Parking my car at Perth Bible College a few weeks ago I found these tiny purple flowers peeping out at me. Aren’t they just lovely?
Is online high schooling about to become the norm for the future?
Talking about education over the weekend – what a boring topic; you really ought to get a life, miss – we came to the conclusion that high schools as we know them today are on the way out.
Or are they?
One of the Bible colleges that had a campus in Perth, Australia, now has 98% of all its students studying online. Students can hold permanent either full- or part-time positions and study while earning their living. At the tertiary level this makes so much sense, especially in subject areas such as economics, psychology, arts and so on where there really is no hands-on learning necessary.
But what about high school?
I teach at an online high school where we see students excel without the social interaction considered so important over the last 150 years or so. These are diligent, independent learners who pace themselves well and live full lives with an extra-curricular focus on dancing, equestrian activities, swimming and even writing – whatever they love doing.
Online learning has afforded these young people the opportunity to study at a certain level despite illnesses and age differences. Some avoid the anxiety associated with previous experiences of bullying and peer pressure; others just “don’t like school”.
However, for many the lack of constant accountability leads to laziness and an inward spiralling mindset. We have found that it is essential that they have a parent as motivator and general checker-upper to keep them on track with their studies, to help them to “reach their potential”, especially in middle school.
So, is online high schooling about to become the norm for the future?
From a teacher’s perspective, there are some subject areas that require more intensive interaction with students. Think of science experiments, for example. For others, on-campus learning means there is equipment such as fine art materials. But, taking these sorts of things into consideration, wouldn’t two days a week be sufficient on campus? Tutorials for subjects such as Maths, History and English could form part of these two days.
Teachers would move into online assignments, feedback and assessment. So, learning would be more individualistic.
The question is: would this be a financially feasible option?
For the past five weeks we have been engaged in the provocative world of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and it has been the most rewarding and engaging five weeks of the year for most of my 16 year old students.
The prose is so beautifully written with vivid images that resonate in the mind. Take, for example our introduction to Clarisse: “Her head was half bent to watch her shoes stir the circling leaves. Her face was slender and milk-white, and in it was a kind of gentle hunger that touched over everything with tireless curiosity. It was a look, almost, of pale surprise; the dark eyes were so fixed to the world that no move escaped them. Her dress was white and it whispered … The trees overhead made a great sound of letting down their dry rain.” This poetic style in his descriptive passages makes you sort of settle in to enjoy the journey. The images are vivid and apt, and they help the imagination get on board.
I must say, it has been interesting to hear the silence when students become aware that they are reading about a world which is so similar to their own, yet did not exist in the 50s when Bradbury sat at his rental typewriter in the basement of the UCLA library. It is sobering to think that he could forecast so much so accurately. People with sound beads in their ears; multiple large screen televisions; speeding on motorways; a loss of contact with nature; “ignorant armies” clashing overhead – for a forgotten cause; and, perhaps most importantly, the dangers of an unthinking mind.
Once we had read the book and looked at the characters, and at the more obvious themes, done some close reading, as one does, that’s when the conversation started! We began tracing the use of water as a motif and made a profusion of discoveries. Clarisse says at the start of the novel: “I like to put my head back, like this, and let the rain fall into my mouth. It tastes just like wine.” and then towards the end there are these complex words: “He would be Montag-plus-Faber, fire plus water, and then, one day, after everything had mixed and simmered and worked away in silence, there would be neither fire nor water, but wine. Out of two separate and opposite things, a third.” We discussed the miracle of changing water to wine, and the even greater miracle of changing one element into another – fire into water. What is the lead up to miracles occurring? How and why do they happen?
Montag reaches the river after running from the city after the burning of his house. “He touched it, just to be sure it was real. He waded in and stripped in darkness to the skin, splashed his body, arms, legs, and head with raw liquor; drank it and snuffed some up his nose. Then he dressed in Faber’s old clothes and shoes. He tossed his own clothing into the river and watched it swept away. … He felt as if he had left a stage behind and many actors. He felt as if he had left the great seance and all the murmuring ghosts. He was moving from an unreality that was frightening into a reality that was unreal because it was new.” So, what does Faber represent? The Bible speaks of baptism and new life, of putting on new clothes and shedding the old. Here Montag dresses in Faber’s old clothes, goes through the water, and recognises a newness in his life. If changing water into wine was Jesus’ first, and best known miracle, how much more difficult would it be to change Montag (fire) to the new man he becomes once he has waded through the river?
But there are always more questions – “a reality that was unreal because it was new” – what is reality? Does something only become “real” when it settles into a habitual pattern of life?
This book has been such a pleasure to study, and next time I look at it, I know there will be more to find, things I haven’t noticed, but which some astute student will point out and question. And I am looking forward to that already.
The other day I heard that next year there will be a film version of Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. So, what do I do? My initial response is: take it off the book list for next year.
Teaching texts which have popular film versions is one of my pet hates. The students always tend to interpret the film and give it precedence over the novel. However, I can’t argue with the fact that film versions open new vistas for students who don’t read. Perhaps it isn’t that cut and dried. Perhaps I should be more open to new ways of getting students involved in the classics and in popular literature.
What literary value does the film hold though?
The plot, specifically the action, conflict and resolution, drive any feature film. I must hasten to add that characterisation is also essential. Aren’t these the basic elements of a novel anyway, and so should I really be happy that my students are getting the same knowledge of narrative as they would through reading a book – which would take more time and perhaps not be as memorable?
Well, yes and no. It would certainly be a quicker way of accessing the story, and possibly our minds do remember what we see rather than what we imagine. But there are a few things which will go by the wayside.
The first of these is the use of imagination. All books allow polysemic readings since each reader has a different interpretation of character, and often of the value system underpinning the text. In a film the director chooses to mould the character in a particular way, often relying on stereotype and on dominant target audience response. The director usually valorises a moral position and condemns another. This is often based on his/her perceptions of the expectations of the dominant viewer whereas an author is more likely to come from a personal angle. Writers create their characters in such a way that readers become involved with them emotionally and identify their own typifications according to experiences they have had with people in their own lives. So, it is quite common for people to differ on what a character might look like or whether a character is appealing or not. Readers need to use their imaginations in order to make a character “come alive” and in order to do this they use a complex strategy of compare and contrast, subconsciously linking what they are reading to their past experiences.
Imagination keeps the brain moving and maintains curiosity, a necessary element to engage the mind in meaningful learning.
The other one that springs to mind is complexity; let’s look specifically at sequencing in this regard. The Book Thief is an excellent example of this. The amount of foreshadowing, telling readers that this or that person has died before the time, is unusually high, each time sustaining the reader by a desire to find out how or why this has happened. Zusak has structured the novel so carefully and used the multiple narrative strands in such a way as to entice and interest the reader. The narrative is told, for the most part, in the third person, by Death, a spirit who is invisible to the people he “carries in his arms” and who comments in the first person on each death, betraying his own compassion and emotional involvement in the world of human beings. Death is beyond time, outside of the construct as we know it. This sense of omniscient omnipresence across years is easy to imagine but would probably be organised in a far more chronological way in the world of film language. Students would lose the richness of the complexity of time through watching the film rather than reading the book. The general storyline would remain the same but the way that story was told would probably be markedly different, and not only different, but simplified.
Do I want a simplified world for my students? The answer must be a resounding no. If I wanted a simpler narrative, I could easily choose a linear narrative from the start.
Will I take it off the book list? I think so. I want students to think critically, to use their imaginations. I want them to love to read, to want to discover new people in the pages of their minds, where through some amazingly complex process they combine their knowledge of the world they live in with the little black marks on a page. The pictures they see should be of their own making, rich and full of emotional intensity – and they should be able to take time, to dwell on the pages, paper or electronic, to savour the words.
Students often struggle to discover why they are not succeeding in English. This is despite receiving multiple assignments back with comments and tick boxes seemingly indicating what is wrong. It is as if there has to be a moment of recognition, a light bulb that switches on and makes it possible to move forward.
Sometimes models help; at other times pointing out the method, much like a recipe or scientific experiment, can link to the student’s innate sense of logic.
Most often though students need to actually see me marking their work. How does she assess this? Oops, that word’s wrongly spelled again. And so on.
Talking through the marking as you go through the essay (or story, or whatever) can be an eye-opener for a student. If only we had the time to do this with each of them!
It’s that time of the term when there are camps and excursions and who knows what else which teachers are required to organise and supervise.
Next week I shall spend three days watching high school students play golf, bowls and other games and check that they behave themselves.
Is this more a waste of my time or theirs? Or is it primarily a waste of money – the investment in teacher training, the government funding of education and the parents’ funding of their children’s studies at private schools?
It would be comforting to think that my school was unusual, that I could get a job elsewhere in Perth and be spared the frustration this causes, but I doubt that this is so.
The purpose is to “bond with our students”. How much bonding occurs while we watch them playing with their peers? I fear there is very little, if any. It is akin to doing playground duty for a whole day rather than discussing crucial life issues, reading and writing about them, and being held to account, never mind all the other aspects of the daily English classroom.
What is it in our western, laid back outlook on life that says that this is educating a child?
Languages are fascinating subjects to teach. The animation that one sees on students’ faces when they know they have something to say, something that’s important, something they’ve just discovered and the light bulb has just switched on inside the brain and has lit up the whole face – I love those moments.
But they don’t always happen.
So often there is a sea of deadness that faces me and the quiet is not industrious but empty and hollow, and a sense of failure touches me and makes me ask: Why can’t I get them motivated? Why do I put myself through this? They don’t even want to learn. This is a waste of time.
Wouldn’t it be exciting to have little red and green lights on their foreheads to indicate whether the correct part of the brain is engaged. Perhaps that might be even more depressing.
Live for the successful moments; that’s what I do. After all, I have many of those dead moments in my own mind. I just have the adult ability to present a veneer of interest and animation whenever it’s required.