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Methods and Expectations

Auguste Rodin. The Thinker.
Auguste Rodin, Le Penseur (The Thinker).
Photograph © Copyright 2010, Bruce McMenomy

Some unabashedly subjective comments about how our online courses can and should work, with special attention to the Literature sequence: for the thoughtful scrutiny of parents (though students should read them too)

During my last quarter century of teaching online, I have had one of the most rewarding (and exhausting) experiences of my life, but I’ve had the privilege of teaching some of the brightest and best-motivated students on the planet, gathered from a wide field. It’s been a wild and fascinating ride. Mostly it’s been a lot of fun. Some of it has been successful beyond my wildest imagination. But it would be arrant nonsense to claim that it has all gone the way we have hoped, and there are (I like to think) some lessons to be learned. I have here a few thoughts here about who and what we are (and are not), where we’re going, and how things can work to the best advantage of all concerned. I hope it will be useful to pass these on now, so that everyone can understand what we are about from the outset, and can use the program more successfully. I certainly hope that this will not discourage anyone, but I’d rather discourage a prospective student or his parents than misrepresent what we are and what we can do.

Who are you?

Scholars Online is not a full-time day school. This should not come as a surprise to you. We don’t teach our students for an hour a day in every subject; we don’t take charge of their persons for most of their waking hours; we do not observe their personal behavior except as it directly impinges on the activity of the classes; we do not organize many extracurricular activities for them — in general, we aren’t doing many of the things that a day school would be doing, just in externals. It should also not come as a surprise that we cannot do many of the things that a day school — even a mediocre one — might well do. It may come as more of a surprise to find out what we can do, if all the pieces are in place.

First of all, parents needs to know that the basic model at the heart of this enterprise is homeschooling. That is to say just this: your kids are your own students. Adult learners are also welcome, but the situation there is also one of independent study. No, I’m not trying to shake off any particular responsibility, but most of you have come to us from a homeschooling background, and you appreciate the idea that your kids are your own kids and your own students in a way that they can never be mine. This is as it should be, and it’s important enough that you shouldn’t let two obvious facts — a) that I have a fancy academic title or b) that you’re paying me to teach the course to your kids — obscure this larger and more important fact. If it does, walk away and don’t look back: your place in your childrens’ education is more important than mine ever will be, and you should keep it that way. The title is not terribly important (a title won’t teach your kids), and all my input — which I like to think really is of genuine value — is still nothing compared to yours.

So, you say, that’s all very nice. But what does it mean? You’re still the one they call the teacher, and I’m still the parent, right? Because you do have the title, and I write you the check. After all, if I’m really the teacher, why should I keep on writing those checks?

Well, far be it from me to try to undermine my livelihood here; I do think I can usually provide something that you probably could not easily come by just by browsing assiduously through the local library or on the web. But what I see is that this is like that three-legged stool we keep hearing about. Lacking any of its three legs, it doesn’t work very well. Your student is one of the legs; you are another; and I am the third. Here the analogy breaks down, however, because, whereas the stool really requires all three legs in equal measure, in fact you can still continue to give your kids a good education without me. I cannot do the same without you. (To push it one leg further, we might even argue that all real education is self-education; a sufficiently motivated kid can probably make pretty good headway without either of us, but it may require more humility than we can muster to admit this to ourselves...and anyway, the authorities have mandated some adult involvement. So be it.)

But what kind of practical place do you have in all this? We have seen a very wide range of parental involvement over the last twenty-five years, and I can say with confidence that, irrespective of test scores (but reflected in them to a large extent) those students whose parents are involved in the process will almost certainly succeed in learning something of real value. When they slip, they get up again and keep on going. They may be puzzled, but they are never indifferent. And mom or dad can recognize that the system is coming apart at the seams long before I can.

Those who are being abandoned to the computer, on the other hand, often just don’t care enough to do anything. I may get a bewildered note from one of them partway through the year, lamenting the fact that the student is “not getting it”, and asking for help. Sometimes I can do something; other times I cannot. Let’s face it: a typed discussion on a screen is not necessarily riveting stuff all the time; it surely doesn’t grab you by the collar and command your attention the way a more immediate classroom presence would or even a zippy video. Even the conventional classroom is imperfect in this regard.

So what do I recommend? Just the obvious, really. That class log may need to be re-interpreted for your kids a bit to help bring it into focus. We’ve made those available to your students and to parents who are signed up for mentor access. Talk to your kids about what they are reading. Bounce ideas back and forth with them. Grapple with the ideas alongside them and see that their thinking is challenged every day, not just once a week. Review their writing; probe their understanding; test their grasp of what they have read. Moreover, if something I’ve said in class doesn’t ring true with you, feel free to challenge me. One of two things will happen: you will change my mind, or you won’t — but either way, I’ll try to give you a fair hearing and explain where my own thinking is coming from.

This may require you to do some learning yourself. I understand that, but (if I may make so bold) that would not be a waste of your time. In my literature classes, I have gone out of my way not to talk down to the kids or anyone else — ever: I think it’s inexcusable, and I won’t do it. The assignments are similar. I have tried to provide material that is meaty, and at times rather hard: nothing has been dumbed down or oversimplified for anyone. Some of it may represent ideas you haven’t confronted yourself. But at least it is not some silly thing that’s not worth your real attention, either. An adult should find these readings quite sufficiently challenging, too; the adult learners who have taken these courses have found them adequately demanding. I do.

When it’s working, then, this is a family enterprise in which I am the least important player. I stand ready to help out where I can. If you have questions — either to help your kids or just on your own — write me and ask. Both students and parents have done so in the past. Some have really challenged my thinking on a number of things; I like to think they have gotten something out of our exchanges in return. I offer this material not because I know everything there is to know about it — an impossibly tall order — but precisely because I value it for itself, and like to spend my days working with it. It is real. I don’t agree with all of it; I don’t advocate all the same positions; but I am willing to say that it is all at least worth reading, and it is worth wrestling with whether you are in your teens, your forties, or your eighties. This is not school reading: it’s life reading.

Now, I don’t mean that you need to supervise your kids every minute or attend class as a lurking presence over the shoulder (though you’re welcome to read the logs — we don’t particularly have anything to hide). You know your kids far better than we do, and you can figure out what level of supervision is appropriate, and what kind of help they require — either from you or from me. Ultimately companionship may be a better term than supervision. Join them in their learning. Do what is right for the occasion and the individual student, but one way or another, keep directly in touch with what they are doing. We are teachers, yes, but these are still homeschooled kids. You are their main teachers. We are the hired professionals you bring into your home school once a week to offer a curricular focus you might not be able to provide.

And remember this: we meet with the kids in a slow, deliberate medium for a total of one and a half to three hours a week, as a rule — more in some specific cases, but still not the thirty or so that a regular day school theoretically affords. If you read the log of each class, you can probably get the gist of a session’s material in ten to twenty minutes. You might need to do some fill-in reading alongside to figure out what is going on. But this seems not to be too much to expect, and, if you follow it up with your own discussion at home, it will give you a much better notion of where your student stands. Also the mere process of going over it one more time in a different context with you will vastly increase your student’s likelihood of retaining the material and using it actively in the future.

What do you want?

You all want your kids to do well in school. At least I assume you do — if you don’t, this is probably not the place for you. We also want them to do well in school. But perhaps it is time that we consider very carefully what doing well in school looks like and what it means. Conventionally, over the last century and more now, that has meant performing well so as to impress teachers and to get good grades. This is, I submit, a totally backward representation of what school is for, and it invests far too much power — the wrong kind of power — in the hands of teachers, while crippling their ability to do what they really should be doing.

Let me remind you that Scholars Online a) is not a degree-granting institution like a college or university. We are accredited, and we (reluctantly) give grades. Some of this is just about getting along in a world that plays by different rules. If the strange and unproductive idea of grades should disappear, another piece of the notion of school as performance for the teacher would disappear along with it — and not a moment too soon, because really, my students’ goal in the process should not be to satisfy, gratify, con, gull, or impress me. I have a pretty good opinion of almost all of my students; I have a really clear apprehension of the genuine brilliance of a smaller number, for whom I would be willing to write glow-in-the-dark letters of recommendation to colleges. But such a letter is just about the only place where my opinion of your student really will count for much, and it is not such a rare treasure that you couldn’t get by just fine without it.

Who is the customer here? You are. Put the shoe on the other foot. Don’t worry so much about my opinion. Are you getting what you consider valuable for yourself and your students? If so, shop here. If not, look elsewhere. We can give you some estimate of where your kids rank in respect to the rest, and how they seem to be doing — but this is of limited consequence. It is much more important that we are conveying the genuine goods, as I think we are. Grades are trifling in comparison. A student who has really begun to learn is an unstoppable intellectual train. A student who accumulates repetitions of the letter A for their own sake is a collector — and a collector of something that will in very short time become bizarrely irrelevant to his or her life. Who, three years after high school, pays attention to or contemplates those report cards, even if they had a 4.0 GPA?

That being said, there are some limitations to the medium, and some specific skills and attitudes that all students should have before they get here. Specifically in regard to classes, three things leap to the fore:

  • Preparation is important. This is true in the short term and the long term. Reading the material that was recommended for the summer is important, especially for those who have no background doing this sort of thing; doing the assigned current readings on time is important; reviewing readings in a regular and timely way is important; doing any assigned exercises is important. Most of the time, this happens; sometimes it doesn’t, and it’s a lot longer before we learn of the problem. Sometimes a difficulty is unavoidable, but it is usually a matter of how the student chooses to spend his or her time. Choosing to spend your time another way is not necessarily a moral failing, but it is not going to lead to a happy outcome here. Let me be perfectly blunt: these courses are for those who do choose to spend time on them. To build them otherwise is a discourtesy to those who are pouring effort into the process. Those who do not work hard will not do as well — which is not so much a matter of performance on a test as of successfully plumbing the depths of what the course has to offer.
  • Participation is important. Wandering off to eat a meal, read email, or go practice piano during class is not only discourteous to fellow class members and faculty; it is also pedagogically counter-productive. Just logging a class — especially one where you are likely to be called on — is not as good as being there. Students or parents who can’t see why this is so should consider how a log would look if we were all merely to log the class. (The film Real Genius offers a drolls scene in which a taped lecture is playing to a room full of tape recorders in the student seats.) It would be a lot easier for us all to do so, to be sure: it would make the classes asyncrhonous, and probably a lot easier to sell to those who have tight schedules. I could send you all the logs before the year even started. In fact, I could just post them on the web, and free up a lot of hours. I don’t think the experience would be particularly useful, though, and the level of understanding would drop through the floor, because actual learning requires actual engagement and wrestling with the ideas.
  • Verbal skills are important — both reading and writing. In English courses there is a large amount of reading to cover; the ability to read extensively with a moderately high level of comprehension is essential. When you have to read a great deal, to be sure, a certain amount of slippage is expected — I assumed, both in designing the courses and in testing for what had been learned, that some of the material would be forgotten — but a certain minimal level of comprehension and speed and retention is simply necessary. The ability to form thoughts into coherent sentences, both with due consideration and on the fly, is imperative. For good or ill (I think it’s a bit of each), this medium is probably the single most purely verbal means of teaching that has ever been devised, with the possible exception of the old-style correspondence course. I have seen pictures of some of my students, and met some, but by no means all. In the class situation, I am not prejudiced by a student’s appearance, voice, accent, grooming, or posture. This may be good. But I also don’t see the looks of recognition or bewilderment, and a student unwilling or unable to put himself or herself forward in writing does not merely stumble: he or she disappears.

Some of this I can address, but some of it I cannot. Reading comprehension is not easy to diagnose at a distance, especially through such a medium as the chat room. Really the only way I know to do so is through probing conversation with a willing participant. Test scores also reflect pretty accurately what I had already surmised in most, but not all, individual cases. In a small class with a very small amount of material to cover, too, I can expect to evaluate the situation pretty thoroughly: I can make sure that each of my Greek students, for example, understands everything in the three pages or so of weekly reading. In even a medium-sized class, though, where a lively discussion has started, it is extremely difficult to distinguish a student who is merely quietly soaking up everything (and there have been a few) from one who is deeply (but quietly) confused. From this side of the screen, both look the same: a name on a list. Those lists do not exude ideas, show flashes of recognition, or even really tell me whether a student is in the room and attending to what is going on, or watching television, surfing the web, or playing with the cat. This is partly a matter of participation, of course, but it is also partly a natural outgrowth of the narrowly verbal nature of the medium.

We are trying to address the issue of writing skills directly through the writing program. This has broadened considerably since its inception, largely in order to accommodate some unexpectedly wide variations in skill, but it really must be admitted that one cannot do — should not attempt — a college-prep curriculum without being able to write reasonably clearly to start with, without generating a cascade of grammatical and spelling errors. These matters of elementary education really are not our main business, and we cannot stop doing our proper work to make up for a deficiency elsewhere. If there is such a deficiency, we will do what we can to help, but you need to understand what kind of help it is: it’s certainly not an occasion for you to say, “Oh, good — that issue is finally off my back,” but rather a way of revving up your own commitment teaching writing — a way of helping you both work through the enormous mass of material that learning to write well entails. You should know that only specific and focused daily parent-student involvment is going to turn the tide when a student reaches us unable to form a coherent sentence or paragraph.

There. I’ve probably said enough. If you have any questions, comments, or dissenting opinions, do let me know. This is a terrifically important process, but also very exciting; I think that, by working together, we can make a real difference in your kids’ lives.