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.