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, 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 (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?