Monday, February 10, 2014

I was glad to have the chance to review Time4Writing, because it caused me to review my own paradigms about teaching and learning writing, and to consider the advantages and drawbacks of automated learning systems. My daughter completed the 8-week program for Elementary Paragraph Writing, in 4 weeks (which is simply the faster track, and a reasonable goal for any participant who feels comfortable completing an assignment per day), so I am reviewing it now, while the experience is still fresh in my mind.

The appeal of this program lay primarily in its representation of convenience to the parent, that their child would learn something without the need for direct parental involvement. I myself hoped that this program would improve my awareness of how writing is taught, since my memory of being taught writing as a child, is vague. In that, it has succeeded. By analyzing its process for strengths and weaknesses, I was able to define my own standards and goals for teaching writing to my children.

To parents who might purchase this course in the hopes of having such a hands-off experience, I would warn that the quality of the instruction suffers from the nature of automation. It often felt more like satisfying the conditions of an algorithm, than learning good writing, and she had to produce writing that was of lesser quality than she was capable of, in order to comply exactly with the directions as stated.

In at least one instance, adherence to a standard that calls for individual judgement on the part of the teacher, resulted in the teacher making erroneous corrections. Below, the teacher's corrections are given in purple text. Note that the teacher wanted my daughter to remove commas that actually belong in the sentences:

When I taste dense, chocolatey brownies,[no comma needed] I think they are yummy.
When I go through the green forest,[no comma needed] it smells fresh.
When I go to the ocean,[no comma needed] I love the rushing sound of the shimmering waves.

Here are the same sentences, with the teacher's corrections applied:

When I taste dense, chocolatey brownies I think they are yummy.
When I go through the green forest it smells fresh.
When I go to the ocean I love the rushing sound of the shimmering waves.

The problems are self-evident.

I emailed the teacher, and she was very prompt and professional in replying. She even provided the standard she was given to grade with, that she applied in this case:

  "It is permissible, even commonplace, to omit a comma after most brief introductory elements — a prepositional phrase, an adverb, or a noun phrase." 

Note, if you will, that had this same rule been applied without good judgement, to the rule itself, the rule would read:

"It is permissible, even commonplace to omit a comma..." Note the run-on aspect it takes on, without the necessary second comma. There was little consistency to application of the rule, for when my daughter deliberately omitted commas in order to comply with the teacher's indicated preferences, she was again corrected, this time in the opposite manner. 'Permissible' in some situations, does not equal correct in all; the judgement of a competent writer is necessary to guide the learner to good writing. Since the teacher's email correspondence with me demonstrated good writing ability, I could only assume that the pace at which she had to work, or the volume of submissions she had to assess, interfered with her normal ability.

Additionally, I found it necessary to intervene to help my daughter make sense of the paragraph development assignment. She was required to write supporting detail sentences before developing a topic sentence for a paragraph, as if growing a tree from the leaves, inward. When she wasn't able to write supporting details without a defined topic, I instructed her to phrase a topic sentence first, and then brainstorm supporting details, next. With that traditional approach to organizing thoughts, she was able to craft her paragraph nicely. 

Since both of us were eager by this time, to be done with the course, I did not email to ask why they required writing supporting detail sentences in advance of writing the topic, so I cannot present their rationale here, but I do not believe in any case, that I would have been persuaded as to its advantages.

The teacher is not accountable for the shortcomings of the system in which she works, but this mechanized form of packaging educational services is a meager substitute for meaningful interchange with someone who can take the time to encourage the best work from each student instead of adequate adherence to a disembodied set of rules. I do not doubt the teacher's dedication or personal worthiness, and would not want to hurt her feelings, or the feelings of any teacher who works hard under systems that pit profit and efficiency against their desire to engage in the inspired, personal teaching that first moved them to enter the profession.

But as anyone who would point out that you get what you pay for would say, expecting the value-menu fast-food chain fare to pass as gourmet fare, is ignoring the reality of what we give up when we look for a compromise on quality in the name of expediency. Since I did not pay for this course, I most certainly got an excellent value for the money.

To be fair, it did give her a challenge and an opportunity for growth, and as a result of this experience, she is more committed to private tutoring from me at home, and to applying herself conscientiously to her ongoing studies. What I took from the experience was a clearer idea of how to go about preparing her to write essays, with a better view for what did and did not work for her. That alone makes it a moderate value, in my mind, though I would warn against expecting it to serve as a complete replacement for the parent teacher.