Tuesday, December 23, 2008


I've been trying for years to find, or think of, an antonym for the word resourceful. Dictionaries and thesauri are not much help in this regard, although I usually don't feel the need to consult these sources when it comes to the meaning and usage of words (thank you, Jeff Kraus). I don't think resourceless is actually a word, but even if it is I don't think it works as an antonym for resourceful.

What resourceful means, as I understand it, is: having the ability and inclination to find ways to acquire, discover or accomplish something when the easiest, most convenient and/or most obvious way of doing so is foreclosed or unavailable. In other words, the resourceful person is able to do what he needs to do, find what he needs to find, get what he needs to get even if it's not easy or convenient, if conditions are not ideal, if he has to go out of his way to do it, or if his initial strategy fails. (Resourceless doesn't really work as an antonym because it implies that resources aren't available, don't exist, or that the person simply doesn't have them, not that he is disinclined to use them or seek them out.)

As someone who has spent most of his adult life dealing with various inconveniences, unforeseen obstacles, sudden changes of fortune and sundry annoyances both large and small, I have learned to be resourceful and appreciate the value of resourcefulness. What I haven't been able to do is find a word, or even a descriptive phrase, that would describe someone who is the opposite of resourceful; someone who sees the easiest, most convenient and/or most obvious way of doing or finding something as the only possible way, and when that way is foreclosed or unavailable, leaps to the conclusion that it cannot be done and either relieves himself of the obligation or seeks to be relieved.

I bring this up for obvious reasons; because so many of the students I've encountered in my years of teaching are the opposite of resourceful, whatever word or phrase one might use to describe them. I've touched on this to some degree in previous posts, for example:

- The "printer-related excuse" farce. Even though "My printer doesn't work" is an obvious lie, even if it were true the resourceful student would either get it working, such as by reinstalling software drivers or replacing ink cartridges, find another printer, whether at a friend's house, parent's workplace, public library, school computer lab, etc., or as a last resort hand-write the assignment. Most kids don't do that. Their own printer is the easiest and most convenient means of producing the assignment, and if that fails, they "can't do it."

- The "no Internet"/"no PC" nonsense. I had a student the other day who lost the assignment packet I had previously distributed, which was one of the tasks on last June's Regents exam. Since I make it a point to make one, and only one, copy of the assignment for each student, and put their names on them in advance so I know who got theirs and who didn't, I did not have another one to give her. I suggested she download the exam from the Internet. Her reply? "My Internet isn't working." Again, an obvious lie, but even if true does not foreclose any and all possibility of acquiring the needed material, nor relieve the student of her responsibility to do so.

- The absent-from-class-on-the-day-of-a-listening-section travesty. This happened earlier in the semester with the presidential debate; the student was absent the day I showed the video, I suggested she find and watch it online, but she never did. This week it happened again. I had a guidance counselor e-mail me that a student was going to be "out for a couple of days" and the mother had requested her teachers e-mail her the child's assignments. This was a bad time, since the students were doing the listening portion of a writing project (Regents Session One, Part A) on Thursday. They just finished studying Citizen Kane and I was using Roger Ebert's commentary from the Still Gallery on the DVD as the listening passage. I e-mailed the mother and suggested she rent the DVD. I never heard back from her. The child came in yesterday and told me that she and her mother "didn't know where to get" the DVD. I suggested Netflix or Blockbuster, or wherever else they normally rent movies, but the child replied that they "didn't know where to get this movie." Again I suggested Netflix or Blockbuster but it seemed lost on this kid that it could be that easy to get the DVD of Citizen Kane. I suggested she come in after school to do the listening section, but she didn't come in. This kind of thing happens all the time whenever I do something like a listening section that can only be done once, and kids are absent the day I do it.

These are all examples of students trying to get themselves off the hook by claiming that the easiest, most convenient and/or most obvious way of doing or finding something is unavailable to them, which in their minds means, res ipsa loquitur, that they can't do it and therefore shouldn't have to do it, be expected to do it or be held accountable for not doing it. Somehow after all these years I am still amazed by the absolutely stunning and utterly complete lack of resourcefulness on the part of high school students. This has been true everywhere I've been, in urban schools both large and small, and in the suburbs.

I don't know if this is the result of simple laziness (coupled with dishonesty), an actual inability to solve problems and accomplish tasks beyond the use of obvious and convenient means, moral hazard (knowing one won't be held liable makes one less inclined to act reasonably), or some combination of all three. Obviously, given the opportunity, kids will seek the path of least resistance. They would much rather be excused from the work than be required to find a way to get it done even if it's not convenient. The question is, what causes it, and how should we as educators deal with it?

It's hard for me not to reach the conclusion, as I have so many times before, that this is the result of students growing accustomed to adults accepting their excuses, believing their lies and letting them off the hook. It's the result of our not teaching kids to be resourceful by not requiring or expecting them to be resourceful. It therefore starts with moral hazard, which cultivates laziness and dishonesty. Kids learn not only that they should simply stop trying when things become inconvenient, but also that it is more desirable to falsely claim an insurmountable obstacle in order to get a reprieve than to seek and utilize alternative practical solutions. The end result, an entire population of young adults who actually do not know the difference between what is impossible and what is merely difficult or inconvenient, is the most troubling part, but it seems that secondary educators don't want to deal with this. It's "not our problem."

I think it is. I think our problem is that, in spite of everything, in spite of how far we are willing to go to praise kids up and down for anything and everything they do, as much as we're always telling them how wonderful and fabulous and special they are, we really think very little of our kids, because we expect so little of them. We really do.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Secret of NIMH

I'd like to start this post with a question for the two or three people who read this blog: What percentage of the population, would you say, is crazy? I'm not talking about those institutionalized or adjudicated mentally ill. I'm thinking in more general terms; people who are out there, who walk among us every day, who are just plain flat-out straight-up dyed-in-the-wool nut-bag bat-crap insane?

I had a parent come in on Friday, after I called her on Thursday at her request, angry as all get-out at the fact that I gave her daughter a 65 in my class. I explained that the child's writing skills are not particularly good, Level 2 on the ELA Regents scale, and that she tends to arrive late and sleep in class. This was, in her words, "unacceptable," in the sense that a 65 was too low a grade for the child to receive based on the mother's conception of her daughter's academic ability. According to the mother, the child was a high-honors student at her well-regarded middle school and had "never had any problem with writing;" indeed she aspired to be a journalist. On the phone on Thursday and in person on Friday, she went on and on loudly about what an excellent student her daughter had been at what an excellent middle school she had attended, how "f***ed up" this high school is, how "ridiculous" it is that I do not give homework and that my assessment of the child's work was "unacceptable." She also chided me for not having called her on the phone immediately to let her know that the child was late or was sleeping in class, made the standard claim that the child "doesn't like your class anyway," and even went so far as to accuse me of being "too busy getting [my] law degree" to care about her child.

Thankfully, it is rare for a parent to be this abusive and insulting. Nevertheless, it was fairly clear fairly quickly that this person did not intend to listen to a word I had to say; she only came in to yell, and she most certainly did yell. I attempted to speak calmly to her and not engage her abuse or respond to her accusations, but nothing I said had any effect. I attempted to show her some samples of the child's writing, which I had photocopied alongside samples of student writing that had received higher grades on the same assignments, but she was only interested in that to the extent that she grabbed it out of my hand without looking at it (or even asking for it) and demanded to see the principal.

The recurring refrain in this person's ranting was that her child had done spectacularly well in her former school, particularly in writing, and when I asked her how the child was currently doing in her other classes, she replied, "Excellent!" Obviously, the implication was that this child is a straight-A student, a brilliant scholar, and if I'm giving her a 65 I obviously (a.) don't know what I'm doing; (b.) have a bias against her; (c.) am so wrapped up my legal studies that I cannot or will not teach or evaluate her properly; or (d.) all of the above.

Well, here is the reality. Later in the day, I went to talk to the Assistant Principal of Organization about this, and we took a look at the child's records. She was a mediocre student at best in middle school, and when I looked at her current report cards, I saw all I needed to see. For both the first and second marking periods of this semester, while she did receive a 90 in Dance, in her academic classes she received 55's and 65's across the board. I don't even recall seeing a 70. I was both surprised and unsurprised when I saw this; surprised because the mother had actually had the audacity to claim that this child was valedictory material and was receiving "excellent" grades in every class but mine (and surprised that I had not seen through this), and unsurprised because, pardon the conceit, I am so seldom wrong about kids when it comes to their academic ability and performance.

The fact is this child is a poor writer and a poor student. She has difficulty even assembling coherent sentences, her ability to understand what she reads is limited, she does not ask questions or participate in discussions, has literally nothing to say when called upon, is late to class half the time and sleeps through it half the time. She has demonstrated neither any interest in nor enthusiasm for learning, for any of the materials we have been reading, or for improving her skills. Frankly, this child is not especially intelligent. I've been teaching for 12 years and I can tell when a kid is just not very smart. Unfortunately, we can't say that to either a child or a parent, because the result is the kind of irrational affrontery to which this parent subjected me and, as I later found out, the principal, guidance counselor and at least one other teacher.

The sad part is that this is the primary reason why a child like this performs so poorly in school, and continues to perform poorly year after year. If a teacher like me points out that the child's work is of low quality and needs to improve, and the parent reacts to this by getting angry with the teacher, and the entire school, accusing everyone of incompetence and bias, then the child obviously learns, inter alia, that her work and abilities are just fine the way they are. Not only is there no need for improvement, there is no possibility of improvement. If my writing is so good now that I deserve an A for everything I write, how could I ever possibly write any better? How could anyone?

I had a long talk about this with the principal later in the day, and it was refreshing to discover that she essentially agreed with me, not only on this particular child and parent but on the more fundamental concept of objective academic standards. I had given her a copy of the writing packet I had assembled (comparing this child's writing with that of students who had received higher grades on the same assignments) the day before, which she did find useful in the meeting with the parent. To make a long story short, she essentially told the parent, "Your problem is not with my teachers. Your problem is with your daughter not doing her work." She even encouraged the parent to follow through on her threat to pull the child out of the school.

I can't tell you how refreshing it was to hear a principal talk like this. It gives me so much hope that maybe the school system can be saved, that maybe education in the U.S. can get back to doing what it is supposed to do, if we have more people like this running the schools. The deplorable, demented gargoyle who was my principal at the phony "Arts" school in Queens where I taught in 2002-03 would undoubtedly, automatically have taken the parent's side in a case like this. So would the strange, flaky hypocrite I worked for on Long Island the year before that.

Before I write my book, it appears I'm going to have to do a lot more research. It seems to me, although I don't actually teach middle school, that middle schools have in a wholesale fashion adopted subjective academic standards and are unwilling to make objective qualitative distinctions between different students' work product. This is what I want to know; this is the question I want answered: WHY are so many educators today UNWILLING to OBJECTIVELY distinguish high-quality work from mediocre or low-quality work?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Dishin' on Tenure

One of my favorite blogger/commentators, Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic, blogs here about teacher tenure. Teachers respond here. Quality stuff.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Election Eve Ruminations

Is it me, or does it seem that as this interminable 2008 Presidential race draws to its long-awaited and highly-anticipated conclusion, that one candidate and his supporters have run the adult campaign, while the other has run the teenage campaign? I commented earlier about a similar phenomenon in the primaries, and throughout the election season, I have seen all the worst behaviors and thought processes of teenagers that I have observed in my years of teaching in the campaign of one of the candidates. I won't say which one, because again this is not a political blog and I don't want to use it for political advocacy. This is just an observation, nothing more.

This is what I've seen from this campaign and its supporters that remind me so much of teenagers:

- Arbitrary nastiness and hatred.
- Unintelligent, unsophisticated, ultra-simplistic declarations about complex, important matters.
- The automatic and uncritical belief and acceptance of any statement which makes them feel better about themselves and their own positions, and the concomitant automatic skepticism and rejection of any statement which does not promote that self-esteem.
- Lying.
- The self-serving distortion, de-contextualization, misinterpretation, over-simplification, over-generalization and twisting of their opponents' words, and the propagandization of same.
- The belief that their failure can only be the result of an irrational and persistent bias against them by the arbiters of public opinion (in their case, the media; in kids' case, their teachers), that they can only lose/fail as the result of a deep, widespread, insidious, evil conspiracy by dark, nefarious forces, not as a result of their own shortcomings or any objective assessment of themselves by unbiased observers.
- The absolute, unequivocal, unshakable belief in their own goodness, the truth of their beliefs and the correctness of their positions, the rightness of their actions and the affrontery of those who disagree.

Go vote.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Internet, circa 2008

Can we please, finally, once and for all, get rid of this ridiculous notion that it is still somehow unreasonable, in the year 2008, for teachers to require students to use the internet to complete assignments? Can we please stop allowing parents and kids to use the excuse that "I don't have a computer" to absolve them of their academic responsibilities?

I first put up my website at www.mrbraiman.com in 2000, maybe even 1999, I can't remember. I don't update it now as often as I used to, but that's mostly because just about everything I need to have up there is already there. The website has always been intended as a supplementary resource for students; I've never required students to use it, but students who are having trouble doing the work or knowing what the class procedures and requirements are, or who join the class in mid-semester, have a place to go which explains, in detail, everything they could possibly need to know. This was one of the main reasons I set up the website in the first place. Between the class handbooks, material presented in class on the board or out loud, and the copious material on the website, there is no reason whatsoever for any student in my class to not know what she is supposed to do, not know what the standards or requirements are, not know what is expected of her. Any student who "doesn't know," doesn't know because he did not take steps to find out.

I've written at length in the past about this issue of "not knowing," so I won't go back over that ground again, except to reiterate that students actively try to "not know" because no one expects or requires them to know anything or find out anything on their own. But as I mentioned in my previous post, this issue came up in parent/teacher conferences when an irate parent, clinging to her daughter's assertion that she "did not know" she had to keep a notebook in class and write in it every day, and thus it was OK for her to do no work for two weeks, when I mentioned my website threw back at me the assertion that "not everyone has a computer." The implications, of course, were that (a.) neither the student nor her family has a PC at home; (b.) the student thus has no means of accessing the internet; and (c.) it is unreasonable for me to expect or require students to have internet access.

I don't want to seem insensitive or anything, but I have a hard time believing that any family in the year 2008 does not have access to the internet, or an internet-connected PC in the home. I can accept that the poorest of the poor and others in dire straits may not have them, but let's face it: The PC has become as ubiquitous as the telephone. Basic desktop PC's are very inexpensive; a five-year-old PC can be had second-hand even cheaper and would be more than adequate for just about anything a student might need to do, online or otherwise. (My desktop PC is six years old and does everything from web browsing to video editing.) Even if a person does not have his own PC, he can access the internet at any public library, and also in many commercial locations such as Kinko's. Eight years ago I might have accepted that an appreciable number of students didn't have internet access at home, but not now.

The point is that, as a general principle, it is not unreasonable anymore for teachers to expect students to use the internet to find important information, whether for academic assignments or class requirements. Even if the student truly does not have a PC at home and his family cannot afford one, he needs to pursue another option, be it a public library, school computer lab, parent's workplace, friend's or relative's home, Kinko's outlet, internet cafe, etc. The claim that a student does not have a PC at home cannot by itself be accepted as an excuse for not doing schoolwork.

It must also be pointed out that anyone living in the United States in the year 2008 who CANNOT access the internet is at a substantial and very serious disadvantage. Given the internet's ubiquity in terms of both access and range of use, anyone who can't get on the internet is going to be a great many steps behind those who can in terms not only of access to information, but in communication, time management, opportunities for advancement, social interaction, and more, not to mention college applications, research and coursework. Certainly all these things existed before the internet age, and there are many people who choose not to use the internet for whatever reason and get along just fine in their own lives. However, the point is that practically everyone can use the internet, most people do, and those who can't or don't are severely handicapped in a 21st-century world.

Never mind the fact that this particular parent threatened to "address" me further via e-mail (which she still has not done), which tends to belie her claim that the child could not have accessed the internet to visit my website and get herself up to speed. Often, the same students who claim they have no computers and can't access the internet when they are assigned to, are the same ones who cheat and plagiarize off Wikipedia or SparkNotes.com and spend more time on their MySpace pages and instant messaging than on their studies. In this individual case, it was obviously an empty and dishonest excuse. The parent phrased it as a generalization, "Not everyone has a computer," rather than make a specific claim that she or her daughter did not have one, but in a way that is even worse. It's not a lie, but it's still dishonest. It implies that it is unreasonable for me to expect students to use the internet to catch up on what they missed if they join the class in progress. In the year 2008, that is just simply wrong.

I wonder, for how long were students and parents able to legitimately avoid schoolwork or school responsibilities by claiming that they did not have a telephone? Or a television? Or a radio? Or mail? At what point does it become reasonable for educators to assume and expect that students have access to ubiquitous modern technologies?

Once again, I don't deny that people who are desperately poor or otherwise substantially burdened may not have PCs or internet access at home. But in the year 2008, the internet is no longer a novelty; the PC is no longer a luxury item. You have to be able to use the internet if you intend to compete and succeed in the 21st Century. Students who walk around the school halls with cell phones and BlackBerrys cannot reasonably claim to have no internet access because they are too poor. I'm sorry, but I don't buy it. If they can't access the internet at home, they need to go to a library.

This is not so much about the internet as it is about the student's responsibility to do what she needs to do, get what she needs to get, find out what she needs to find out. In short, students need to recognize the difference between what is impossible and what is merely inconvenient, and not claim the former to avoid the latter. And, as with every other example of irrational teenage behavior, parents need to stop enabling them.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Trousers in Conflagration

I really used to enjoy Open School. I enjoyed meeting my students' parents and talking with them, sharing my philosophy of education and of English Language Arts and meeting minds on how best to help their kids succeed.

Now I can't stand it. While it's true that most parents I meet are very congenial, reasonable and supportive of academic accountability, I find that more and more come into my classroom with giant chips on their shoulders, who cannot fathom why I would regard their children as anything less than stellar, and demand that I start doing so or else face the consequences, i.e., they will either make sure I start giving the child her due, or do whatever they can to put an end to my teaching career.

It's incredible how one angry, unreasonable nutcase can ruin an entire Open School experience. This year, I had two. The first was livid that I had failed her daughter (not, of course, that her daughter had failed) and demanded to know why. The student had signed into my class about two weeks into the term, just over a week after our programs were finalized, hence I was about six days into my syllabus and we had already begun reading Lord of the Flies. I had already given the students the spiel about notebooks and daily responses. I told this student, as I do every student who signs in late, that she needed to read the handbook (a copy of which is on every desk in the classroom), visit my website (the address of which is written prominently on the board, as well as the cover of the handbook), and talk to her classmates if need be, to get herself up to speed. For the next two weeks, this student did no work, asked no questions, showed no interest; she just sat there chewing gum and socializing, day after day, even as I instructed the students to read the text and "write your responses." When it came time to check her notebook, there was no work in it and I gave her a zero. She also did not submit the take-home quiz I gave the students in late September. She did do some work after receiving the zero on the notebook, but I had not graded it yet because I have not done the next notebook check yet, so it has not yet counted toward her average. Mathematically, she had simply not earned enough points to pass.

The mother would hear none of this. Aside from the obvious anger and hatred, she repeated over and over again that the child had signed in late and "didn't know" that she had to keep a notebook, write in it every day, and leave it in the classroom to be periodically checked. All this, of course, is on the first two pages of the handbook, which the mother insisted the child could not have had an opportunity to read. When I noted that the handbook could be read and downloaded from my website, she repeated the age-old canard that "not everyone has a computer," implying that it is completely unreasonable for me, in the year 2008, to expect students to be able to access the internet. (Note that the mother later said she would e-mail me to "address" me further, which puts a bit of a hole in the no-computer claim.) She basically assumed that I had not done enough to inform her child of what she had to do; as I discussed previously in The Great Failure and Hypothetical, the burden was on me to prove that I had adequately informed the child of her responsibilities, with the concomitant presumption that the child would have done the work and received a high grade if I had done so. Ultimately, having no reasonable or logical recourse, this woman was left to complain about my attitude; "You need to learn how to talk to people," and walk out of the room threatening, as I mentioned, to "address" me further.

Admittedly, I did grow increasingly frustrated over the course of the discussion with this woman's seemingly inherent nastiness, and with the bile she directed my way without even considering, or having any intention to consider, what I was saying. She simply could not handle not being told what she wanted to hear; she wanted contrition and deference from me, an apology for treating her child so unfairly and a promise to immediately raise the grade to whatever she felt her child deserved. She kept repeating, "This is my daughter we're talking about," as if that by itself meant something. When I stood my ground and endeavoured to help her understand my grading process and arithmetic, and explained that the student does have some responsibility to know what's going on and get herself up to speed when she signs in late, she became even nastier. So, as nasty people often do, she accused me of being nasty to her and resorted to threats.

Three days later, she has not e-mailed me yet. What I surmise is that she complained to the principal, who noted that the student has used this excuse (signing in late due to a program change) to justify not doing work in other classes as well. Having spoken with the principal, who is new this year, at great length about educational issues, I gather that she fundamentally agrees with me on this. Obviously it remains to be seen where this will go.

The second incident was even worse, although this one actually took place over the phone, not in an Open School in-person conference. The mother called me and demanded to know why I had failed her daughter, and accused me of doing so for purely personal reasons. In actuality, the student failed because she did not write the ELA Regents essay which was our first, and so far only, writing project of the term and hence constituted 40% of the grade. The assignment was to watch a 10-minute segment of the first Presidential debate, which I showed in class, take notes, and write a report on its content, much like the first task on the ELA Regents. The child was absent from school on the day I showed the debate, and was also absent on the day we wrote the final essay. Since she had a valid note for the first absence, I gave her the option of coming in after school to watch the debate, or watching it on her own on the internet. She did not do the former and I don't know if she did the latter. She provided no documentation for the second absence, and never submitted the essay. She also did not submit the take-home quiz.

According to the mother, the girl told her that her "notebook was up to date," and there was therefore no reason she should fail. I told the mother that the child had received a C and a C- on the first two notebooks; the mother said, "She told me different." This turned out to be a harbinger of things to come. The mother called me back a few minutes later, with the child conferenced in, and the child said, "I wrote the essay in my notebook, you graded it, and you gave me a B." This was, in every conceivable sense, an absolutely incredible, outlandish LIE.

Obviously I did not say this to the mother; I knew it was a lie, but I simply said that I would check the notebook. Of course, there was no essay in that notebook. Forget the fact that the statement is a pure and outright falsehood. It absolutely CANNOT be true.

First, I don't grade essays written in notebooks. Notebooks are for daily quote and reading responses, notetaking, and drafting. Final essays are always written in class on separate, pre-printed forms; students who legitimately miss class on those days also write the essays, whether by hand or computer, outside the notebooks. I have never, ever, ever, not once in twelve years of teaching, graded an essay as a writing project that was written in a notebook.

Second, I don't give letter grades for these essays. I give numeric scores that correspond to the ELA Regents scoring rubric (holistic scoring, on a scale of 1-6). While those scores translate into letter grades and then back into numbers for averaging purposes (i.e., a score of 3 = a grade of D = 26 points out of 40; 4=C=30; 5=B=34), the student would not have seen a letter on her paper, only a number.

Third, I had not yet given back the papers to the other students; there is no way that she would have gotten her grade and feedback when no one else did. I had given them their scores on the stickers I put in each notebook at the end of each marking period to explain the arithmetic, but again, she would have seen a number, not a letter.

Fourth, in order to have gotten a B on this essay, she would have to have scored a 5 on the Regents rubric. NO ONE in either 11th-grade section, 65 students, scored that high. A few scored "5/4," meaning it might score 5 or 4 on the Regents, but that's a B-, not a B. She would have had to produce the best essay in either class, and knowing what I know about this child's writing ability relative to the other kids, there's no way that happened.

I don't know where this is going to go, because as I mentioned the parent did not come to Open School. She will probably come in this week and demand that the child be taken out of my class. I have already briefed the Assistant Principal of Guidance on this issue and shown him the notebook. I also spoke to the student's guidance counselor, who not surprisingly has had issues with this child's blatant and self-serving dishonesty, and the mother's uncritical acceptance of the child's word, on several occasions. It is abundantly clear that this child is a pathological liar. She may not even know how to tell the truth, or distinguish the truth from a lie.

Neither do I know how we can fix this sort of thing as a general matter. Children will lie so long as they know they can get away with it; like politicians, they will lie if they know they will be believed and supported no matter how audacious the untruth. And neither I, nor a principal, nor a guidance counselor, nor any other adult in the school, can tell the parent what she most needs to hear:


It is probably worth noting here that these are two of the most despicable kids I've run across in recent years, the latter more so than the former but only because I've known her longer. One thing that comes out of this is something I've been observing for a while: That the most despicable kids are frequently the ones whose parents believe their lies, accept their excuses, blindly advocate for them regardless of the facts, and thereby enable their appalling self-indulgence, narcissism and dishonesty.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Throughout my eleven years of teaching, I have been consistently astonished by students' staggering inability to follow even the simplest instructions. Whether I speak them aloud, write them on the board, print and distribute them on paper, or some combination of all three, it amazes me how many students somehow manage to not do what they are specifically instructed to do, do what they are specifically instructed not to do, or do something in a way which is clearly and obviously different from how they are instructed to do it.

The simplest example I can think of is the mundane task of writing their names on their papers. It's one of the first things one is taught to do in school: Write your name on your paper. Yet year after I year I receive paper after paper, or notebook after notebook, with no name on it, even when I tell students before they hand it in, "Make sure your name is on your paper." I have reached the point where I pre-print essay forms, assignment sheets, and labels with the students' names already on them. In cases where I instruct the students to write their names in a particular place, e.g., the upper-right corner of the page, many of them manage to write it in the upper-left, lower-right, at the end of the essay, etc.; anywhere except where they were told.

Conversely, when I tell them they do not need to write their names or other headings, such as in their daily notebook entries, and that they only need to label each entry with the date and the letter "Q" (for quote response) or "C" (for class work), they still write the full header (name, school, class, teacher, date) anyway. When I instruct them not to copy the quote off the board and just write the response, they copy the quote down anyway.

I'm giving my final exam this week. It's an extended "critical lens" essay, in which the students are instructed to select a critical lens from the list in their handbooks of all the ones that have been used on past Regents exams, excepting the ones we've used already, and use it to analyze all of the texts we have studied this year.

The students are writing their essays in Regents Essay Booklets. I have affixed labels to each booklet with the students' names on them, and I told them they did not need to fill in their name, school and date in the spaces on the booklet. Nearly everyone did so anyway.

I gave the students comprehensive printed instructions, which tell the students to select a critical lens from the list, and where to find the list. From the early results I have seen, at least two have instead selected quotations used in class which are not critical lens statements and thus not on that list. At least one chose one of the off-limits statements (the ones we used on prior essays).

The instructions also tell students not to include the title/author/genre (TAG) of all six texts in the essay's thesis statement, but rather to refer to "The six literary works discussed herein..." At least a dozen nonetheless wrote thesis statements containing all six TAGs. Others wrote thesis statements containing fewer than six TAGs. Three contained only one TAG, that of the book we read most recently. Several have no thesis statement at all.

Sometimes things like this happen because students are just too lazy to read instructions, let alone think about, understand, or follow them. The instructions clearly state that students may write about the texts, which are listed on the instruction sheet, "in any sequence," yet I have been asked at least a dozen times if they "have to be in this order?" I've also been asked a few times who the author of one of the texts is, even though all six are printed on the instruction sheet. (Note that the instructions also state that students "may not ask any questions.")

Sadly, this happens on Regents exams too. Students who are told to bring pencils bring pens, and vice-versa; or, if told to bring both, they bring only one; or, they bring no writing instruments at all. They bring things like food and cell phones into exam rooms even though they are told not to. They neglect to write their names, sign affirmations, fill out information on forms, write their answers in the appropriate spaces, etc. I had a student fail the Regents two years ago because he did not write his multiple-choice answers on the answer sheet. This after I spent the entire year reminding my 11th-grade students to do that very thing.

I've been thinking for years about doing an experiment with a class: Instructing them to draw on a sheet of paper, from left to right, a circle, a square and a triangle, and nothing else. I would be willing to bet that in a class of 30, 5 would not do it at all, 5 would draw the shapes in the wrong order, 5 would arrange them vertically, spatially or one-inside-the-other instead of horizontally, 5 would be unable to do it for lack of paper or writing instrument, 5 would write their name, school, class, teacher and date on the page along with the shapes, and the other 5 would spend so much time agonizing over and asking questions about how big the shapes needed to be, whether they had to be the same size, whether to orient the page portrait or landscape, whether lined or unlined paper was OK, whether pen or pencil was OK, whether red or green or orange or pink pen was OK, whether the circle could be a different color than the square, whether they had to put their name on it, whether it would be graded, whether they could do it later and hand it in at the end of the day, etc., that it would render the whole exercise pointless.

Saturday, June 7, 2008


In having my students read and study the decision in Price v. N.Y. City Bd. of Educ., 2007 N.Y. Slip. Op. 27214, 16 Misc. 3d 543; 837 N.Y.S.2d 507 (Sup. Ct. N.Y. Cty. 2007), this week as part of a mini-unit on the law, I discovered that the decision was appealed to the Appellate Division (New York's intermediate appellate court; the highest court in the state is the Court of Appeals) which just recently handed down its decision.

As discussed in CELL PhONES 4 JESUS, infra, the New York County Supreme Court upheld the Schools Chancellor's regulation banning from public schools the possession of cellular phones and other communication devices by students. The petitioners in that case, a group of parents and an advocacy group, had claimed that a ban on use rather than possession would be sufficient to address the schools' interest in avoiding the distractions, disruptions and sundry nefarious behaviors associated with having cell phones in school, but the court disagreed. The court found that the possession ban was reasonable, and that a ban on use would be too complicated, too costly, too difficult to enforce, consume substantial resources which are very limited to begin with (including pedagogical, budgetary, staffing, equipment, facilities, &c.), and could not be applied universally and uniformly to every school in the city.

It's important to note that the petitioners in this case were not arguing that students should be permitted to carry and/or use their cell phones while they are in school. Students often insist that it is necessary to have their cell phones in class "in case of an emergency," but the petitioners in Price did not argue that. Their concern was for their children to have their phones on the way to and from school, but the court found the distinction unpersuasive. The court also rejected the various hypothetical emergency scenarios proposed by the petitioners, finding none of them compelling enough to overcome the schools' substantial interest in avoiding cell phone-related problems.

The court also held that neither the parents nor the students had a specific constitutional right to carry or use cell phones, whether in school or before/after school. The petitioners claimed that the right fell within the ambit of "parental liberty interests," but the court disagreed. The interest was simply not important enough to implicate "strict scrutiny" under the 14th Amendment, nor to outweigh the value and legitimacy of the rule.

The Appellate Division has now upheld the lower court's ruling. The full opinion can be read here. Some relevant excerpts from the decision:

...the cell phone activity identified by the Department as threatening discipline in the schools goes far beyond the occasional errant ring. The very nature of cell phones, especially with regard to their text messaging capability, permits much of that activity to be performed surreptitiously, which the Chancellor rationally concluded presents significant challenges to enforcing a use ban. Certainly the Department has a rational interest in having its teachers and staff devote their time to educating students and not waging a "war" against cell phones.


The Parents describe cell phones which have no other capabilities than making and receiving calls and assert that certain phones permit parents to restrict the numbers children can call and from which they can receive calls. They claim that these phones can be programmed to be operative only during certain times of the day. The Parents fail, however, to demonstrate that such telephones are widely available and owned by students. Furthermore, the Parents offer no way of assuring that the phones would uniformly be used in the manner necessary to guarantee that school decorum will not be compromised.


By implementing the cell phone ban policy, the State is not depriving parents of the ability to raise their children in the manner in which they see fit. The ban by necessity will prevent children from calling their parents or receiving calls from them while commuting to and from school. However, scrutiny of the individual Parents' affidavits does not reveal that any fundamental child-rearing function is being taken from them. ... The Parents characterize the need for cell phones when the children are outside of school as a safety issue. However, the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment "is phrased as a limitation on the State's power to act, not as a guarantee of certain minimal levels of safety and security" (citation omitted) ... To the extent that the Parents argue that if children have cell phones they will be safer should an emergency arise in the school, we note that the Parents appear to be amenable to the Department installing lockers in which the children could store their phones during the day. This solution would obviously limit the students' ability to use their phones in that type of an emergency.


The cell phone ban does not directly and substantially interfere with any of the rights alleged by the Parents. Nothing about the cell phone policy forbids or prevents parents and their children from communicating with each other before and after school. Accordingly, the only analysis that need be applied is the rational basis test. That is, the policy will stand if it is rationally related to a legitimate goal of government (citation omitted). Here, the Chancellor reasonably determined that a ban on cell phone possession was necessary to maintain order in the schools. The goal of discipline is unquestionably a legitimate one. Accordingly, the policy withstands rational basis review and is not constitutionally infirm.


I don't know if this has been appealed to the Court of Appeals or not. What I do know is that students and parents who complain about cell phone confiscation, or put forth specious and frivolous "what-if-there's-an-emergency" arguments to justify their ignorance or defiance of the rule, no longer have a leg to stand on. It's time we started enforcing the ban.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Mark the Date

Today I finally received the first of what are sure to be many similar inquiries in the coming two-plus weeks until classes end. One of my students, who has basically done no work since October and whose grade average is somewhere in the mid-teens, came up to me this morning and asked, "What can I do to bring my grade up?"

"Let me make sure I understand you correctly," I replied. "Today is the 29th of May. You've spent the past nine months doing no work, sleeping through every class, coming in 20 minutes late, chewing gum, talking to other students, showing no interest in anything we've been doing. And you are coming to me now to ask how to bring your grade average up?"

"Well," came the inevitable platitude, "I really need to pass your class."

I told him bluntly, "You are not going to pass this class."

Most teachers, I imagine, would not have been so frank. Many would probably be inclined to actually give this student a chance to pass the class for the year, even though he did almost no work for nine months. I myself have never been inclined to do that; neither am I any longer inclined to give students like this the illusion that they have a chance to pass (in order to get them to keep coming to class and maybe do their work from now on) when in fact they do not.

I have discussed in earlier posts the fallacy of students thinking they can make up for nine months of inactivity and willful negligence by writing one essay or taking one test in June. Take another look at the Twenty Questions Common-Sense Quiz, particularly Question 18. It is high time students are compelled to accept that the choices they make from day to day are what determine their academic outcomes. Where kids are conditioned to believe that they can do nothing for nine months and then "make up for it" in June, they have no incentive to do their work throughout the year.

I had another student like this three or four years ago, a senior, who came to me with tear-filled eyes on the next-to-last day of school, while I was taking my posters down and closing up my classroom, and said, "Umm...Mr. Braiman, umm...Can I talk to you about my grade?"

"I don't see what there is to talk about," I replied.

"See, umm...I really need to graduate, so, umm...is there any way I could get a 65?"

"You came to class seven times this semester. You wrote a grand total of four entries in your notebook. You did none of the four writing projects. Your actual grade average is twelve. You are not going to pass."


"End of discussion."

Some readers will surely accuse me of being insensitive, cruel, cold-hearted, etc. Others will immediately demand to know what I did over the course of the semester to get this student to come to class, do her work, and pass, and will doubtless be dissatisfied with my answer and tell me I should have given her what she wanted, or at least given her "another chance."


Even disregarding the fact that this student had been in my class the previous year, and therefore knew precisely what the requirements and expectations would be, she chose not to meet them, or attempt to meet them. She chose not to come to class and not to do her work. That is, and should be, the extent of the discussion. She made the wrong choices, and those choices led to the bad result. Same for the boy who approached me this morning.

Students like this need to have their bad choices come back to bite them. I have never accepted and will never accept that every student should have a chance to pass the class right up until, and even after, the end of the school year. Some students choose to fail almost immediately, and continue to make that choice day after day after day until they reach the point of no return. No good can come from rewarding such bad decision-making by rendering it moot.

I've been saying for years that most students only care about their grades on the day they get their report cards. Students should care about their grades every minute of every class, every day. Anything less than that, and they forfeit the right to complain.

Of course there are apologists out there who will tell me I'm wrong, that I'm being mean and unfair and I should be more "understanding" about the children's "issues."


Maybe it makes me a bad teacher. Maybe it's better that I am leaving the profession, so kids don't keep getting their feelings hurt. Fine. But as long as I'm here, I refuse to feel sorry for kids. I refuse to coddle them, to tolerate their self-indulgent excuse-making, to un-do their mistakes for them, to send them the message that it's OK to make irrational, counter-intuitive, negligent, destructive and downright stupid decisions from day to day throughout the year, as long as they wake up at the end and pretend to care.

Just recently I finally saw the highly-regarded Brad Bird animated film The Iron Giant. One of the central themes in that film is, "You are what you choose to be." Students need to be much more conscious of, and much more careful about, the choices they make. As I've written previously, we do them no favors by teaching them that their feelings matter but their choices don't.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Sorry, but I can't take it anymore...

I never wanted to inject politics into this blog; there are far too many blogs out there dedicated to that topic, and far too many nut jobs with opinions who are far too eager to share them. But the behavior of one particular candidate, that candidate's campaign and supporters, has become so infuriating that I just had to bring it up.

Put simply, this candidate's behavior reminds me of petulant teenagers and their parents, making up the rules as they go along and changing them to suit their desires, even when they agreed and understood in advance to a different set of rules; deciding for themselves what is right based on what is best for them in that particular moment, not on any objective sense of fairness or propriety. In their minds, only a rule or procedure which leads to their desired outcome is "fair" or "right." And their solution to an undesirable outcome is not to address the behavior that led to it; it's to complain, argue, seek the intervention of another authority, and in some cases flat-out lie, to get it reversed. Parents and students spend inordinate amounts of energy trying to overturn grades and disciplinary outcomes, to un-do reality and re-make history, to do whatever is necessary to obtain the outcome they desire and to which they feel they are entitled. (See, e.g., CELL PhONES 4 JESUS; Hypothetical, infra.)

This candidate's words and actions are thoroughly despicable, and infuriating to me as a teacher who has spent my career trying so hard to dispel the notion that students are somehow entitled to the outcome they desire in both academic and disciplinary contexts; indeed, that anyone is ever entitled to a desired outcome. This candidate and campaign are reinforcing this abhorrent kind of self-indulgence and sore-loser narcissism by continuing to insist that the rules should be whatever will suit their present interests, or that the rules are whatever they say they are because they say they are; that only the results favorable to them are valid and/or meaningful (like a student claiming that only the high grades should count, not the F's and zeros for the work that wasn't done); that they should be declared the winners even if their opponents actually win; that anyone who denies this or disagrees with them is unfairly and arbitrarily mistreating them, doing so out of some horrible, sinister ulterior motive.

What irks me even further is that this candidate is a lawyer, and therefore should understand legal principles of contractual agreement and estoppel. Under both contractual (promissory) and equitable principles of estoppel, a person cannot agree to something in advance, allow the thing to happen and allow other parties to act in reliance on that agreement, then afterward change one's original position to benefit oneself to the detriment of those who have already relied. Every campaign (including those of the candidate in question and all the others, not just the one remaining opponent) agreed in advance to a set of rules and procedures that would determine the outcome, and every campaign and every voter in those disputed states, including those who voted and those who stayed home, acted in reliance on that agreement and made their choices based on the knowledge and understanding that things would be a certain way. For this candidate, now that things are done, to change positions and endeavor to un-do the agreement upon which everyone relied is completely and patently unfair to absolutely everyone except that candidate.

I just can't stand listening to this anymore. I hear this sort of nonsense every time I argue with a student or parent over a grade, and it sickens me. I can't stand listening to people argue at the top of their lungs that they must get their way when any definition or understanding of logic, reason and fairness demands that they must not. With respect to the campaign, someone has got to put a stop to this. Someone has to call this campaign out on its indefensible, self-indulgent behavior. It has gone entirely too far; this candidate is becoming more unhinged and more irrational by the day. I can't stand it. Please make it stop.

UPDATE: About 5 hours after posting this article, I read the following online, by Guy T. Saperstein at The Huffington Post:

"[The candidate and campaign] are not acting like leaders, they are acting like self-absorbed adolescents, thinking that if they whine loudly enough people will accommodate them. This is not leadership, this is petulance."

Guess I'm not the only one.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Twenty Questions: The Full Quiz

Here's a copy of the 20-question "common-sense" quiz I give students at the beginning of the school year. For entertainment purposes only:


[For questions 1-4, "late bell" means the actual time the class period is scheduled to begin, regardless of whether there is an actual ringing bell in the school building.]

1. When the late bell rings, you should
a. walk to class from wherever you are in the building.
b. walk into the classroom from the hallway outside the door.
c. sit down in your seat and begin working.
d. already be in your seat and working.
e. wait for the teacher to instruct you to sit down, stop talking and begin work.
f. continue talking, socializing, or doing whatever you're doing regardless of what the teacher does or says.
g. immediately ask for a room pass.

2. You are late to class if
a. you come into the room several minutes after the late bell, with no excuse.
b. you come into the room any time after the late bell, with no excuse.
c. you come into the room any time after the late bell, regardless of why.
d. you come into the room after the late bell, but only if it's a really long time.
e. you come into the room after the late bell, but only if you did it on purpose.

3. Assuming you arrive after the late bell, you are not late to class if
a. you have an excuse.
b. you have a written, signed note from guidance, dean, SPARK, principal, etc.
c. you are coming from gym.
d. you are coming from your arts studio.
e. your previous class ran long or let out late.
f. you come into the room less than a minute after the late bell.
g. you were in the room before the late bell and then left.
h. your belongings are at your seat, even though you are not in the room.
i. you are standing just outside the doorway when the late bell rings.
j. any of the above.
k. none of the above.

4. If you have something you need to do right at the beginning of class, such as retrieving an item from your locker or asking another teacher a question; assuming you can't do it later in the day, the best thing to do is
a. come in, sit down, begin work, then immediately ask to leave.
b. come in and immediately ask to leave before sitting down.
c. take care of it before you come in, and as soon as you enter the room tell the teacher what you were doing so you won't be marked late.
d. take care of it before you come in, but expect to be marked late if you arrive after the late bell.

5. If you are late to class regularly because you are coming from gym or studio, and you really can't help it, you should
a. expect to be excused fo your lateness and not marked late, because it's not your fault.
b. take your time getting to class, because if it's not your fault you're late and you will be excused, then it doesn't matter how late you are.
c. get to class as soon as you can, but expect to be marked late, and understand that you will need to make up for it in other ways (behavior and participation) to prevent it from affecting your grade.
d. come in late and act as if class hasn't started yet, such as by talking to other students or making comments out loud, and taking your time settling in.

6. If you have a first-period class but find yourself arriving late to school because of traffic or transit delays, the correct thing to do is
a. leave home earlier so as to arrive earlier.
b. expect to be excused for your lateness, since the delays were not your fault.
c. expect to be excused for your lateness, since you can't leave home any earlier because you would have to get up earlier, and you need your sleep.
d. expect to be excused for your lateness, because if you leave earlier you might get to school too early and have nothing to do.

7. If you are absent from class, then you should
a. do nothing, because you're not responsible for that day's work.
b. provide an excuse, because if you have an excuse you're not responsible for that day's work.
c. do that day's work in class the next day.
d. make up the work outside of class, either during the extra period at the end of the day, or on your own time.
e. expect to receive a lower grade on your notebook if entries are missing.
f. d and e.

8. When submitting a permission form for a school trip to the teacher, you should expect
a. that the teacher will approve (check "A") and sign it.
b. that the teacher will approve (check "A") and sign it, but only if you are currently passing the class; if you are failing, the teacher will deny permission (check "D").
c. to be allowed to go on the trip even if you are failing, because it's really important and you really want to go.
d. to be allowed to go on the trip even if you are failing, but only if you promise to do all your work from now on.

9. If you are absent on the day a final essay is written in class, such as for a writing project or midterm exam, the correct thing to do is
a. nothing; if you're absent, you don't have to write the essay.
b. nothing; it's not that important and it won't affect your grade very much.
c. wait for the teacher to tell you what to do, but don't ask about it and don't mention it.
d. write the essay, have it with you the next time you come to class, and offer to submit it to the teacher even though he may not accept it.
e. provide an excuse for your absence but don't write the essay, because if it wasn't your fault you were absent, you don't have to do it.
f. provide an excuse for your absence but don't write the essay, because the teacher might not accept it.
g. provide an excuse for your absence but don't write the essay, because it has to be written on the printed form given out in class.
h. provide an excuse for your absence but don't write the essay, because it's the teacher's job to tell you when and how to make it up, and until he does you don't have to do anything.
i. wait until the marking period ends and you get your grade, then act indignant and insist that you were in class that day and the teacher must have lost your essay.

10. At the end of the period, you may stop work, put your belongings away and prepare to leave when
a. you decide that the class is over.
b. you decide that you are finished with your work.
c. you see the time approaching the end of the period.
d. you feel like it.
e. the time reaches the end of the period, and the teacher indicates that the lesson is over.
f. the time reaches the end of the period, whether the lesson is over or not.

11. If you ask for a room pass and are denied permission because it would exceed the limits of the room pass rules, the correct thing to do is
a. wait until after class.
b. politely respond with "Please, it's an emergency," or words to that effect, with the understanding that any exceptions to the room pass limits are duly recorded and may affect your grade if they become unreasonable.
c. argue about it with the teacher, and keep arguing about it until you get permission.
d. get up and walk out, because you're entitled to go if you need to.
e. a or b.

12. On the first day of school in September, before the course begins, before any assignments or grades are given, your grade average is
a. 100.
b. 65.
c. 55.
d. Zero (0).
e. whatever your grade in English was last year.
f. whatever you think it should be.

13. If you do just enough work in your notebook to meet the requirement, and the quality of the work is adequate, typical, average, etc., the grade you should expect to receive is
a. A.
b. B.
c. C.
d. D.

14. When you leave entries in your notebook blank, or don't use the writing time to write, or only copy things off the board without writing any responses or notes of your own, the grade you should expect to receive for your notebook is
a. A.
b. B.
c. C.
d. D.
e. Zero (0)
f. F.

15. If you find yourself disappointed or dissatisfied with a grade you receive on a notebook, essay, project, or other assignment, the appropriate thing to do is
a. complain to the teacher.
b. complain to your guidance counselor.
c. complain to the principal.
d. complain to an assistant principal.
e. complain to a parent.
f. complain to a friend.
g. nothing.
h. cut class the next day.
i. try to get the grade increased by claiming the work was too hard.
j. try to get the grade increased by claiming you didn't know what to do.
k. try to get the grade increased by claiming that you were absent.
l. try to get transferred out of that teacher's class into another teacher's class.
m. give up, because you're just going to fail again next time.
n. give up, because the teacher obviously hates you.
o. consult the assessment rubrics, standards, work samples, online resources, classmates who received higher grades, and/or the teacher to thelp you understand why you received the low grade, and discover how you can do better next time.

16. If you find yourself having difficulty understanding the material discussed in class, sich as quotations, readings and Regents writing tasks, the proper thing to do is
a. nothing.
b. put your head down and go to sleep.
c. start a conversation with another student about something else.
d. do whatever you feel like doing, such as drawing, reading a magazine, looking through photos, playing with electronic devices, or homework for other classes.
e. expect to be given a passing grade for the class, because the work is too hard for you, so you can't do it, and that's not your fault.
f. announce to the teacher and the class that you "don't get it."
g. raise your hand and tell the teacher that you "don't get it."
h. demand that the teacher explain it to you and refuse to do any work until he does.
i. think about it, form an idea, then raise your hand and ask a question which indicates that you've thought about it but need some help developing the idea.

17. When you're confronted with a difficult, challenging project assignment, where you find yourself having difficulty doing it or even understanding what to do, the best way to handle the situation is
a. don't do the project at all, because if you don't know what you're supposed to do, you can't be expected to do it and it won't affect your grade.
b. don't do the project at all, because if an assignment is too difficult for you, you can't be expected to do it and it won't affect your grade.
c. don't do the project at all, because it won't be any good anyway, and if you're just going to get a bad grade there's no point in doing it in the first place.
d. don't do the project at all, because it might not be exactly what the teacher wants, so it's better not to hand in anything than to hand in something that's wrong.
e. don't do the project at all, then when they're handed back or when you get your report card, act indignant and claim that you did do it, and the teacher must have lost it.
f. don't do the project at all, then when they're handed back or when you get your report card, and the teacher mentions the missing project, say you didn't know about the project and have no idea what he's talking about.
g. wait until after the project is due, then tell the teacher you're having trouble understanding what to do, and ask for help and more time.
h. wait until after the project is due, then complain to the teacher about how hard it is, so the teacher will make it easier, give you more time, or tell you that you don't have to do it.
i. wait until after the project is due, then complain to a parent or administrator about how hard it is, so that person will force the teacher to make it easier, give you more time, or tell you that you don't have to do it.
j. do the best you can to come up with a really good reason why you couldn't do it, because if you have a really good reason, you'll either be excused or get another chance.
k. do the best you can to avoid mention of the project for as long as possible, and hope the teacher will forget about it.
l. do the best you can to complete the project based on what you know, making educated guesses and decisions on what you don't know, ask questions and come in for extra help well before the project is due, and get it done either on time or as soon as you possibly can.

18. When the end of the marking period or semester is approaching, and you find yourself with a failing average, what you should do is
a. ask to do "extra credit" to make up for the work you didn't do.
b. promise the teacher that you will do your work from now on if he will give you a 65 for this marking period.
c. claim that you didn't understand what's going on in class and/or don't understand the material, so you shouldn't fail.
d. claim that you were absent for an extended period, so you shouldn't fail.
e. give up and stop coming to class, because you're just going to fail anyway.
f. try to get transferred out of that teacher's class into another teacher's class.
g. wait until after the report cards come out, then complain to a parent, guidance counselor and/or administrator that the grade is "unfair."
h. accept the result, acknowledge and understand why it happened, and resolve to do better in the next marking period.

19. Some of the arts studios do not allow students to participate in end-of-term performances if they are failing any of their academic classes. If this happens to you, the only thing you can do about it is
a. ask the teacher whose class you are failing to let you perform anyway, because it's very important to you.
b. ask the teacher whose class you are failing to raise your grade so you can perform, because it's very important to you.
c. ask the teacher whose class you are failing if there is anything you can do now, such as "extra credit," to raise your grade and be allowed to perform, because it's very important to you.
d. promise the teacher whose class you are failing that you will do all of your work from now on if he will let you perform, because it's very important to you.
e. ask the studio teacher to talk to the academic teacher and convince him to let you perform.
f. ask a parent to talk to the academic teacher and convince him to let you perform.
g. tell the studio teacher that you are actually passing and the academic teacher must have made a mistake.
h. nothing; you should have taken this into consideration during the school year when making day-to-day decisions about whether to do your academic work.

20. Which of the following statements is true?
a. A failing grade (F) is better than a zero (0).
b. A zero (0) is better than a failing grade (F).
c. There is no difference between a failing grade (F) and a zero (0).
d. If you think you're going to fail, you might as well not do the work at all.
e. The first marking period does not count toward your final grade for the course.
f. It makes no difference when an assignment is done, as long as it's done.
g. If you didn't mean to do it, or if you didn't mean for the outcome to happen, then it's not your fault.
h. All of the above.
i. None of the above.

Friday, May 9, 2008


Well, this one was inevitable...

A couple of weeks ago while I was checking notebooks, I discovered that a student had copied his entire notebook word-for-word from someone else's. It had been a while since I caught a student plagiarizing, but it does happen with some regularity. Last year, I had students downloading old Regents Anchor Papers (samples which the State gives teachers to help illustrate the different scoring levels) and copying them, sometimes right in front of me during an in-class essay writing. Of all the things students do with respect to their schoolwork, cheating and plagiarism I think are the worst. I'd almost prefer a student do no work at all than be a cheater and a plagiarist; at least the former is honest.

I've reached the point now where I essentially never give students anything to write outside of class. Their notebooks stay here, on the tables; they are not supposed to take them home. Final essays are written as in-class exams. On those occasions where I do assign long-term writing projects which the students are to produce on their own outside of class, there are always a few which have been cut-and-pasted from the internet, whether from Wikipedia or some other source, or in some cases, multiple sources. I can't remember the last time I gave such an assignment and did not find at least two or three that had been plagiarized.

I've mentioned several times on this blog how my former principal at the fraudulent, corrupt "School of the Arts" in Queens where I taught in 2002-03 and coached baseball from 2003-05, let my students off the hook for cheating and implicitly encouraged them to keep on doing it. Instead of reading the text and writing their own responses, as they were assigned to do, they chose instead to go online and copy the chapter summaries word-for-word from SparkNotes.com (or Pinkmonkey, in some cases; I've had students over the years copy from Monarch Notes and other sources but never, oddly enough, Cliffs Notes). Some students who were not copying from SparkNotes were copying from each other. One of these put on a tear-filled, Oscar-worthy performance of denial and indignation before sheepishly admitting what she had done. I've seen many of these performances over the years, and they all unfold the same way.

The first time I saw this, I was obviously angry. I am always angry when students cheat, especially in a manner like this which is not only easy to detect, and entirely defeats the purpose of the assignment, but can actually take longer and require greater effort than simply reading the text and writing one's own response. The problem was that, even after a whole slew of students received failing grades for their fraudulent notebooks, things did not get any better. In fact, they got worse. Students were warned that if they did this again, they would receive a zero, not an F; I gave them some credit the first time, for having at least done something (even something so loathsome), but made it clear that in the future this sort of craven dishonesty would not be tolerated under any circumstances. Sadly, maddeningly, but perhaps predictably, a good proportion of these students who were explicitly warned not to do this again, did it again.

The nadir occurred after a large number of students, particularly those in one class section, failed the marking period because of the F's and zero's they received as a result of this brazen, shameless cheating. The principal was obviously perturbed by the high percentage of failures in that class, but when I explained the situation, his response was absolutely unfathomable:

"Well, you must have made the work too hard, so they had to cheat."

My jaw dropped to the floor. I couldn't believe what I was hearing, that a high school principal was actually standing there telling me that it was perfectly OK with him that the students were LYING, CHEATING and STEALING, because it was MY FAULT that the students were lying, cheating and stealing. (For the record, once again, the assignment was: Read a chapter of the text, 10-12 pages or so, think about what you read, and spend 10-15 minutes writing a response to the reading, i.e., about the text and your ideas. If this is "too hard" for high school students, we are all in a lot of trouble.)

The worst thing about that school, aside from the corruption and filth at the top, was this intractable and widespread epidemic of cheating (including theft of exams from teachers' files) and plagiarism by students, enabled by the administration (whose modus operandi seemed to be to kiss the backsides of students and parents until their lips were raw, metaphorically speaking). Once I discovered the problem, and realized that the administration had no intention of supporting my efforts to eradicate it, it quadrupled the amount of time and effort I needed to mark, grade and return student work. Every entry in every notebook, and every paragraph of every essay, had to be checked against online and print sources, as well as the work of other students, for plagiarism. As easy as it is to find sources online, when the problem is so widespread and insidious that everything the students submit is under suspicion of plagiarism, grading notebooks and papers can become incredibly difficult and, more significantly, inefficient and time-consuming.

I suppose some students count on this, i.e., that teachers will not bother to take the time and effort to seek out and uncover academic dishonesty. Some students may actually think their teachers will not notice or be able to tell that the work is plagiarized. Others may count on their parents and administrators letting them off the hook and blaming the teacher for "making the work too hard" or providing inadequate instruction. I had one student at that school complain that since he always received low grades on his essays he had to cut-and-paste his entire essay from SparkNotes, because in his words, "My work is never good enough for you." The parent and principal promptly fell in line with this reasoning.

As I discussed in Toxic Truths: A Closer Look, infra, it never occurred to either of them that (a.) the student had received low grades on his essays because his writing was not very good; and (b.) the way to get a better grade was to pay attention to classroom instruction, and to the specific, individual feedback he received on his prior work, and learn to write better essays. Once again, the parent and administrator preferred to teach him that he was entitled to a high grade no matter how good his work was, and that if I wouldn't give him one, then he should cheat. A parent or administrator in this instance might also contend that the instruction and feedback must have been inadequate if the student's grades have been low; the student's own effort and attitude are not part of the calculus. Once again, the student, not the teacher, receives the benefit of the doubt (see The Great Failure, infra).

Regardless of the specific reason, students cheat and plagiarize because they do not perceive a risk in doing so. They have either gotten away with it in the past, or have been absolved for it when caught, so by the time they reach high school it becomes in their minds not only acceptable, but routine.

I've heard all sorts of excuses from adults for why students cheat, why they read and copy SparkNotes instead of actually reading and writing about the literature they're assigned. I've had other supervisors besides that odious principal, not to mention parents, excuse and blame me for the students' dishonesty. I even mentioned all this recently to some of my law school classmates, who laughed it off and dismissed it as "what kids do," implying that I was the one who had done something wrong by taking exception to, refusing to tolerate, and punishing this behavior. Again, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Doesn't anyone realize that this is why they do it? Doesn't anyone realize that if we, as adults, make it OK for students to do the wrong thing, they will do the wrong thing?


Tuesday, April 15, 2008

From Deadline to Lifeline

April 15 is a date of treble significance to me: The anniversary of the Titanic disaster, Jackie Robinson Day in Major League Baseball, and of course, the significance it carries for everyone else in America: the deadline for filing tax returns.

I thought today might be an appropriate occasion to examine one more fundamental concept which I somehow left out of Toxic Truths, and which has also gotten hopelessly lost in the school system: the importance of the assignment deadline.

By now I've told the story several times of a student submitting a marginal essay a month past the due date, and three weeks after the "late deadline" (more on that shortly), and my supervisor not only forcing me to accept it but not allowing me to penalize it for being submitted so late. I've had many students and parents over the years complain about lateness penalties, and have had several supervisors either encourage or compel me to accept work weeks, even months, after it was supposed to have been done. And I have heard many times the same refrain from students, parents, and supervisors: "It doesn't matter when it gets done, as long as it gets done."

Excuse me?

If that is true, what is the point of having an assignment deadline in the first place? What is the point of having a course sequence, or syllabus? Do these people really believe that a due date is meant to be just a suggestion? That this is an appropriate lesson to teach kids?

As a general matter, when I give students a brief-term (or long-term) assignment such as a writing project, which they are to produce outside of class, the final product (and each intermediate product such as a draft or revision) will be due on a particular date. The idea is to provide a reasonable amount of time to complete the work but not so much time as to encourage procrastination and neglect. Naturally, many students will procrastinate and neglect to finish the work on time, thus missing the deadline. My policy is to allow several days after the due date to submit late work, subject to a penalty of one full letter grade (i.e., a B+ becomes a C+; students who submit work after their class period on the due date are penalized a minus-grade, i.e., a B+ becomes a B). The time to submit late work is limited, however; there is always a "late deadline" after which no work will be accepted under any circumstances. The late deadline is usually about a week after the due date. After that, it's a zero.

I always take great pains to inform and remind students of due dates and late deadlines, but three things always happen: (1.) They act surprised every time I mention it, as if they were hearing about the assignment for the first time; (2) they still hand in the work late; and (3.) they cannot understand why or accept that late work will be penalized and I will refuse to accept it after the late deadline.

Why should late work be penalized? The most oft-cited reason is that it would be unfair to those students who did hand in the work on time, but why is that? Because completing the work within the allotted time is part of the task, and part of the assessment. The quality of the final product is obviously the primary element, but the ability to perform and complete a task and manage one's time to meet a deadline is also an important skill which needs to be assessed, not to mention an indispensable professional and life skill. Students should all be held to the same objective standards. Students who have the skills, take the time and put forth the effort to meet the requirements should receive full credit; those who do less than that, should receive less than that.

Moreover, the timeliness of the work must be part of the criteria, because otherwise there is no point in setting a deadline; it would be, as mentioned above, merely a suggestion. We want to encourage students to hand in their work on time, and discourage them from handing it in late. If handing the work in late has the same outcome as handing it in on time, where is the incentive to hand it in on time?

There are several other reasons why late work should be penalized. For one thing, it can be terribly inconvenient for a teacher to be grading work which, in terms of the course sequence and syllabus, is long past its shelf life. Teachers set deadlines so they can plan and set aside time to mark and grade the work, as well as determine an appropriate occasion to return the graded work to the students and maintain course continuity. Having to keep track of and grade various past assignments along with current ones creates inefficiency. Grading work, particularly performance-based assessments, can be an arduous task; it is most efficient for a teacher to be grading the same assignment on the same rubric at the same time. It is unfair to the teacher to have to grade past assignments long after her attentions have shifted elsewhere.

Most importantly, the idea that deadlines are ineffectual and that "it doesn't matter when it gets done" flies in the face of how things work in the real world. There are inflexible deadlines and limited grace periods in just about every meaningful aspect of life, mostly involving financial or legal matters. Rent payments, mortgage payments, credit card payments, car payments, monthly bills, and of course taxes, all have to be paid by the due date. Penalties, late fees and interest are among the consequences for late payments; so are collection calls, repossession, foreclosure, and in extreme cases, criminal sanctions. Many other important matters, such as college and job applications, licensing and certifications, insurance contracts, court appearances, voter registration, and even insignificant things like sale offers and store return policies, have deadlines, time limits, expiration dates, etc. More importantly, banks, creditors, tax auditors, licensing agencies, etc., not to mention employers, are substantially less interested in why you missed the deadline, and substantially less forgiving in that regard, than teachers are.

Students have a million excuses why they don't (or in their minds, can't) submit work on time. "My printer ran out of ink" is my favorite. I used to warn students in advance to be on the lookout for a mysterious computer virus that somehow knows when my projects are due, and causes every printer in the city to run out of ink the night before. It is their responsibility, I tell them, to make sure well in advance that their printer has ink and is working. Printers in general are among the most reliable devices ever invented; they do not break down or fail to function nearly as often as students would have us believe. Complaints about the cost of ink also fall on deaf ears; owning a printer necessitates and requires the occasional purchase of ink and paper. And, if all else fails, there is always pen and paper.

(Not to go on and on about the whole printer-related-excuse farce, but the option to hand-write brings to mind another incredibly stupid decision that students often make. In the face of a printer failure, whether real or imagined, students will rarely even think of the hand-writing option, and those who do will decline to exercise it. Most of them simply operate on the assumption that the printer failure in and of itself will excuse the lateness or non-submission of the assignment. Others, when asked why they did not hand-write the assignment, reply, "I didn't think you'd accept it." This is a common excuse for not taking initiative under less-than-ideal circumstances. But think about it: If you have something to hand in, there is a chance that I will accept it. If you have nothing, then there is no chance I will accept it because there is nothing for me to accept. In other words, they'd rather hand in nothing and have no chance of a positive grade, than hand in something and have some chance. Is it laziness, entitlement or stupidity that causes kids to make this wholly irrational choice?)

Of course, I am willing to make exceptions and forego the lateness penalty in exceptional cases. Sometimes a student simply cannot meet the deadline, and I have no difficulty with that idea. However, in my class the student bears the burden of proof that the late submission was not the result of his own negligence; that he truly could not submit the work on time because of circumstances beyond his control which were impossible to anticipate or overcome. Similarly, if a student is absent from class on the day of an exam, she bears the burden of proving that she was absent by necessity, not by choice or negligence. I believe students should bear this burden. Anything less would give them a perverse incentive; i.e., they'd be more inclined to find or create an excuse than to do the work and meet the deadline, or come to class on the exam date. Students should be allowed some latitude, but there have to be reasonable limitations and, more importantly, it should not be automatic. Students would be wise to take the advice I always give them: Never assume that an excuse will be accepted.

They would also be wise to understand that yes, it does matter when the work gets done.