and we'll take it away." Phrased this way, it assumes that most students will handle the responsibility well (and 98% of them do).

There are a variety of other signs around the building (and I imagine your building as well) that should perhaps be rethought. Perhaps instead of "No Food or Drink in the Halls!" we could say,
Our custodians work really hard. Let's help them out by enjoying our food and drink in the cafeteria, and cleaning up any spills. Thanks!
Or maybe your Class Expectations include a long list of "don'ts", why not trying something more like:

I think a little respect goes a long way.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

The Textbook Is Not The Curriculum

I thought I'd give a little update on two of my previous posts. Despite overwhelming opposition by the professionals that we pay to teach our students mathematics, our district went ahead and adopted the Agile Mind materials. The rollout this fall has been less than smooth, including many technical issues that have been slow to be addressed (students not being able to login, students not being able to load the materials, some of the materials loading but not others, etc.). We are diligently working through those technical issues and I imagine we will solve them reasonably soon.

But the other concerns the professional mathematics educators expressed regarding the materials are not so easily addressed, and many of them are coming up in the day-to-day use of these materials. The Algebra team at my school (Algebra being the only course where they are required to use the Agile Mind materials at this point, although Geometry and Algebra II will be required in the future) has been extremely frustrated up to this point. Being the dedicated teachers that they are, they aren't giving up, they are still trying their best to make this work, but they have been burdened by the expectation that they must use these materials. (And, as stated previously, Agile Mind seems to be designed to work as a script, not a resource.)

As a result of the technical problems with Agile Mind, I have had a fair amount of interaction with the Algebra teachers around Agile Mind (full disclosure: I'm not teaching Algebra this year so am not experiencing this myself), and I've mentioned several times that they don't have to use these materials. Like any textbook or other approved materials, it is simply a resource for them to use. The only expectation of them is to help students learn the mathematics curriculum as decided by the Board of Education, and they can use their professional judgement on how best to do that. Every time I've brought this up they look at me and say, essentially, they been told they must use these materials. (Apparently it was even mentioned that the district can "track" how often students log in, and therefore how often teachers are using the materials, although it's somewhat unclear as to which half of this the emphasis was being placed on.)

Which brings me to why I'm writing this post. I have a daughter who is in ninth grade and is taking Algebra at Arapahoe, so therefore is using the Agile Mind materials. She recently brought home a letter from the district saying that all the students would be surveyed three times throughout the course of the year to help determine the impact on mathematics instruction and achievement of the use of the Agile Mind materials. The purpose of the letter was to allow us to opt-out of the survey if we wished, per School Board policy.

Normally we wouldn't have any issue with our daughter taking a survey such as this but, for the first time, we are choosing to opt her out. It's not just because of the 45 minutes of mathematics learning she will miss out on while they are taking this survey, although that's certainly part of it. But it's because of the letter itself, and how it reflects on the above discussion and my previous blog posts. Here's the full text of the letter.


Do you notice anything about this letter? Here's what I noticed. It refers to the Agile Mind Curriculum in the header and three separate times in the the first paragraph. It's not a curriculum, it's materials that have been adopted to support the curriculum. This may indeed just be a slip of the keyboard (although four times in one paragraph is a whole lot of slippin'), but the problem is that - whether it's a slip or not - that is exactly how it's being implemented by the district. It's being treated as a curriculum, not in support of the curriculum. Not only is this exactly what the professional teachers of mathematics feared back in the spring when we were discussing this, it is in direct violation of the curriculum adoption process in our school district.

I've stated before that I think the materials adoption process in our district is deeply flawed, but at least it was a process that was more-or-less followed, even though the results of that process were not ideal. But clearly the process for curriculum adoption was not followed, and so for the district to now be referring to this as the Agile Mind Curriculum in a formal communication home to parents is stunning.

So, as a professional educator, as someone who has a fair amount of experience teaching students mathematics, as someone who is fairly well connected to the on-going discussions around learning and what's best for our students, as a staff member in Littleton Public Schools and at Arapahoe High School, and as a citizen and taxpayer, I have a question. But let's ignore all those roles and I'm just going to ask this question from one perspective:
As a parent of a ninth grader enrolled in Algebra at Arapahoe High School in Littleton Public Schools, I'd like to know what the LPS School Board is going to do about this?

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

When 0.1 Is Greater Than 0.9

I've figured out why we have so much trouble with mathematics education here in the United States. It's because for years teachers of mathematics have been teaching their students that 0.9 is greater than 0.1. I'll even sheepishly admit that I've taught it that way in my classes as well.

But I have incontrovertible proof that it's actually the other way around. What's my proof? Well, in thousands of staff meetings and PLC's around the country this time of year, teachers are being told that 0.1 is greater than 0.9. Let me illustrate.

Picture two students who take the same state-mandated, standards-based test. One student scores a 2.0 and the other scores a 2.9. Based on the scale that has been setup, both those students are grouped in the "Partially Proficient" category. In order to be considered "Proficient," students must score a 3.0 or higher. This is where the faculty meetings, PLC's, and the mathematics comes in. Teachers are being told how important it is to get the 2.9 student up to a 3.0; how we should be focusing on those students who are really close to the Proficient level (often referred to, lovingly of course, as "bubble kids") and developing strategies to nudge them up over the 3.0 barrier.

The student who scored 2.0, however, well that's a tougher sell. You see, to move that student from the Partially Proficient to the Proficient category would require an increase of 1.0 and that's really, really difficult to do. We could raise that student's score by a dramatic 0.9 and it still wouldn't do us (I mean them, of course I mean them) any good because they'd still be Partially Proficient. Increasing the 2.9 student by 0.1 is greater than increasing the 2.0 student by 0.9.

Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking that the actual impact on the 2.9 student's life from moving her to 3.0 is probably non-existent (and also probably statistically suspect), whereas the impact on a 2.0 student's life of advancing her to a 2.9 could be significant (assuming, of course, that standard is worth improving on for that student's needs and interests).

But you'd be missing the point. Or at least 0.8 of the point.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Leadership is a Choice, Not a Rank

Lots to think about in this TED Talk. Please watch it first, then I have a few thoughts to share after.


Video of Captain Swenson

NextJump - Lifetime Employment. Note their home page:



Barry-Wehmiller Companies - Everyone took time off instead of laying people off. Note their home page:


For me, the key message in this talk was about trust. We need to trust our leaders. More importantly, our leaders need to trust us. I think that may be one of the two or three core problems in education right now.

The Federal Government doesn't trust the States.

The States don't trust School Districts.

School Districts don't trust Teachers.

Teachers don't trust students.

No one trusts anyone. In fact, we don't even trust ourselves. From the talk:
What I learned was that it's the environment, and if you get the environment right, every single one of us has the capacity to do these remarkable things, and more importantly, others have that capacity too. I've had the great honor of getting to meet some of these, who we would call heroes, who have put themselves and put their lives at risk to save others, and I asked them, "Why would you do it? Why did you do it?" And they all say the same thing: "Because they would have done it for me." It's this deep sense of trust and cooperation. So trust and cooperation are really important here. The problem with concepts of trust and cooperation is that they are feelings, they are not instructions. I can't simply say to you, "Trust me," and you will. I can't simply instruct two people to cooperate, and they will. It's not how it works. It's a feeling.
Isn't that the organization we'd all like to work in? Isn't that the educational system that would be the most effective for our students?

Choose.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Last Among Equals

Let me be perfectly clear: I think we put on a good graduation. Let me also say that I think everyone's motives are good and this is certainly not the most pressing issue we face in education. Having stipulated that, I still think the following is worth spending some time thinking about.

We just graduated the Class of 2014. As most of you know, this was a difficult year at my school, but students, staff and the community came together, persevered, and finished strong, and graduation was a fitting culmination for that effort. You can even watch video of our graduation if you want, as our student broadcast club streamed it live.

But each year I get a little more bothered about one part of our graduation (this is twenty-third AHS graduation I've attended). Our graduation starts with the graduates coming in, some opening remarks from students and staff, an amazing performance by our choir and symphonic band (starts at 27:30 of the video), and a keynote speech by a student speaker (who, as usual, was great - starts at 50:30 of the video, note the selfie she took). Then we get to the part where we read the graduates' names and they receive their diplomas. This is the part that increasingly bothers me and, while it's not the most important issue in the world, I still wonder if we should revisit how we do this.

We start by asking all of the honors graduates to stand and be recognized collectively (no names are read yet, this is at 1:07 of the video). These are students with GPA's between 3.50 and 3.79. They then sit down and we recognize the High Honors graduates, those with GPA's of 3.80 and above.

The high honors graduates names are then read first, individually, by the Assistant Principal in charge of Curriculum, with their college choice (or occasionally some other destination) read after their name (at 1:08:10 of the video). We start with the Valedictorian and Salutatorian, then all the other high honors graduates are read in alphabetical order. They come up one by one and receive their diplomas and then return to their seats. (Before I go on it's important to note that all of these students - both honors and high honors - were recognized three days before graduation at our Awards Convocation).

Now all the rest of the students names get read (at 1:28:25 of the video). They are read by two faculty speakers, who alternate reading names one by one from each half of the alphabet so that it goes faster. These students have their names read, but no college choice or other destination, although the honors students get a "with honors" appended after their name.

We end with some closing remarks, the moving of the tassel, and then they exit. All in all, it's a wonderful ceremony. And yet . . .

I have very mixed feelings about the special recognition of the honors and high honors graduates. On the one hand, we are an academic institution, these students have worked hard, and it's nice to be able to recognize their achievement and hard work. I don't mean to discount that at all, I just wonder why we feel the need to raise their accomplishment above others on the day of graduation?

Part of my concern is over how honors and high honors are determined. They are based on grades, of course, with AP classes counting more. ((All of our classes except AP classes are worth 4, 3, 2, 1 for A, B, C, D, and AP classes are 5, 4, 3, 1, so we have a significant number of students above 4.0.) I've written frequently before about my concern with grades, so I won't dwell on this here, other than to say that I have serious doubts about how well grades reflect learning, and I also question the wisdom of determining both the honor and the additional recognition at graduation partially on whether a student decides to take AP classes or not.

While my concern with grades is certainly a part of my concern over this custom, the main focus of this post is not on the relative worth of grades. It's more about whether it's appropriate at graduation to elevate some students over others. (Again, keeping in mind that these students were all recognized three days before at a special awards convocation that was held just for them, their friends, and their families.) After all, part of our graduation ceremony (all 23 of them I've been at), is our Principal saying she certifies to the Superintendent that all of these students have met the graduation requirements of Arapahoe High School and Littleton Public Schools. And then the Superintendent states to the Board of Education that he certifies the same thing. So assuming we believe that our graduation requirements actually mean something, all of these students have met the requirements we have put before them. So then why do elevate some graduates over others?

There are some students who graduate from my high school that from the day they start as a freshman know they will not be an honors or high honors graduate. Now, before you accuse of me of the "soft bigotry of low expectations", I'm a firm believer that each student can achieve and has amazing potential. I'm also a strong believer in Dweck's concept of Growth Mindset. It's not that I don't think all students can learn, or that they can't be successful, or that they can't achieve, it's just that I think we as educators put a premium on a very small subset of what it means to be successful. Students that can't - or don't want to - fit into that narrow band of school-based, school-defined success are somehow deemed less worthy.

Everyone who has been an educator (or been around kids at all) knows of students who work incredibly hard, who learn and achieve and go on to do great things. They typically have a growth mindset, and they constantly challenge themselves to achieve their own goals. But often that doesn't translate into an A in school, which means they won't get special recognition at our graduation. Just because a student's GPA is 3.79 or below doesn't mean their achievement is worth less recognition, or that their future plans are any less worthy than the high honors graduates' plans.

If we believe that school is for all students, and we believe that what we offer and require of all of our students is meaningful, and that students that meet those requirements have accomplished something, then when and how they receive that diploma shouldn't be differentiated by their cumulative GPA. We should celebrate all of our graduates, and not be silent about their plans for next year simply because they didn't reach an arbitrary number on a dubious scale. They shouldn't be last among equals.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

It Will Take You Less Than 60 Minutes

I'm asking you to do a favor for me.
  • It will take less than 60 minutes.
  • It's not hard to do.
  • It will not cost you anything.
  • In fact, it will most likely save you money.
  • It will be good for you, your children, your neighbors and the environment.
  • It will make me happy.
  • Did I mention it will take you less than 60 minutes?
Here's the deal. If you've ever, even once, found something good on this blog, I'd like you to do this. It doesn't even have to be something I wrote, it could be something I linked to (most likely it was). Maybe even it's something you disagreed with but it helped you think through and justify your own position. Maybe it was a video of our faculty dance that made you laugh. Maybe it was something that made you cry. Or something that made you angry.

But, if even once, you found something worthwhile on this blog, I'd like you now to pay it forward. Many of you are about to have some time off (if you're an educator in the Northern Hemisphere), so it won't be hard to find 60 minutes to do this. Even if you're not about to have some time off, it shouldn't be that hard to find 60 minutes in the next few weeks (after all, most of the shows you watch are having their season finales right about now, so that will free up some time). Please, give me less than 60 minutes and do this.

What is "this"? I want you to make an appointment and have a company come to your house and give you an estimate on solar panels.

Yes, I'm serious.

It will take less than 60 minutes and will be easy to do. If you live in Colorado or 14 other states, perhaps contact Solar City. I have no connection to Solar City, they've just got an excellent reputation. Feel free to contact a different company or, if you're not in one of the 15 states Solar City currently services, use "the google" to find a company that does. Then contact them and make an appointment to come out and give you an estimate. It will take less than 60 minutes.

Some of you are thinking right now, "Wait a minute, he said this wouldn't cost me anything." It won't. Many companies such as Solar City now offer solar leasing. You pay nothing up front, you just pay for the electricity you use and - for many of you - you'll pay less than you are paying right now. That's right, you pay nothing up front and will pay less each month than you currently do for electricity. (Some of you will pay the same, and some of you may pay a bit more, but you just might decide it's worth it anyway.)

Now, if you want, you can choose to purchase the solar panels, which will cost you money up front but, in the long run, will save you even more money. But I realize lots of folks don't have that kind of money available to pay up front, or aren't sure enough of this to wait for the payoff, which is the beauty of leasing. It literally costs you nothing and at worst might not save you much but at best will save you hundreds of dollars (or more) per year. And if energy prices go up (any bets on that?), yours won't.

We purchased solar panels for our house a little over four years ago (leasing wasn't available to us then). We haven't paid for electricity since. In fact, at the end of each year we get a small check back from our utility company because we generate just a little bit more than we use. We'll break even in the next couple of months on our up-front costs, so from here on out it's all money in the bank. Here's what the last 12 months looks like:



Not sure you believe it? That's okay, but give me 60 minutes anyway. Contact a solar company in your area, have them come out and give you a bid, and see for yourself. For some of you it may not make sense. Perhaps you have large trees around your house, or perhaps your roof is oriented really poorly, or perhaps in your state the built-in incentives aren't quite as good, and you won't save money. If that's the case, then no problem, all you're out is 60 minutes.

There are a whole bunch of people, including many of our so-called leaders, who don't think we are capable of making good decisions. They don't think we're capable of educating ourselves, or making decisions based on the long-term, so they pander to us. They manipulate us. And, if you're like me, you often feel like there's not much you can do.

But there is. You can do this. Will it change the world? Maybe not. Will it solve the climate crisis? Perhaps not. But if enough of us do this, it will start to make a difference. And it will demonstrate to our leaders that not only are we capable of making good decisions, but we are capable of leading ourselves. And perhaps they should follow us.

So make that appointment. And if you decide to install solar panels, then I want you to share that information. Blog/tweet/facebook/instagram it (you could even leave a comment on this post if you want). Tell your friends and family. Tell your neighbors. Share your experience and ask them to do you a favor.

Tell them it will take less than 60 minutes.

Saturday, May 03, 2014

What's the Best Way to Provide Feedback on a Paper?

So, my last post has generated some really great conversation in the comments. No easy answers, but lots to think about. As a result of one of those comments, I thought it might be good to solicit ideas from you guys on some of the ways you provide feedback for students on written work (in this case, thinking about the typical English paper, but it doesn't have to be). (Turnitin apparently does a nice job of facilitating that feedback and I don't have any angst over that part of the service :-).

Again, same caveat as on the last post, I'm not a Language Arts teacher and I do not claim to have any special pedagogical insight into providing feedback on papers. Let's also agree to stipulate that one-on-one conferences with each student to go over their writing is better than anything we're going to submit here.

But, given that it's next to impossible in most schools to have the time to do those one-to-one conferences with every student with every piece of writing, there is a need to provide some kind of feedback that's asynchronous. That's what I'd love to have you address in the comments: what strategies, tools and techniques have you used to best accomplish this?

So, from my non-Language-Arts-teacher perspective, my initial thought of the best way to provide feedback would look like this. The teacher reviews the student's writing on an iPad or similar tablet. This allows them to directly annotate on the written work just like they previously have on a written/printed document. But as they read through and annotate, they record a screencast that allows them to also record their verbal feedback, explaining the annotations and giving them more depth.

To me, that seems like it provides all the functionality of annotations (on either a written/printed piece or an electronic piece submitted somewhere like Turnitin) while also providing some (not all) of the benefits of a writing conference with the student. It also wouldn't take any more time than the traditional grading/annotating of a paper. (Okay, it would take a bit more time to encode and then upload the video for the student to review, but I don't see that as a huge time commitment. I could be wrong.)

So, Language Arts folks, what ways have you found to do this well? What about my proposed solution above doesn't work for you (or how would you improve it)? Would love to hear your thoughts.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Why I Wouldn't Turnitin

I am not a Language Arts teacher, nor do I play one on TV. I do not have 3-5 distinct Language Arts preps, a student load of between 120 and 220 each semester, or the number of papers to grade that comes with that student load. I am not trained in how best to help students learn Language Arts, nor am I steeped in all the Language Arts standards and habits of mind that we'd like our students to develop.

Now that I've thoroughly destroyed any credibility I might have to talk about this issue, I'd ask you to continue reading anyway.

My school is probably going to adopt Turnitin next year. If you're not familiar with this, it's a service that allows you to have your students submit their writing to Turnitin where it is rapidly checked against their massive database of other student work to check for plagiarism. It also helps teachers and peers provide feedback. From their About page:
Turnitin is used by more than 10,000 institutions in 135 countries to manage the submission, tracking and evaluation of student papers online.
I have not used Turnitin, so I can't comment on how well it does what it purports to do, but I've heard that it does a good job and is pretty user-friendly for both teachers and students.

I wouldn't use it.

I have several concerns about the use of Turnitin, but I'll focus on just two here. First, by contracting with Turnitin, you're basically agreeing to submit your students' work to a large corporation so that they can use that work to make money. The more folks that use Turnitin, and the more student work that is submitted, the more valuable it becomes for Turnitin. You're allowing (actually, enabling) a corporation to monetize the intellectual property of your students.

Now, I realize this argument will seem rather esoteric to many folks. They'll suggest that elevating our students' work to "intellectual property" is a bit of a stretch, and that the goal of using Turnitin is to actually help the students, and it's okay if people make money along the way. Both of those may have some validity, but I'd ask you to think about this scenario. How would you feel if your school district took some of your work as a teacher and then sold it, and kept the profits? (By the way, they probably can do that since it's work product, but my question is how would you feel.) It's essentially the same thing for our students, except they didn't have a choice (you did when you accepted this job), nor do they get paid for their time (you get paid for your work, even if you wouldn't get the proceeds from the sale of your work product). I find it somewhat ironic that we are attempting to teach our students that copying is wrong by copying and sharing their work with someone who will profit from it.

Second, and this is the bigger issue for me, is the assumption of guilt. By using Turnitin we're essentially saying to our students, "you are guilty until proven innocent . . . by Turnitin." We don't trust you, we assume you're going to cheat, and in order to deter that we're going to submit everything you do under the assumption that you are cheating.

Now, last time I checked, one of the basic principles of our country is the presumption of innocence; the assumption that you are innocent until proven guilty. Not only that, but there has to be probable cause to pursue the matter to determine your guilt. What kind of message does it send to our students when we flip that on its head?

I get why Language Arts teachers would want to use this product. I get the overwhelming workload and the frustration of dealing with student plagiarism. If I was a Language Arts teacher I might even swallow my concerns and use Turnitin myself. But I'm not, and that's the beauty of this post, I can at least attempt to evaluate the use of Turnitin from a big-picture perspective without the annoying reality I would face as a Language Arts classroom teacher. And, evaluated on the "rightness" of using it, it's no contest - don't do it.

So how would I address the issue of plagiarism? I don't know, at least not to any level of detail. I think there are certainly some partial solutions that can help, such as not giving standard assignments with standard prompts that are easy to plagiarize, or having students complete writing tasks in class. But I realize those only go so far, but I think it would be worth our time to flesh out that list and perhaps we could come up with a more complete list that might - on the whole - be a better alternative to Turnitin.

I can foresee some folks asking question like, "But don't you value Literature? And don't you value writing?" And my answer is that I very much value Literature, and I very much value writing. Do I value writing about Literature? Not so much. That doesn't mean I think writing about Literature is necessarily bad, not at all, as long as that's what you want and choose to do. But I do think that forced, mandatory writing about Literature that is assigned to you that you then turn in for a grade is perhaps not the best way to help students become better writers or lovers of Literature.

A serious question for Language Arts teachers: When is the last time you wrote a paper about a work of Literature? And, no, graduate school doesn't count. You don't get to justify doing something to your students in school because someone else did something to you in school. I'd even ask a follow-up question, when is the last time you wrote anything longer and more involved than an email? If (school) writing is so important, so critical to our students, that we would spend some of our budget on a service that assumes our students are guilty until proven innocent, then I think you need to show the writing you do in your life.

I know many of the folks reading this will be able to do that, because if you're reading my blog then there's a better-than-average chance that you're a blogger yourself. But I wonder what percentage of Language Arts teachers write anything significant on a regular basis? And of those that do, I wonder how much of that writing resembles the writing they are asking their students to do and then submit to Turnitin? I wonder how many Language Arts Departments - all the teachers in the department combined - have written even as much as I alone have in the last eight or so years on this blog? That's not to say there's anything special about me for writing on this blog, but that is suggesting that they should put their (school district) money where their writing is.

I think writing is more important than ever. But I think the most important writing done today doesn't look very much like school writing.
  • Important writing is done because you want to accomplish a task, you want to change something. School writing is often done just to get a rather dubious grade.
  • Important writing is done for an authentic audience, for an audience that cares about and needs what you are writing about; it's meant to be shared. School writing is done for an audience of one, and that one usually has to read between 30 and 200 other pieces of inauthentic writing at the same time. It's rarely shared.
  • Important writing is often (although not always) done collaboratively. School writing is rarely done collaboratively.
  • Important writing today frequently uses hyperlinks that allow you to actually click through and read the source material, and we frequently do. School writing frequently uses citations in MLA or APA format, where we seemingly care more about the appropriate placement of punctuation then we do about the usefulness, relevance, and importance of the source material. Rarely in school writing does anyone actually read the source material.
  • Important writing is difficult to plagiarize, because you have something to say, and it's yours. School writing is often easy to plagiarize, because you may not have anything to say, and it's not really yours.
There's one more interesting piece to this (assuming you've found any of this interesting), and that's the fact that my daughter will be a ninth grader at my school next year. Some folks are undoubtedly wondering whether we will "opt her out" of Turnitin. The answer is probably not, just like we haven't opted her out of standardized testing. But what we will do is give her the choice of whether to opt-out, just like we have with standardized testing. (So far she's chosen not to opt-out of standardized testing, because she doesn't want to be "different." Oh, how apropos, not opting-out of standardized testing because you don't want to be different.) If she should decide that she does want to opt-out of Turnitin (unlikely as that is), we will support her.

Does this mean that I think Language Arts teachers who use Turnitin are "bad" or "evil"? Not at all; as I said, I can see where it would be helpful to them in dealing with the realities of their classroom situations. But it does mean that I wish we would question the realities of our classroom situations and perhaps, just perhaps, spend our time and energy on changing those situations instead of using a flawed and ultimately harmful tool.



For an interesting discussion of copyright and other issues related to Turnitin, this article from the Florida Law Review (pdf) is very interesting (and lengthy).