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?