Thursday, March 27, 2008

Toxic Truths

I know that a good deal of my writing here, particularly the last two entries, revolves around kids; their behavior, their approach to school, their various personality disorders, etc. I want to make it clear, however, that as an educator my primary complaint is not with the kids but with the adults; parents, administrators, and also teachers who follow their lead, who enable and encourage these unproductive, irrational, even sociopathic behaviors instead of addressing and correcting them. This doesn't mean that I don't think students should be held accountable for their actions and choices; quite the opposite. It's precisely that lack of accountability that is a primary problem. As I mentioned in an earlier post, adolescents have always been selfish, narcissistic and dishonest. It is our job as adults to teach them that selfishness, narcissism and dishonesty are wholly undesirable character traits in a civilized society.

What happens instead is that adults feel the need to "validate" the children's "feelings" and "opinions," to provide "encouragement" (in the form of obsequious praise) instead of criticism and discipline, and avoid at all costs any suggestion that any child is anything less than utterly marvelous. I've been over this again and again, so there's no need to re-hash it here. I will not go so far as to say that kids cannot be faulted for their appalling behavior and irrational decisionmaking (I have, after all, a giant sign in my classroom that reads "IT IS YOUR FAULT"), but I just want to remind the reader that my ultimate goal here is to rehabilitate the schools, not the children.

That said, there are a number of things which are indisputably true about kids and about education, but which the adults in the school system are afraid to say, afraid to think, afraid to believe, and most importantly, afraid to base their academic policies on. Among them:

- Not all children are smart.

- Not all children are talented.

- Some children are smarter than others.

- Some children are better than others at certain activities and skills.

- Very few children are legitimate "A" students.

- Smarter children should get better grades.

- A child's grade should be an objective measurement of his actual ability and performance.

- Children who cannot do the course work or who cannot understand the course material should fail the course.

- If a child makes a conscious choice not to complete and submit required course work, he should expect to fail the course.

- Children with long-term absences who do not actually attend school, do course work, take and pass exams, etc. should not pass their classes.

- If a child receives a low or failing grade on an assignment, project, exam, or overall course, it means that his work is insufficient or substandard and needs to improve.

- If a child wants a higher grade, he must produce better work.If a child wants an "A", his work must be the best in the class.

- Teachers are experts in their respective subject areas, in pedagogy, assessment and measurement, and they should be treated as such.

- Children who misbehave should be punished.

- Teachers should be annoyed, and should express that annoyance, when children misbehave.

None of this is complicated, none of this is unreasonable or unfair, and none of this should be controversial. Yet most if not all of these concepts are entirely lost on educators and parents (or, alternatively, they are lost on parents so educators are required to disbelieve them). Not only do these ideas seem to be entirely foreign to some people, they actually find them offensive and wrong. These ideas have in fact become so toxic that to even suggest one of them, particularly to a parent, is to invite a spark of outrage and indignation.

The argument is always that if we make the children "feel bad," they might "turn off to learning" and "give up" because we'll "make them think that everything they do is wrong." So we take each of the principles cited above, make ourselves believe that the opposite is true, and act accordingly. However, what is also lost on these people is that if we dismiss, ignore or reverse these principles in the name of protecting the children's feelings and trying to prevent them from "turning off" and "giving up," then we make it OK for them to "turn off" and "give up." We teach them to feel sorry for themselves.

In 2002, when I was teaching on Long Island, I had a student turn in an essay a month late, which I was compelled by my supervisor to accept even though I had given the students a specific "grace period" in which to submit late essays which had long since expired. The essay was marginal at best; minimum competence, nothing more, a 3 on the English Regents rubric. I gave it a 65 (I was forbidden from using letter grades in that school), minus 10 points for being late, 55. My supervisor, though, would not allow me give the student a 55. "We don't want the kid to feel bad. We don't want her to think that no matter what she does, she's going to fail." I am not making this up; these were her exact words. A grown woman, an English Department chairperson with over 30 years' experience, was actually legitimizing the self-indulgent overreaction of a 15-year-old, and on top of that, one which had not actually occurred.

This woman preferred to teach this child that she could just ignore an assignment deadline and hand in the assignment whenever she wanted; that a due date is merely a suggestion, and there will never be a penalty for not following instructions or meeting deadlines. Better to send a message that laziness, procrastination and self-indulgence are perfectly acceptable than to even risk having the student "feel bad." It never occurred to this woman that a penalty for lateness might give the student an incentive to hand in the next assignment on time.

And we wonder why our children are not learning; why they get to college or the workplace with such poor reading, writing, thinking and problem-solving skills (not to mention why so many kids are so despicable).

Did it ever occur to anyone that it might be a good idea to teach kids that "turning off," "giving up" and engaging in reactionary self-flagellation is NOT the proper response to adversity? That such an inductive overreaction is unreasonable and wrong? That if you do decide to "turn off" and "give up," you should understand and bear the consequences of that decision? Do we seriously want kids to believe that the proper thing to do when things don't go their way is to concede defeat, feel sorry for themselves, then try to make someone take pity on them and change the circumstances or un-do the outcome? Or do we want kids to regard low grades, penalties and disciplinary actions as opportunities to recognize and improve upon important academic, social and professional skills? Meaning, do we want them to LEARN? Wouldn't it be better for everyone in the long run if we taught kids that the proper response to adversity is not self-indulgence, but perseverance?

What a concept.

When I hear people talk about the need to "get back to basics" in education, I never know what they mean by that (neither, of course, do they), or what the "basics" are supposed to be. How about these "basics," for starters?

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