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Rose Porpora

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An English teacher for 30 years, Porpora has taught the past seven years at Chatham High School in the upscale community of Chatham, N.J. Here she talks about why she believes her traditional way of teaching still matters, how technology has made her feel "a bit like a dinosaur," and why she has misgivings about the Internet's impact on students' abilities to learn and achieve. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on June 5, 2007.

Tell me a little bit about the evolution [in teaching], how it's changed, in your experience.

I started teaching 30 years ago, and it was easier then. I think the kids had nicer lives in terms of simplicity. There was more innocence. As the years have gone on, the expectations of teachers and of students have changed. I asked my kids a few months ago what their biggest worry was -- and they were freshmen, 15 years old -- and they all said getting into good colleges. I think maybe 25 years ago they may have said the baseball game or whether they could go to a concert, but they're just very, very consumed with where they're going to end up.

Why?

I think there's just a lot of pressure on them, a lot of expectations. Somehow they've come to the understanding that they'll only be happy or successful if they get into a name school, that that's going to guarantee some kind of future or happiness for them. ...

How does this pressure affect them?

I think it's distracted them away from things that might make them happier. They might be happier doing other things after school, and instead they're trying to do the right thing and create a good profile for themselves: be in good clubs and solid activities and many sports. Or maybe they would really choose to do something else -- maybe not take as high a level course as they take, maybe pursue another discipline, but they feel they should. So you're making decisions based on that one goal instead of answering to more personal needs. ...

Other teachers have described a culture in which parents and students are so invested in good grades that there can be more intervention by parents in terms of grading. ...

Many parents are very watchful of the grades, because they know how important they are. [But] sometimes parents will just say to me, "Kids need to be kids; a B is OK." So it's mixed. There are certain parents ... if it's a B-plus as opposed to an A-minus, they want to know why, and what does their student have to do to get a better grade, and they supervise it. ...

Kids can become praise junkies, and when you try and show them that something can be better and that they need to work on something, grow as a reader, grow as a writer, grow as a mathematician, then it's very hard for them to accept that, and they're very wounded by it. That's a part of growing up that they need to know, that you grow with honesty. If you put a smiley face and "very good" and everyone gets an A, then what does it all mean? ...

Spending a day in this school, we were really struck by how in many of the classes, it seemed there wasn't a teacher standing up talking to the kids. They were on computers or they were involved in interactive exercises.

You can pass any classroom, like you did today, and see all kinds of things going on: group work, technology. Some days there will be a very traditional class with the teacher up front and kids listening and taking notes. There is a lot of varied teaching going on here.

I don't think the kids are missing anything. ... I don't think we've compromised too much, because I think at the end of the day they're all forced to look at something closely, whether it's math, whether it's reading, whether it's science.

Does the school or the school district have a philosophy about this that's been articulated to the teachers? Or does each teacher teach the way that comes naturally to them?

There's a lot of freedom for methods as long as they're working, and I think there's a lot of trust. I think the community has come to trust us very much. We just made changes this year; next year we're eliminating our midterm because we think that there are better, more effective ways to assess the students. They accepted our proposal, and I think that was huge. ...

When did you first notice that the world had changed? Was there a moment?

One very significant realization that I had regarding technology was when I realized that I was taking a risk as a teacher anytime I assigned a paper outside the classroom, that it was now open to the world; that what I received in class may not necessarily be what the student could do. So there was this reliability issue now, this question of trust that I had to take into consideration with every assignment I gave. ...

In order to make it an equal playing field, most of my assessments now are in the classroom. They're in front of me, and it's pen to paper. ... I'll give them an idea maybe a few days before about what the focus will be, but when they come in, it's an assignment that they just get -- for example, an analysis of a passage on a certain page -- and then I'll ask them an idea to focus on, and they have to write it right then and there. So whatever they can come up with in 57 minutes is their essay. ...

Is there a loss?

I think there's a loss in that the other type of assessment allows them to be more patient. It allows them time to absorb, to hear their voice as a writer. So I think that's lost when we assess that way. ...

Do you trust them? Are they cheating?

I think most of the kids are honorable, I do. I think many of them are. Kids have always cheated throughout time. They're young; they have a lot of pressure on them. They sometimes probably panic and need to do something the easiest way, and it's so accessible to them. ...

It bothers you.

Oh, yeah, it bothers me. I feel like something's been taken from me as a teacher of language, as a teacher of the beauty of the word; that satisfaction that you always got from taking them from one place as a reader and writer to another place as a reader and writer. You want to hope that what they're giving you is theirs. I guess technology has threatened that, because how do you know? I mean, there was always the possibility of students using someone else's words, but now it's so accessible that we worry more as a faculty.

We talk about it all the time. It's become a sort of raison d'être to make sure that this doesn't happen. And we're trying everything that we can to keep the kids honest and just aware of how dangerous that habit can become if they start doing it, because then it gets easier and easier, and somewhere, sometime, it will probably catch up with them.

Has it changed the way you feel about teaching? About your own career?

Well, technology on the whole has made me feel like a bit of a dinosaur. My colleagues tease me, but I think in some ways I've been resistant to technology because subconsciously I'm trying to hold the reins on it. I don't want it to be completely taking over my teaching, what happens in my classroom. I don't think anything can replace certain experiences kids have with language. ...

Sometimes it can be painful to confront a text that is really difficult, but the difficulty's important; the painful process is important. And I think they have to do it. ... If we take that difficult process away and we don't let it happen and we replace it with something else, then how do students learn how to look at a State of the Union speech and see through a politician's language? How do they look at a film and see through the subtlety and patterns that are created and the language, the dialogue that's used, a pause, a hesitation, an actor's voice? Isn't that what they learn when they confront a difficult text and try to identify a writer's voice, a writer's diction? It even transfers into human relationships, reading people, identifying sincerity or phoniness. ...

For example, my students read Night by Elie Wiesel, and they loved it. Then they did presentations on the book afterward, and they involved beautiful music -- Nazi-approved music, Nazi-disapproved music, artwork done by Holocaust survivors -- and did PowerPoint presentations with text on the bottom with the music playing and the images on screen.

It was incredibly powerful in the classroom, but I don't think it would have been as powerful had they not worked really hard on the subtlety of the relationship Elie had with his father and understood how that became so important, almost as important as the Holocaust, as the book went on. ...

Do you feel your students are increasingly challenged by having to read difficult texts? Do you see a change, a lack of patience, a loss of attention span?

They eventually get there, but it's harder now. Shakespeare is hard; it's difficult. I have freshmen, so this was their first exposure to it, and I could tell that they really struggled with the language at first. It takes them a while to break through that, which I think was always the case. But I think now when everything is so immediate, it takes them a while longer to adjust to saying, all right, I have to read this two or three times to figure out what Shakespeare is saying. ...

So if I'm a ninth-grader and I have a paper on Romeo and Juliet, what could I do, theoretically?

You could just Google Romeo and Juliet. You could go to all kinds of sources. You could go to literary analysis that was once only on the shelves in the library. Universities where professors have to publish their papers are accessible.

It's absolutely endless, and it's a wide field, you know. ... It can be anyone from an ordinary Joe staying home raising their children to scholarly writings that are available to them at the touch of a keyboard.

What is SparkNotes?

SparkNotes are summaries. They are ... some very well-educated people who publish summaries of classics. You can get a synopsis of every chapter, an analysis of every chapter, a character study of every character. You can get comparisons and contrasts of characters. Words used within the novel are isolated. It's a very sanitized breakdown of a literary piece. ...

It's not like reading the book. I mean, if you wanted to ask a question that is much more subtle or sophisticated, a student might be hard-pressed to answer that having only read SparkNotes. But it's a basic outline of the whole text.

Students use it?

I'm sure they do. ... There's a rule here at the high school that they're not supposed to use SparkNotes or any other kind of study guide for an assigned reading, but I'm sure they do. I guess if it's a really struggling student and they're having trouble keeping something straight, it's not a very bad thing to do to read SparkNotes. But once you get past that point, they really shouldn't be using it. ...

Do you think that kids today ... are reading as much as they did? What's your guess?

I'd have to say no. I think that they're not reading outside readings as much as they used to when I first started to teach. There's so much else to do. It's more fun to be online. It's more fun to listen to your iPod or talk on your phone or watch DVDs. I mean, this was not accessible years ago. So when you're tired at the end of the day, what do you do? Do you open up a novel, or do you go online and chat with your friends? A lot of spare time has been rechanneled into doing things that don't involve reading. ...

Do you think they're reading their assigned reading?

I think most of them are. I do. ...

Would you be able to tell?

Most of the time I think I can, yeah. If they're not participating a whole lot in our discussions or just coming up with sort of superficial ideas, if what they write about is sort of superficial, then I know that either they did a cursory reading or they skipped parts. But we can usually tell.

What is Turnitin.com?

Turnitin.com is a program that the school has installed here. The students have to send their document, their paper, to their teacher through Turnitin, and then the teacher can identify how much of the paper is from somewhere else. It has different colors, so a certain color indicates that it is from somewhere else, but it's acceptable because it's quoted material and the student has put it in quotations. Then there's another color that will come up on their writing to indicate that it was from somewhere else, but it's not quoted material. So you can, to some extent, discern how much of a paper is authentic.

Does it give you some peace of mind?

Yeah, some, but you know there's always the possibility that the idea was there and the language is changed. ...

I wanted to ask you about penmanship and spelling and all the things that used to be so important. Are they important anymore?

Well, I know that when most of the students write, it's not script anymore. It's printing. So most of their papers are printed, and there's an informality that they tend to use in their expression that we try very hard to discourage. ... When you are corresponding with a faculty member, or a professor in the future, you need to use standard English, because there's still a place for it in the world. When we stop expecting that from them, all hell could break loose, because they'll think that that's just the way you write.

Do kids need to learn how to spell? Is it important anymore?

They do need to learn how to spell. That goes hand-in-hand with grammar and the way they express themselves. I mean, are we going to get to a point where you don't even recognize the words that they're creating if spelling doesn't matter? ... It's a compromise of language, a compromise of the power of words.

Do your students know how to spell, compared to the students you had 30 years ago?

Maybe not as well as back then. There was more emphasis on spelling back then. I think IMing and e-mail has contributed to the deterioration of spelling. They're spelling phonetically or quickly; it's a little bit jumbled and fragmented. I think they have the message that there are no rules from that activity, and that transfers into the classroom. So they have to, again, change their habit and do a reversal, and that's hard for them. It's hard for them to switch gears.

Can your students really focus, the way your students 20 years ago could? Have there been any instances you can describe in which you've seen a change?

... I think there are more students who struggle with the ability to focus. Asking them to come into a classroom and be open and receptive and be quiet and think in an organized way is difficult for a lot of students. When they are so overexposed to technology, the quickness of things, the immediate responses that they get and how answers come to them so easily, when you have to reverse that and have them be quiet and give answers and carve out meaning and label ideas, I think for some students it's become harder. ...

Is there what you could call a digital divide among the faculty here -- some faculty members who are more into it and others who are not? And where do you fall in that spectrum?

... There are definitely some teachers who have been identified as real pros; they are just so technically savvy that they're the leaders. They are helping the administration; they help the kids. We have a group of kids here, they're kind of like a tech SWAT team. They're working with the technology people who run the school technology, and they go into classrooms and solve problems. And it's amazing. ... But there's definitely an identification of who's really good at it on the faculty as well as in the student body.

And you?

Oh, I definitely fall into the very limited technology user. I do the basic things. I can play a DVD in my class to support a text. ... But I'm a very slow learner, and my mind just doesn't work that way. I think to some extent, as I said before, subconsciously I don't want it to be that much a part of my teaching, so therefore I'm holding back a little bit on how willing I am to embrace it.

How do you think the kids look at you?

I think sometimes they're surprised at what I can't do. But I feel that they really respect me as a teacher for what I know. ... I feel sometimes like I should know how to do certain things that come so easily to them. ... There are times when my students know how to do things that I can't do technologically in the classroom, and I just let them take over, and they're naturals. ... In some ways it gives them a chance to know something I don't know and for them to teach me something. ...

Do you ever feel like you don't speak their language?

Not quite that yet. Sometimes they'll throw out a technological term that I'm not familiar with. But I think it's more frightening than that in some ways. It's not the term that I don't know; it's more the way they think that I don't know about. I don't know what it's like not to be able to reflect on something quietly in my mind. I wonder sometimes what their quiet time is with themselves, which I think is so essential to development. Do they hear themselves? Do they think deeply about something, or is their iPod always on or their phone always to the ear or their hands always on a keyboard? When is the time that you're walking home from school and you're not listening to something or talking on your phone but observing and thinking and reflecting?

So it's not so much the tools that concern me or the words that concern me; it's what's going on inside of them that concerns me. ... That frightens me a little bit, because I think that plays itself out in other ways. Are they really going to be able to be in touch with their feelings, be in touch with just different impulses, or is it constantly being cut off and shut out? When does it finally get to surface? And that, I think, is a danger with technology.

I've been asking kids if they keep diaries, ... and none of them have a diary. I thought that was very striking, that whole change in the concept of privacy. I wonder if you've noticed that.

A lot of them have online diaries that everyone can see, so the thoughts that used to be precious to them are now exposed to everyone. And it makes them so vulnerable; it really does. ... I think there has to be some kind of connection to themselves that they don't give away just because it's theirs; they own it. What if they regret saying something about themselves, or [it] falls into the hands of the wrong person? It's grist for the mill. So I think that's dangerous for them.

You're not that long from retirement, and I'm curious about ... how you feel nearing the end of your teaching career. Are you going with a feeling of regret? Do you feel you would have kept teaching if things were different?

There are times when technology is so important, and when new things come up that we need to learn, or something happens that has broken a trust because of technology, my immediate response is: "My time is over. This is too much for me. It's not nearly the educational arena that I entered into." Do I regret? No, no. I feel as though I'm fighting a good fight, that teaching my students this literature is more important now than ever. ...

Do I think that if I stayed in it a whole lot longer I might lose my value? That's a possibility. I don't know how long this will last, where I can present my teaching in the way I think it needs to be taught. ... I'm trying to hang on to what I think is the most important part of what I do, but I don't know where it's going. I don't know. ...

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posted january 22, 2008

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