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.

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