Monday, January 31, 2011

Where Do I Begin?

By Richard Carson, PhD, Senior Editor

Recently, we completed a project here at PSG that asked us to write a concise but comprehensive overview of World War II. The idea was that this document would provide as many relevant facts about the war as could fit on a very limited number of electronic pages.

Admittedly, when first presented with this task, I was somewhat intimidated by the magnitude of information that had to be assembled. My writer's block was broken in a rare moment of coincidence between one's personal and professional life when my elderly father, a veteran of the war, suffered some temporary delirium and thought he was a soldier defending the Philippines. He had, in fact, been a soldier in France in the last months of the war. But I knew that he had originally been assigned to the Philippines and only escaped that conflict because the troop ship that was to take him there had left California by the time his train arrived from Boston. As I pondered these events, I found myself asking questions: Had he known men who had gone and not returned? Had he known men who had returned and told him stories? He never talked about it much, but I decided to use this opportunity to learn what I could.

I began with the Battle of the Philippines but, as happens, article led to article, reference to reference, the Pacific War led me to the war in Europe, the rise of Fascism, the war at home. I assembled fact upon fact about battles, generals, leaders, conferences, and every other relevant bit of information I could find. When, finally, I had to start writing and organizing all of this, I kept asking myself, Where do I begin? The invasion of Poland? The Spanish Civil War? The invasion of Manchuria?

My experience with this assignment has made me reflect, not just about World War II, but about writers and editors whose job it is to fashion a product designed to transmit information concisely and efficiently. While so much of our work is interwoven with technology, always, it begins with people asking questions. What was this about? Who was involved? What did it mean? I made all those facts fit upon their required electronic pages. Happily, upon completion, I was left with yet another question: What next?

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Online Classroom

By Tamzin Mitchell, Intern

As technology continues to develop, getting cheaper, faster and more versatile, more and more courses are being taught partially or exclusively online. Virtual classes have innumerable benefits such as no commute, the ability to learn on your own time (and often at your own pace), and multiple options ranging from typing classes to full degree programs.

And yet I would argue that virtual classrooms can never fully replace live classrooms. Although I readily admit to the importance that online programs can have--take, for example, Edinburgh Business School's recent move to offer scholarships to 250 African students for their online M.B.A. program--I also see downfalls. I've taken my fair share of online classes, primarily graduate school courses, and they've never quite measured up. To be fair, my basis of comparison is a small liberal arts college--I've never been in a class so large that the professor didn't know my name--but even with that in mind I wonder whether students taking all of their courses online are missing out.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Private Tutoring: Worth the Cost?

By Caitlin Dwyer, Sales and Marketing Assistant

With the school year just beginning, it has become clear that there is one American industry that seems wholly unaffected by the recession: private tutoring. While spending and employment is down in most areas, parental spending on tutors is growing at a rate of more than 5 percent a year, according to the Education Industry Association. According to Sandi Ayaz, executive director of the National Tutoring Association, the number of tutors certified by her organization has grown by 18 percent each of the last five years.

In Manhattan, private tutoring can cost anywhere from $85 to $450 dollars per hour. The average rate in the rest of the country is $45 to $65 per hour. More affordable options exist, including tutoring centers and online-only platforms, for those without the disposable income to spend thousands of dollars a month on private tutoring.

While the necessity for extra help outside of the classroom is clear, some worry that such industries disproportionately favor the socioeconomic classes who already hold significant advantage over their less-wealthy counterparts. Whereas tutoring once served to help those children who are falling behind in a subject or are learning disabled, tutors are now being used to ensure a student's grades are equal to or above their peers' and to polish their college applications.

Students whose parents cannot afford to hire tutors are certainly at a disadvantage here, but Lloyd Thacker, a former college admissions officer and the executive director of the Education Conservancy, cautions that over-tutoring for students who do not need it may create just as much of a disadvantage: "Not only does it jeopardize your child's 'studenthood'-- those qualities that make learning happen--but someone finding your way for you and packaging you in the process jeopardizes your ability to be yourself."

Clearly, private tutoring plays a vitally important role in education. But, like many other things in American society, are we overdoing it a little bit?

Monday, January 10, 2011

Discarding the 'D'

By Alecia Eberhardt, Intern

Mount Olive School District in New Jersey is implementing a somewhat controversial new grading policy this year aimed towards raising standards and prompting student to work harder - they've eliminated 'D' grades. The only grades now available to students are A's, B's, C's and F's. Larrie Reynolds, superintendent, explained that students should not receive credit for a class that they did D-level work in.

There are, of course, strong opinions on both sides. Parents and teachers have high hopes that the new policy will push students to work towards the 'C,' knowing that if they don't, they will fail. Hopefully, this new policy will also create more prepared college students; since students will have to receive at least a 70 in a class in order to pass it, they will hopefully retain more of the information instead of just "getting by." Students are split in their opinions, with some frustrated and worried that they may not be able to reach the 'C' cutoff, and some agreeing that a 'D' is simply not an acceptable grade.

There is one possibility that is concerning - grade inflation. Is it possible that 'D' work will be graded as 'C' work, and 'F' work will remain the same? Failing a class can be devastating for a student; it can mean repeating a class, staying back a grade, summer or night school, or even not graduating. Will teachers choose to pass students who are getting high 60's with a 'C' because they don't want to fail the student? Is it possible that the school will appear to have students with a higher GPA's when those students are actually performing at lower standards?

Hopefully, the school will keep up its high standards and not allow grade inflation to occur. If the policy affects students as planned, Mount Olive will end up with a group of students that, despite failing a few things along the way, are more prepared for college and understand that anything less than 'C' work is just not satisfactory.

Monday, January 3, 2011

What is the Story?

By Richard Carson, PhD, Senior Editor

It was my delight for many years to teach introductory literature courses to first-year college students. An essential (and favorite) component of the curriculum was short and long fiction, and, for every selection we read, I basically asked one question: What is the story? Initial responses were quizzical looks at so basic a question followed by plot summaries. In time however, we discovered together that there were many stories because stories have many levels, and the challenge if not the joy was connecting with those levels.

I saw my job in those days as two-fold: to bring the text to the students and the students to the text. To do that was to bring about connections not only with plot, setting, and theme, but with cultures, history, other texts, authors' lives and, most importantly, students' lives. In a sense, I returned to that challenge recently when I was assigned the task of preparing a series of lesson plans on Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's classic novel Frankenstein: or, the New Prometheus. I had taught that novel several times, and I was excited to return to it because it had been one of those magical books that brought forth good work from even mediocre students, perhaps because it is a book that tells many stories.

To return to it now was to help teachers to help students connect with those stories. To that end, I developed objectives on basic structure, noting the three connected narratives of Walton, Victor, and the Creature. I created lessons that connected the novel to the life of the author, particularly noting her marriage to the radical Romantic poet and the role he played in the writing of the novel. I suggested ways for teachers to show how the novel connected to its culture in terms of the questions that it asked about the intersection between science, possibility, and responsibility. I proposed projects that connected the novel to our culture by exploring examples of film and theatre. And I outlined writing activities that connected the novel to students' own lives and questions, questions about discovery and category, looks and perception, innocence and guilt.

Both as editor and as English teacher, I have had one basic philosophy: We teach our specialized subjects to human beings. Teaching specialized subjects now involves addressing state and core standards, preparing students for college entrance and AP exams, and, fundamentally, providing background and training in a variety of disciplines and skills. But, the recipients of our efforts are, ultimately, human beings, young people with ideas, questions, needs and goals. We have much to give each other. We have so many stories to tell.