> Mrs. O'Neill's Blog: 2009

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Ape: to copy or mimic, often with absurd or amusing results.

I am marking research papers this weekend. Or at least I am trying to, in between peaceful moments reflecting (see above) and frantic moments planning an enormous Sunday lunch.

Here’s what is worrying me – plagiarism. I have got at least one paper which is full of 'cut and paste' – and I have my suspicions about one or two others. What I am beginning to realize is that some of my students do not actually think they are doing anything wrong.

The information is so readily available, the phrasing so apt, and the point made so succinctly, that they just can’t resist it. More worrying are the students who have not ‘cut and paste’ but have simply changed the text a little. I probably won’t be able to find their stuff on the web, and therefore they will go unchallenged.

How can I teach my students to be more rigorous in their use of sources? How can I explain to them what plagiarism actually is, and why it might be wrong?

We really do live in ‘the information age’. There is so much on the internet that we can use without asking anyone. In the last hour for example, I downloaded some recipes whilst planning my Easter lunch and bookmarked a dozen pages for my own use as a teacher.

I also want to help students evaluate the sources that they use. I am collecting a few sites that explain how to do this. The first one I want to recommend is The Internet Detective. If you have found a website which explains plagiarism in a student friendly fashion, or guides students through the complexities of evaluating a source, please let me know.

I am also interested in how early we need to teach students how to cite sources.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Laughing Matter

A Laughing Matter

My British Literature classes have been studying the eighteenth century drama ‘She Stoops to Conquer’ and talking about the way comedy works. Its author, Oliver Goldsmith obligingly wrote an essay on comedy, setting out what he was trying to do. His thoughts can be summed up pretty simply by saying that comedy should make people laugh. Well, yes.

My students find the play mildly amusing. Humor doesn’t always translate and there is nothing more deadly to a joke than having to explain it several times. Having said that, we did get talking about why people sometimes don’t find something funny. It seems that finding something funny relies on two very different things. First of all you need to connect in some way with the situation presented. Goldsmith says it should be about human weaknesses that we can all make a judgment on ‘because all have sat for the picture.’ On the other hand, we all agreed, that for something to be funny, we need to view it as an intellectual exercise and not an emotional one. Once we relate emotionally to the object of mirth we are usually done for. Comedy just can’t be sustained. As soon as we feel we are being laughed at, it isn’t really amusing any more.

I tested these two ideas by showing my classes an episode of Dad’s Army, a British 1970’s sitcom which is set in World War 2. Dad’s Army relies on a lot of comic devices including slapstick, word play and farce. It also relies very heavily on satirizing the way we use stereotypes. The episode I chose was ‘My British Buddy’ where Captain Mainwaring’s platoon are required to welcome some American soldiers to Walmington-on-Sea. The Americans are dreadfully stereotyped, gum chewing and oblivious to any cultural signals given them. The real joke is that these stereotypes are being shown up for what they are: our own prejudices. My class struggled dutifully not to identify with the American soldiers, and as a result managed to laugh at some of the jokes. I consoled them by complaining about the stereotypical Scotsman, ‘Frazer’ who is taciturn, pessimistic, mean with money and difficult to understand. Nothing familiar there surely?

A couple of my students said they found themselves thinking about people close to them who would be similar to those being parodied, and then found themselves less inclined to laugh. It seemed like ‘being funny’ was more about how we felt about the subject than about the ability of the comedian. Sort of explains why writing humor is so difficult, doesn’t it?

Have you ever been the only one not laughing? Why was that? Are there some things we should never joke about?

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Tough tests

Imagine you sign up for a job where your boss gives you feedback every week on how well you are doing. At first you feel you are doing well. Your boss is making allowances for it being a new job. You are feeling hopeful. You find the job quite interesting and it has several really good perks. Then things start to get a little sticky. Your boss isn’t actually publicizing your appraisal, but all employee appraisals are given out at the same time, so of course it is natural that you and your fellow employees will trade appraisals. Sometimes another person will approach you to ask you what the boss said to you about your participation in some project or other. Sometimes you will simply tell someone else what the boss said.

Before long, you realize that there are more people invested in that appraisal than just you. Your family, for example, want to know how things are going. They ask you every day. Some family members get really upset if things don’t go that well. Soon you begin to realize that you are being ranked against all the other employees in your section, and that you are definitely not one of the top achievers. Those who get that special status –usually the same people every week- are given a lot of praise and encouragement.

So what do you do now? Career counselors would, without hesitation, advise a career change. Not everyone can handle a job like that, although granted there are some who will thrive in that environment. Those who ‘perform’ better will love the affirmation they get from being placed top of the list.

You follow the advice of family and friends. They remind you that life is like this. It turns out that almost all of them have held the same job at one time or another. Some of them liked it, some of them hated it. They offer different kinds of advice ranging from ‘Try harder.’ to ‘The hell with them!’ You are hopeful by nature. You want to do well at your job. You try harder. But things don’t improve. No matter what you do you can’t get onto that special list of top people. You really feel like you want to get out.

There’s only one problem.

You are six years old and you have got 12 more years of this to go. The job you are trying to hold down is simply being a student and the boss is your teacher.

Okay, so I am being emotive, but that’s what we are doing with a high number of our children in school. We are obsessing so much about testing that we are failing to see how unhappy and unproductive our constant testing makes many students.

I am not advocating no testing or grading. I am not saying that we should pretend that some students are not academically more able than others. All I am suggesting is that we dethrone ‘testing’ as the central experience of school. Our schools should be places which focus on learning not testing.

We have to have tests –but let’s make them less focused on ranking students and more on how to learn better. Let’s give students targets for themselves, not bars that only a few can jump. Let’s stop putting our children through something we would refuse as adults.