Senior English

Senior English

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2023-24: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 1:00-2:30 PM Eastern

Methods and Expectations

Some unabashedly subjective and prescriptive comments about how our online courses can and should work, with special attention to English offerings, for the particular scrutiny of parents (though students should read them too)

During my first decade of teaching online, I have had one of the most rewarding (and exhausting) experiences of my life, and have 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 would have hoped, and there are (I like to think) some lessons we can pick up to improve things for the coming year. I have gathered together a few thoughts here about who and what we are (and what are not), where we're going, and how things can be made to work to the best advantage of all concerned. I am hoping that it will be useful to pass these on now, so that everyone can understand what we are about from the outset, and can mesh more successfully with the program. 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 your kids 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 extracurricular activities for them (well, maybe a few) — 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 much of what 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, everyone needs to know that the basic model at the heart of this enterprise is and remains homeschooling. That is to say just this: your kids are your own students. 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, I think, 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 for you. If it does, turn, 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. Because ultimately the title is not all that important (a title won't teach your kids), and all my input — which I like to think is of genuine value — is still nothing compared to yours.

So, you say, that's all very nice. But what does it really 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 Barnes and Noble. But what I see is that this is like that three-legged stool we keep hearing about. Lacking any one of the 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 a sufficiently bright and well-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 want 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 two 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 or unconnected to the process. 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 an IRC 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. (Even the classroom is imperfect in this regard — as witness the less than complete involvement of students in many schools today.)

So what do I recommend? Just the obvious, really. That IRC log may need to be re-interpreted for your kids a bit to help bring it into focus. You can probably do that. You need to talk to your kids about what they are reading. You need to bounce ideas back and forth with them. You need to grapple with the ideas alongside them and see that their thinking is challenged every day, not just once a week. You need to review their writing; probe their understanding; test their grasp of what they have read.

This may require you to do some learning yourself. I understand that, but (if I may make so bold) I think it should not be a waste of your time. In my English classes, at least, 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 here has been in the slightest dumbed down for anyone. Some of it may represent work you haven't confronted before 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. I do.

When it's working, this all becomes a family enterprise in which I am the least important player. But I stand ready to help out when and where I can. If you have questions — either to help your kids or just on your own — write me and ask. Several parents have done just that, and have really challenged my thinking on a number of things, and I like to think they have gotten something out of our exchanges in return. I encourage you to do this. 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 it's fine with me if you want to — we don't particularly have anything to hide). I certainly don't want you to try to dominate or take over the class: we do have a certain amount of ground to cover, and probably know best how we can do so. But the fact is that 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 on their journey. In any case — do what is right for the occasion and the individual student. But by all means 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 hours a week, as a rule — more in some specific cases, but still not the five that a regular school theoretically affords. If you were to read a log of each class, you could probably get the gist of one week'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, especially 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. Yet this is, I submit, a totally backward representation of what school is for, and tends to put way 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.

First, let me remind you that Scholars Online a) is not a degree-granting institution like a college or university; and b) is not an accredited source of high school diplomas. We will give grades if you require them. Perhaps someday it will disappear. When it goes, the last vestige of the notion of school as performance for the teacher will disappear — and not a moment too soon, because really, the goal of the process should not be to satisfy, gratify, con, gull, or impress us. 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? 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 mere collector.

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

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. As a teacher of these courses, I can do this to some extent in class conversations; the test scores, too 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 impossible to distinguish the student who is merely quietly soaking up everything (and there are a few) from the one who is deeply (but quietly) confused. From this side of the screen, both look exactly the same: a name on a list. Those lists do not exude ideas, do not show flashes of recognition, do not even really tell me whether a student is in the room and attending to what is going on, or watching television, 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 home processes for 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.