The Legend of The Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail, classic computer game of yesteryear, started in 1971 as three student teachers struggled to get their students engaged. Hello, pedagogy. The game started on a teletype machine available in a janitor’s closet in a junior high school. Interestingly enough, the cold war inspired the US to create grants to out-pace Russian technological innovation. As such there was a boon in PC manufacturing, leading Minnesota public schools to be one of Apple’s first large-scale commercial customers, putting 500 Apple II’s in classrooms across the state. And since the game came on a diskette it was shared easily.

oregon_trailThe game came to be the cult classic it is now when programmers who’d played the game as kids added graphics and retooled the plot a bit, coining the phrase, “You have died of dysentery.” The educational innovation of The Oregon Trail is that it gave students instant feedback, which served to keep students engaged and more importantly learning.

While The Oregon Trail started in a history classroom, it’s effect on getting millions of students using computers is the genius. In fact, you can now relive the magic with an app. In 2009 an iOS version of the game was launched, with already over 3 million downloads. Mental Floss does a lovely job recounting the legend of The Oregon Trail. Hop over to their post for the rest of the story.

Trying to Write

Writing is sometimes difficult and messy, even for professional writers. I recently attended a talk about writing instruction in academia with fellow writers and writing teachers. When asked, “Who here likes to write?” not a single hand went up. This isn’t surprising because, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, the pleasure in writing isn’t in the act itself, but in the finished product. Writing itself isn’t always a fun activity.

Compounding this is the persistent myth that writing must be perfect. This myth of perfection, that every word must be the exact right word, makes an already trying task even more difficult. I teach a writing class that focuses on style and method, and this misconception is one of the major hurdles that many of my students face. At the start of semester, many just want to be told the magic formula for easily writing well.

As most writers will admit, such a formula doesn’t exist. What do exist are methods to address lack of fun and the intimidation of perfection. In his book Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age, Kenneth Goldsmith describes an assignment he gives his students: choose a piece of writing by someone else and simply type it all out. While Goldsmith uses this assignment to address issues of remix and creativity, it’s also a great way to get students writing.

The act of forcing fingers through the motions of stringing words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs, of experiencing language and syntax and punctuation in a way that removes the pressure of authorship allows students to focus on style: how the words flow together, how the sentences are balanced in structure and rhythm, how the writer’s voice is reflected in their stylistic choices.

Writing is a difficult process and coming to terms with this allows us to savor the joy of seeing our words laid out on the page all the more. In the classroom, this activity sets the stage for discussing style along with writing fears, invention techniques, and ethos as writers. The focus on reproducing writing gets students past the anxieties of the looming blank page and ready to write on their own. It helps them to develop realistic expectations for what the writing process feels like: sometimes tedious, sometimes difficult, rarely perfect. It gets them started, which is often the hardest aspect of writing. That’s why this activity is also a great trick for all writers who are struggling with writer’s block. Reproducing someone else’s writing can distract you long enough to get creatively unstuck and get to what most would agree is the pleasurable aspect of writing: the act of having written.

Angela Shetler is an alumna of the Professional Writing program at Michigan State University. She currently teaches writing and rhetoric at the University of Sydney, Australia. Fueled by coffee, you can find her tweeting at @ashetler and writing for beyondwords, a blog for professional writers, editors, and designers.

Teaching with Technology

We talk a lot about technology in the classroom, but what about the classroom in technology? Professor Elliot Soloway at the University of Michigan and Professor Chris Dede at Harvard discuss how to transition a lesson plan into the digital age.

Young students using iPads.

Image via Flickr

“I’ve never seen technology moving faster than mobile learning,” said Dede, who teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Between developing applications and having answers at the touch of a finger through the internet, kids are learning in a faster-paced environment than ever before. Teaching pedagogies need to adapt with this shift as well; for example, they discuss how using flash cards, staples of older lesson plans, for an iPad is a waste.

“We are not exploiting the affordances of the new technology to give kids new kinds of learn-by-doing activities,” says Soloway. Using tools like tablets in the classroom are viewed as something kids can do when they’re done with their actual class work. Shelly Pasnik, director of the Center for Children and Technology counteracts this idea.

“When it’s really integrated into a sequence of activities, kids are moving between screens given what’s developmentally appropriate, they’re playing games. Some experiences use screens, then manipulatives or other materials, they’re engaged in conversations with peers and adults in the room. That’s where it works,” says Pasnik.

Resources like iPads, tablets, and laptops have the ability to make learning a multimedia, engaging, and interactive experience, but only if they are integrated into a new teaching style.

Why Digital Writing Matters in Education

Writing teachers (like me and perhaps like you) have been caught in a tight spot for some time now. On the one hand, computing technologies have radically transformed the meaning of “writing.” On the other hand, high stakes assessments and their impact on teaching have limited what counts as writing in school.

As a teacher, I feel pulled in different directions. Thankfully, there are some good educational resources available. The National Writing Project recently published Because Digital Writing Matters: Improving Student Writing in Online and Multimedia Environments by Dànielle Nicole DeVoss, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, and Troy Hicks. In the spirit of their book, I am going to take up the issue of why digital writing matters, focusing on two issues:

  1. Digital writing challenges what counts as writing and reveals the gap between how writing works in the world and how we teach it in schools
  2. Digital writing platforms and services are ways to innovate instruction and learning (more…)

What It Means to be an Educator

Head shot of Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut, via

The most telling sign that marks a life-changing educator is when his/her students still remember their professor years after the class ends. Suzanne McConnell was a student of Kurt Vonnegut’s in 1965, and was so profoundly impacted by his teaching style that she held onto one of his assignments all these decades.

McConnell recalls that he “wrote his course assignments in the form of letters, as a way of speaking personally to each member of the class.” This one in particular was for a term paper in their “Form of Fiction” course.

In describing his requirements, Vonnegut stated, “I want you to adore the Universe, to be easily delighted, but to be prompt as well with impatience with those artists who offend your own deep notions of what the Universe is or should be.” What is important about education, then, is to help guide students’ ability to be aware of the world and the part they play in it. The professor’s role is about presenting details of life, and then teaching students how to ask questions, and to make their own conclusions.

An additional part to his assignment was for his students to give a letter grade to the short stories read in class. “The grades should be childishly selfish and impudent measures of your own joy or lack of it,” Vonnegut wrote. “I don’t care what grades you give. I do insist that you like some stories better than others.”

And this is the key to this teaching philosophy: it’s not the letter grade that ultimately matters, but rather the opinions—and the knowledge of how to intelligently form them—that carries students throughout their lives. The professors who teach in this manner are the ones who will not be forgotten.

What is Remedial Writing?

“Remediation is not new, and unless we have an unprecedented transformation of our social order and educational institutions, it will be with us for some time to come. As long as we continue to hold onto the ideal of educational opportunity, we will need remediation to help correct an imperfect educational system” (Mike Rose Back to School 96).

What are we talking about when we say remedial writing classes? The writing programs, students, and content of these classes are the subject of much debate and good, thoughtful work.

You can trace a history of remediation from the words used to describe it over the last few decades: bonehead English, basic writing, preparatory writing, and writing intensive. You can see the types of learning and assumptions about students’ abilities that are implied in each of these names. Bonehead English brings to mind skills and drills, worksheets, grammar and red ink. Basic writing conjures correct simple sentences, moving on to the well-formed paragraph, perhaps advancing as far as the five-paragraph essay for entrance exams. Preparatory writing classes suggest that students are being prepared to write longer essays, perhaps through an emphasis on the writing process. In these classes, genres like the personal narrative open a sequence of assignments that perhaps moves students into defining, serializing, comparing, and, finally, analyzing—all as a practice run for the college writing class. And writing intensive classes? Think preparatory writing and add to it more contact hours and longer page-length requirements. (more…)

On Experience

Last spring I taught the “portfolio workshop” class in the Professional Writing major. A core experience in that class is the preparation of a portfolio and the presentation of that work. Over time, these presentations have started to become more about the person and less about the work. My view is that this change is for the good. I am much more interested in how our students have grown as human beings than I am in particular communication skills or examples.

My interest in their development as human beings is connected to two longer-standing concerns of mine as a teacher: (1) an interest in learning (change), and (2) a curiosity about “having a rhetoric” as a meaningful outcome of a program of study like ours. The two are connected but not obviously so. And I don’t intend to take up either here except to say that both ask me to think about what facilitates learning or leads to one having a rhetoric.

As I sat and listened to students give presentations on who they were at the end of their time with us, I was struck by how many identified certain types of experiences as meaningful. Almost none of these experiences happened in a classroom or were curricular. Nearly every experience was extra or co-curricular. Study abroad in London. Study away in New York. The Poetry Center. Internships. Clubs, odd projects, and so on.

The value of moments (like an internship) doesn’t reside in their “content” or “curriculum” either. It is true that these moments play a key role in structuring experience. But something else happens in these moments that enables change for these students. I’m not precisely sure what it is except that I am convinced that an essential ingredient is that “the experience” asks something of our students that is challenging if not also a bit scary. Meaningful experiences make students uncomfortable.

I could have been upset given that only a few of our students named our classrooms, our assignments, or our curriculum as key moments of change. But I wasn’t. We can take some credit for making transformative experiences possible for our students. And of course, they are smart enough to take advantage of these opportunities. My point, however, is that there are certain sorts of experiences that facilitate change, some of them life-altering, and not all of them happen in our classrooms. Indeed, very few of them happen in our classrooms. Good academic programs, however, enable students to understand the world as a learning platform and to go into that world to transform and be transformed.

From edudemic: Students Want Technology!

It’s no secret that technology is popular. Its uses in the classroom can be extremely valuable and a new study by Educause says that students enjoy and learn in a technologically enhanced environment. Have a look at the article and see what this could mean for writing teachers. Incorporating more online resources in addition to books may be the way to go if this study holds true.