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Sept. 19, 2007 -- "Ask the Teacher" chat with Ron Fletcher

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CMRulz__Guest_: Who would win in a fight, Orwell or Huxley?
Ron_Fletcher: What a great way to begin anothe academic year of live chats. My money is on Orwell--his attention to the way language manipulates so-called reality and the how power thrives on ignorance seems, sadly, timeless and timely. Props to Huxley, though, for anticipating the g-nome dilemmas. Both are worthy Cassandras and deserving of a spot on any lit. syllabus--or nightstand.
Big_B__Guest_: My son is home schooled now after disciplinary infraction in 8th grade. My question is about the future. DO you think home schooled high schoolers are treated differently when applying to college? Should we make every effort to get him back into a high school somewhere?
Ron_Fletcher: I would encourage a return to the classroom, more for the important social piece than the regard or disregard of college admissions officers. (That said, plenty of homeschooled kids have gone to great schools.) Interacting with peers and an array of teachers is an education in itself, and well worth pursuing. Good luck.
Nancy__Guest_: My DS (11) just started middle school (6th grade) the amount of writing requirement increased drastically and realize no one ever taught him to write. They gave him marks on what he had written but very little on the process of organizing and expressing opinions. How can I help at this level when he is writing 3 or so papers a week?
Ron_Fletcher: First, make it clear to your son that he is not responsible for something he has never had a chance to learn. The situation you describe could lead quickly to his questioning himself. Next, let the teacher know about the absence of quality writing instruction in your son's preceding years. He or she may have time to tutor him on a weekly basis and bring him up to speed. If that is not an option, consider tutoring from a knowing relative or friend. If the chore falls to you for a while, attempt to instruct rather than do, i.e., teach your son to fish rather than give him a fish. Good luck.
Damien__Guest_: Do you think that high school students tend to be either "English/Social Studies" minded or "Science/Math" minded? If so, what are the pros and cons of requiring students to take equal numbers of both classes? In a school system where electives are becoming a rarity, it seems unfair.
Ron_Fletcher: Great question. I think we teachers are often to blame for leading students to believe that they fall into either the math/science camp or humanities camp. Sure, there are predispositions and talents, but we should allow students to sample as much as possible, particularly at the high school level. I've seen students discover the elegance of math when a teacher has revealed the way it underpins music or verse--and vise versa. It seems that one will need a protean mind to do well in our Brave New World.
Baby1__Guest_: My kids have gotten into a terrible habit of watching a lot of TV over the summer. What do you suggest to keep them off it?
Ron_Fletcher: Make them watch C-Span. Kidding aside, sit down with them and make up a schedule that prioritizes school work. Allow a little bit of television, while helping them to see the merits of limited time before the tube. And don't forget to lead by example: perhaps you read while your kids study. Good luck.
Smitty__Guest_: I read an interesting article in the Globe's Ideas section about if education is failing to address the important question of "Why are we here?" Do you think that it is and/or should be addressed in classrooms?
Ron_Fletcher: My experience has shown that the existential questions belong in and vivify a classroom--and not when one is simply preaching to a choir of brooding teens. It's the students who resist literature and large ideas who, at times, respond to the big question of why bother with novels--or why bother with questioning. The caveat, of course, is not to drift too far into the ether of abstraction--to return to earth and help the kids see how the larger questions really do play themselves out in quotidian ways--in days they have some say in shaping.
Guy__Guest_: I am a sophmore and I'm swamped already, after only one week of classes. The workload is big, I'm in public school. (at the library now) I'm also playing football, which I don't want to quit just for grades, cause I think it helps with the stress of the classes. I feel like a loser to have to get a tutor, but is that what I should do?
Ron_Fletcher: Lose the term loser, Guy. Your sound awareness of all that's going on is evidence of character and maturity. Now, what to do? Make your school work a priority and hold on to football--or perhaps some other sport that is less time-consuming; we all need physical activity to burn off calories--and stress. Check your present schedule with your folks and a teacher you trust before looking for a tutor. A few adjustments there might make your days less daunting. I wish you well.
Sisyphus__Guest_: AtheT, as a nascent teacher myself, I often struggle with how to better get kids to honestly confront a poem, story, play, or novel. I always try to put a piece of lit. in context, or to set up some connection that makes it (perhaps) more relvant to their own lives. Yet when it comes time to discuss the text in class, generally few volunteer anything. I'll try modeling my own careful approach, looking at a few lines with them, annotating my own copy to record their comments...but any suggestions to get taciturn teenagers to dig for the pith, not just the paltry?
Ron_Fletcher: Your students are fortunate; how easily I envision you modeling the eloquence and scholarship you expect from them. It's always a challenge to sense where the students are and not set the bar too, too high at the start. For every one who is inspired by a teacher's erudition, there are many who are intimidated--into silence. Leaven the affair with humor; share stories of your own misreadings--now and when you were their age. Remind them, perhaps with the words of Eliot, that the attempt--the deliberate, thoughtful attempt--means everything: "for us there is only the trying." I've no doubt your students will come round.
jack__Guest_: Hi Ron, my son is currently a high school junior and we are starting to think about college. Is it too soon to begin the college visitation process? Should we wait until the summer. Thanks
Ron_Fletcher: It's not too soon to begin a conversation about selecting a college that is a good match for your son's abilities and ambitions. Visits may be premature. Allow your son room to experience his junior year rather than see it strictly in terms of "the most important year" vis-a-vis college admissions. Paradoxically, it's often the less neurotic or preoccupied kids who excel in the classroom and create opportunities for college--and beyond. To wit: keep the college conversation casual this fall.
BananaMuffin__Guest_: What do you think of classes that allow a lot of what I call "alternative testing", like oral (or other) presentations, skits, poems, etc in place of written exams?
Ron_Fletcher: As long as high standards are maintained, it seems reasonable if not necessary to give students more than one way to demonstrate their knowledge. (Likewise, teachers may have to consider a variety of approaches when instructing.) I admit a predilection for the written word, particularly in this cultural moment of haste, shorthand, mere approximations, and, gasp, on-line chats. I'm wary of the classroom that prizes entertainment--skits, etc.--more than the less sexy scene of words on a page; that said, students of lit. should be developing a facility with the spoken word as well as the written one. Bring on the declamations and one-act plays!
Ron_Fletcher: Well, the school bell has tolled for me--and some great questions remain. I will attempt to answer them here next month or in an upcoming column. Thank you so much for all the thoughtful questions.
Ron_Fletcher: Best,
Ron_Fletcher: Ron

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