The internet changed my life as a teacher in many ways, most of them good. But it also caused me a bit of angst for a while. For years I moaned and complained in the staffroom about what the Internet had done to my ability to get students to think critically about their texts. Assignment after assignment was full of information that I was sure did not come from their own heads. I wasted hours trying to catch them cheating too. Some I caught with their hands in the Sparksnotes cookie jar, but others were more elusive. I knew they didn't write or think of something on their own, but damn it, I couldn't find it. Unfortunately, I spent way too much time and mental energy worrying about it.
STUDENTS ARE USING SITES LIKE SPARKSNOTES AS A CRUTCH
The big problem for me, still, is the frequency with which they use online sources to do their thinking for them when they are reading a text. If they are asked to think about character or theme, they dive for the keyboard rather than doing the mental work needed to do the analysis. I always implore them to stay away from these sites, using the analogy that you can't build your muscles by watching someone else lift weights, often to no avail.
I've done a lot of thinking about how to deal with it, but before I tell you some of my solutions and ideas, I want you to think about a few things. Stay with me.
I'm pretty sure that most of you, like me, find the marking load the one of most onerous parts of our job. Those piles of paper can seem pretty overwhelming sometimes, but we plow through them, because we know that assessment and feedback are important parts of the teaching and learning process. But...imagine if you had a machine that could help you with your marking...
Now don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that we just say, "go ahead. Find the answers online." I'm just saying that we are fighting a losing battle if we think they won't try to get some digital help when they are busy and tired too (or extremely stressed over the mark they want to get).
So what do we do?
Here's what I do now:
1. TEACH LITERARY ANALYSIS THROUGH INDEPENDENT READING:
I begin every semester with Reader's Workshop, and use it as a way for students to build their analytical skills for the full class novel(s) we will do later. You can check out my earlier posts to see how I do this. There are several reasons why I start with independent reading, but one is that it gives me a better chance to get students analyzing on their own. This is because when kids choose their own books, they are much more likely to actually read them, and are therefore less likely to head to the computer to get the info they need to cover up. And, if they do, they will find a lot less help for more contemporary books than the typical ones we do in English class.
I do a lot of short assignments with Reader's Workshop -- responses about how setting affects the novel, how the author develops character, lessons learned from reading, favourite quotes, etc. They also have several small group discussions or seminars. All of these things give the students chances to develop their analytical muscles, so they can feel more confident to use these muscles later in the semester.
2. USE FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT:
Students turn to online sites for a lot of reasons, but one is because they lack the confidence to do it themselves. Another is the stress they feel over their marks. Formative assessment takes that pressure off and allows them the chance to try without affecting their marks. This works especially well when you pair it with in class assignments. Ask them to respond to a prompt about the text that requires a short analytical response. They have to write on the spot, without any digital aid, and so must use their own brains. Collect the responses and point out one or two areas in the writing that were well done and one or two that need improvement. Then, give them a chance to try again -- still for feedback only. When I started using formative assessment, despite my doubts, I found a huge shift in my students' desire to try. They knew that their attempts would not affect their average and so most were more willing to take risks.
3. CHANGE THE QUESTIONS:
If my old assignments inspired visits to Shmoop and Sparksnotes, then clearly I needed to change them. If I ask them to an assignment that includes ideas that are easily accessible online, then I'm just asking for it. However, I still believe in teaching them to write literary essays, especially those students who plan to go on to college. After going around in circles with this dilemma, I've found a solution that seems to work: essays that ask students to make connections between texts and/or to real life. For example, when I do A Separate Peace, we do some research into the psychology of insecurity, and students need to use this info (paraphrased properly, of course) in an essay that illustrates their understanding of Gene and/or Finny's character. My grade twelve class reads Animal Farm and Macbeth. They decide what the two texts teach them about human nature and then they have to find real life examples that teach the same lesson. I know they can still turn to the internet to get help, but these questions require them to at least use the information in a way that requires their own thinking.
4. ALLOW THEM TO USE ONLINE INFORMATION??
This point leads me to a place where I'm not yet comfortable. I'm still mulling this one over: if we know that they are going to use these online sources, should we just cry uncle, tell them it's ok, then teach them how to incorporate it properly into their work? If we know they are using this info, should we continue to delude ourselves or insist that they cite it? For example, with my Macbeth/Animal Farm assignment, even if they get some inspiration about how and why Macbeth did something, but they have to stitch it together with other ideas, all properly paraphrased and cited, is it not still a thinking exercise? I believe so, and yet I can't bring myself to go there. There's part of me who still foolishly believes that some of them don't know about all of these online helpers. Right. I'd love to hear what you think.
5. DO YOUR OWN RESEARCH:
Any time I come up with a new idea, I simply do what they do: I Google it. If there are plenty of "answers" out there, I know I need to change my direction. It makes zero sense to assign something that can easily be completed with a few mouse clicks and some paraphrasing.
So there's my two cents. I certainly do not think I have "the" answer, and I continue to play around with ways to get my students to think. Please feel free to share any solutions you have come up with!