Friday, April 17, 2009

An interesting bit of research...

Reading, Writing and Arithmetic always seem to be the target of those that want our schools to go back to the basics.  Those that want this return to basics apparently seem to want our teachers to continue in the style that was used in the past.  Indeed, there is a handwritten note to the school board in a Boston museum that is politely requests that the children continue to learn how to shape a turkey quill even though new metal quills will be supplied to the students.  "What will happen if when they grow up there are no metal quills available.?" intones the letter.

As an aside, I do remember being given a metal quill early in my grade school days.  Each desk also had a hole in which a glass jar fit full of black ink.   Unfortunately with my last name, Blackwell, my nickname quickly became "Inkwell" or "Inky."  

Still my point being that it is difficult sometimes for a school board to allow the curriculum and the teachers to move on.

Not that many years ago I had an excellent if not outstanding graduate student.  She was interested in how children learn to write and devised a way to measure whether the computer (at that time a new item in the schools and somewhat looked at with suspicion by many teachers) could improve students' writing.

In a local elementary school she found a teacher who had the reputation of being able to really push the children in his class to write well--complex sentences, paragraphs that made sense, creative ideas and the best part--getting them to like to write.  In many classes (my early classes fit into this category) children write about the assignment, then turn in the paper.  In my case, I would point out the errors and make suggestions, then ask the student to re-do the paper.  "Awe, Mr. Blackwell, do I hafta?"  They hated re-writing.  It was like pulling teeth.  No matter what sort of an assignment I would give, by and large they didn't mind writing about it but re-doing it was not their cup of tea.

So Carol (my graduate student) found this teacher with a great reputation for teaching writing and we approach the district and him to see if they would be interested in some research about writing.  What Carol and I wanted to do was to put six computers in the hall outside of the classroom and at times certain students would do their assignment on the computer....TRS 80s from Radio Shack...with one dot matrix printer.  The district and the teacher agreed with the stipulation that the printer remain out in the hall.  Agreed.

We randomly chose six students from a class of about twenty-five kids.  Lucky those chosen were pretty much your average kid in class.  Then the research began.  The teacher did his usual instruction and gave the entire class an assignment.  And all the kids in class wrote by hand on the writing assignment.  Only at the end, Carol took the six kids assignments and typed them into the computer--just as the kids had written them.  Errors and all.  Those were printed up on  the printer that the children would be using.  This was done for the first three assignments.  With me so far?

On the fourth writing assignment, the chosen six students were told that they had to write their paper on the computers out in the hall. The grumbling and complaining from the other students was well noted--all wanted to compose on the computers but we told them, you get to use them later.  And so the six students hunted and pecked their way to completing their writing assignment.  Mistake number one on my part--I didn't tell Carol to teach the kids how to touch type.  I didn't even think of it.

We did this for assignments, four, five and six.  The six kids really enjoyed themselves and were very pleased with their printouts. Their papers looked good!   Indeed, so pleased that they would read them to others in the class at which time they also noted mistakes in their writing and would go back and make corrections.  Now all of you know how easy it is to correct a misspelling or to add a word when you write at a computer.  But it was a new thing in the early days of computers in the schools.  Carol and I had not figured any way to measure how many times each child went back to made corrections.  Mistake number two.  

But on the other hand, my English department colleagues will be quick to tell you that re-writing is the best part of improving writing skills.

Then for assignments seven, eight and nine, the chosen six had to come back to class and write their assignments on paper like they initially did.  Big time grumbling!  They were not happy students.  Finally, on writing assignments ten, eleven and twelve, they were allowed back on the computers.  

Now Carol had twelve assignments from each of our chosen six students--six of the assignments were hand written but then copied over on the computer by Carol.  Six of the assignments were done on the computers.  In essence, each child was his/her own control group.  We wanted to see if the computer helped improve the child's writing.  

Carol next found two experience grade school teachers on maternity leave in another school district.  Each independently evaluated each assignment.  There were no names on them, just an identifying number.  Basically what these two teachers agreed on was that we had either two different teachers teaching writing or two different groups of children.  Hah!  Our six kids had longer sentences as well as longer paragraphs when they wrote their assignments on the computer.  This was accomplished even tho' they never learned to touch type.  What we never did was to think about how many times each child re-wrote either on paper or on the computer.  Somehow we should have measure that variable as well.  To our eye there was much more re-writing on the computers.

Part of the problem in teaching writing is that most children do not have the motor coordination necessary for writing with a pencil or pen.  Their hands have not developed that well.  Yes, we could teach more penmanship--I wish I could give it a try.  I see a lot of grownups now who write with an uncomfortable hand posture.  

Today most schools have computers in the classroom--do we have enough?  More research needs to be done.  But I would also just like to ask teachers today, what do you need to teach writing effectively.....and to your satisfaction.  I trust the teachers--they are the pros in this game.  

If the moment strikes you, you ought to write an e-mail and thank a teacher.  Be sure to re-write it.

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