Monday, December 21, 2009

A Paragraph About Nothing

I feel compelled today to cross-post this exercise from my website. The purpose of the exercise is to read the paragraph, a Discussion paragraph about one book from a "critical lens" essay, and determine what score it should receive based on the Regents rubrics:

The novel Prognosis Negative by Art Vandelay expresses protest against many different things. The story covers a great deal of time and takes the reader through many different places and events, as the author uses several different techniques to really make the reader think. By using a certain type of narrative structure, Vandelay is able to grab the reader’s attention and make the piece much more effective and meaningful, showing how everything happened. The story moves from the beginning to the end as the protagonist struggles to resolve the central conflict, while a number of unusual and unexpected things occur along the way. Characterization is used throughout the novel, as each of the characters is described in a different way, making them seem more real and allowing the reader to better relate to them. Each character has a unique personality, with several important characteristics described in the text. This allows the reader to understand who these people are, why they do what they do, and how they end up where they are in the end. The characters represent how the author feels about the issues he is protesting, and in the end, the reader understands exactly what Vandelay is trying to say. Prognosis Negative is an example of how authors use their works to express their opposition to various things.

I created this back in 2002 when I was teaching on Long Island. It's a pretty fair representation of how the students at that school tended to write literary essays, with the language streamlined. I created this for two reasons. One was because I noticed an overwhelming vagueness in the students' writing about the literature they had read and about the literary elements of those texts. The other was because when my supervisor saw a paragraph like this, she would heap praise on it and tell me I was wrong to not score it a 5 or a 6.

I think a lot of teachers, when they read this, would agree with her; that this is lucid, errorless, sophisticated writing, the writer clearly knows what he's talking about, and it proves its thesis by discussing literary elements. But read it again and pay close attention to what the writer is saying, not how he's saying it. If you're paying attention, you'll realize almost immediately that what the writer is saying is ...


Forget for a moment that there is, of course, no such book; it's a combination of two not-so-obscure Seinfeld references (show about nothing, paragraph about nothing). The paragraph is a combination of boilerplate clich├ęs ("really make the reader think", "make the piece much more effective and meaningful," "allowing the reader to better relate to [the characters]", etc.), comparative words like "better," "various" and "different" used as descriptors by themselves, interrogative conjunctions like "who," "what," and "how" setting off clauses without providing any specific answers or examples, and to the extent that literary elements are mentioned, their terms are used only to define themselves. No character is named, no event from the story is presented or described, nothing whatsoever is presented that would be unique to Prognosis Negative among all literary works.

Even if the book did exist, this would obviously not be an adequate analysis thereof. Why, then, would a teacher give this a 5 or 6 (mastery-level) score on the Regents? It's easy to suggest that a teacher might be fooled by the writer's language skill into thinking that such a fluent writer must certainly know what he's talking about. It is more likely, however, that the teacher simply presumes that the writer knows what he's talking about because they've just finished studying the text. In other words, the teacher gives the student the benefit of the doubt.

As anyone who reads this blog knows, I never do that. A student has to prove to me that he read and understood the text, and knows it well enough to discuss it intelligently. A paragraph like this doesn't do that, not by a long shot. A lot of the problems I had on Long Island stemmed from the fact that from the students' perspective, this paragraph had always been good enough for their teachers; when it wasn't good enough for me, they felt I was being unreasonable. It didn't help that the Department chairwoman agreed with them.

I never stooped to the level of showing her this, telling her a student wrote it, and asking her to score it. I'm sure it wouldn't have done any good. I sometimes wonder how many English teachers would actually spot it, assuming they didn't get the Seinfeld reference.

Deep, Abiding Frustration

I'm almost through grading the third of five classes' worth of "critical lens" essays that the students wrote last week after 7 days of class instruction on the task, which included 2 days of sentence construction and correction activities. During the last essay project in November, we spent a whole week on sentence construction. Yet as I slowly and painstakingly work my way through these essays, I realize that what's making it so slow and painstaking is a troubling fact.

I don't think there's been a single sentence in a single essay that I haven't had to correct or mark up in one way or another, for one reason or another. I'm sure if I go back and read them again I'll find one here or there, but it seems that essay after essay, I find myself marking up and correcting every single sentence. Whether it's spelling, grammar, punctuation, capitalization, word usage, verb conjugation, vagueness, awkwardness, imprecision, subjectivity, inaccuracy, or some combination of any or all of these, every sentence in every essay seems to have something wrong with it. There are even transcription errors (i.e., copying the critical lens or the book's title incorrectly), and violations of specific rules and forms that were deliberately, expressly and directly emphasized in class.

This is why it takes so freaking long to get through a set of essays, why I stopped requiring multiple drafts years ago, why I can only assign four essays per semester, why I can't do much more than provide general comments and rubric evaluation for notebooks and homework, and why I only score the students' final exam essays and don't mark them. These students' inability to form a coherent thought in words, either on paper, out loud or even in their own minds, is staggering.

Of course, one of the reasons for this is that no one seems to care anymore whether children can write with any precision or basic grammatical correctness. My supervisor on Long Island used to tell me that "if it's close, if you can pretty much understand what they mean, then it's fine." No, I had to reply, it's not fine. Language needs to be precise. What you write should say exactly, precisely what you mean, leaving no room for ambiguity or misinterpretation. Yet many of these children have been taught that it's OK to approximate meaning when they write, and that's not even considering the fact that they've also been taught that no matter what they write or how they write, the end product is just wonderful and deserving of an A+++++, because they "did their best" and it would be unreasonable and wrong to expect mere children to write actual proper English sentences.

I'm afraid I can't fathom what it must be like to be 16 and have so little awareness and understanding of the world around me because I can neither read, write, listen, speak nor understand any language, at least not with any competence or precision. Language is the key to understanding absolutely everything, including oneself and one's own thoughts and perceptions. George Orwell understood this when he wrote 1984, and described the Party's means of keeping the population virtually unconscious by reducing the language to merely a very few basic expressions. It's frightening to think that so much of the population 10, 20 years from now will be as unconscious as Orwell's proles.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Single Digits

I have nine teaching days left.

At some point I'm going to take the essays on this blog and attempt to compile them into a book, which I'm sure no one will want to publish. I have to figure out what my overall thesis and large-scale organization will be, but I imagine I'll concentrate on the following items:

- The fundamental mistake that educators and parents make from which nearly all of our problems ultimately stem: The idea that every child is an "A" student by default. Everyone's a winner, everyone gets a trophy, and no one is ever "better than" anyone else at anything. If you're a student, anything and everything you do is just fabulous. From this notion springs most of the counter-intuitive and counter-educational policies I've seen in schools that actually prevent kids from learning: entitlement grading, subjective standards, differentiated instruction, to name a few. Not to mention the irrational ideas this puts in kids' heads, e.g., that daily work is optional, due dates are just a suggestion, and they should pass any class in which they cannot do the work.

- The desire to forgive kids for actions, decisions and behaviors that are at best irrational and inappropriate, and at worst deplorable and sociopathic, because they're "just kids," thereby enabling even more, and even worse, such behaviors.

- The idea that we "can't expect kids to" do this or that, or to know this or that.

- The refusal to teach kids manners, empathy or even basic decency.

- Teaching kids that their feelings matter, but their choices don't.

- Preventing kids from becoming better readers by focusing on what they read, instead of how they read.

I'm sure I'll think of more. Most of the material, I'm sure, will come from my experiences on Long Island and at the phony, corrupt so-called "School of the Arts" in Queens between 2001 and 2003. These ideas all basically revolve around the same theme: That we've spent so much time wrangling over the roles of teachers and parents, we've completely lost sight of what the student's obligations are with respect to his own learning. To phrase it as "blame the students" is to over-simplify and miss the point; this is not about blame. This is about action. What does the student need to do in order to make sure that he learns? I think we need to ask, and answer, this question. We need to realize that the student has a role to play in making learning happen.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

It's gold, Jerry. Gold.

Today in class we were discussing the passage in Shoeless Joe when Ray Kinsella and J.D. Salinger arrive at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Ray introduces Salinger to the cashier:

"This is J.D. Salinger," I say, pointing to Jerry as if he were a trophy I was delivering.

"Yeah?" says the clerk, her face coming alive. "Really?" She looks at both of us for the first time, smiling.

"It's a pleasure to meet you." She extends her hand to Jerry. "You used to work for Kennedy, right?"

"Indeed I did," says Jerry, his eyes plashing across mine, mischief rearranging the kindly lines of his face. To keep from laughing, he turns away.

"Did I say something wrong? says the cashier.

"He was very fond of Jack," I reply.

Of course, none of the students got the joke, so I had to explain that the cashier had confused Jerry (as he prefers to be called, at least in the novel) for Pierre Salinger, JFK's press secretary. I explained that this was a literary technique called allusion, a reference made, usually indirectly, to a fact outside the text which the reader is simply expected to know. I gave another example, which I usually use; a line from the film A Few Good Men:

"Three cases in two years?! Who's she handling, the Rosenbergs?!"

I pointed out that if you don't know who the Rosenbergs are, you won't get the joke.

Inevitably, someone asked, "Who are the Rosenbergs?" I replied, "Look it up; Julius and Ethel Rosenberg." The next question ... wait for it ...

"Weren't they on I Love Lucy?"

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Narcissistic Personality Disorder

I am always amused by students who actually still believe that they are somehow hurting me by refusing to do their work. Some of them are simply five years old psychologically and emotionally, the equivalent of a toddler holding his breath until his face turns blue or until he gets his way. Others, indeed a great many others, suffer from narcissistic personality disorder, a condition that seems to afflict a great many teenagers nowadays, particularly girls.

From Google Health:

Narcissistic personality disorder is a condition in which there is an inflated sense of self-importance and an extreme preoccupation with one's self.

A person with narcissistic personality disorder:

  • Reacts to criticism with rage, shame, or humiliation.
  • Takes advantage of other people to achieve his/her own goals.
  • Has feelings of self-importance.
  • Exaggerates achievements and talents.
  • Is preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, beauty, intelligence, or ideal love.
  • Has unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment.
  • Requires constant attention and admiration.
  • Disregards the feelings of others; lacks empathy.
  • Has obsessive self-interest.
  • Pursues mainly selfish goals.

This describes a great many of my students fairly well; they exhibit at least four or five of these symptoms, the most common of which are highlighted in bold. I'm told all the time that this is a normal, natural state for teenagers but I don't buy it. Not all teenagers are narcissists; if they were, there'd be no point in bringing attention to the disorder, and what's more, no one would notice it.

There are certain specific behaviors in the school context that emerge from narcissistic children. One is the belief that they are somehow hurting their teachers (or, indeed, anyone but themselves) by refusing to do their academic work. Another is that they actually think they're helping themselves and are more likely to get their way by being peevish and reflexively hostile. Another is the incredible belief, which I've discussed previously, that they should receive passing grades on assignments and report cards because they cannot do the work or understand the material.

I actually had a conversation with a student yesterday that illustrates another symptom of this disorder. I was covering another teacher's class, and as usual, the students were noisy and would not do the work the teacher had left for them. I am generally disinclined to give room passes during coverages, so as to minimize students' taking advantage of their regular teacher's absence, and I specifically told this group that I would not do so if they persisted in making noise and refusing to do their work and behave in a civilized and appropriate manner. I must have said no to at least four or five different students asking for passes.

Finally, toward the end of the period, another student asked for a pass and I said no. It would not be fair, I told her, for me to say yes to you after I said no to everyone else. (Also, school rules bar room passes in the first and last ten minutes of class.) She persisted. I said, I understand where you're coming from, but you must understand that fairness requires me to say no. Then I asked, do you agree that it would not be fair for me to say yes to you after I said no to everyone else? She replied, No. I asked why and she had no answer. She either could not or would not say what I think we both knew: that she believes her needs are more important than others', or that her needs matter and other people's don't. That she is entitled to get what she wants irrespective of objective fairness; that not getting what she wants is automatically, inherently unfair.

I also get tired of hearing adults (and students) tell me that I should not be annoyed by this sort of behavior, that I should not be concerned about it, that I should expect it and that i should not try to correct it. Nonsense. When someone tells me, "You can't expect kids to" do this or that, know this or that, understand this or that, or appreciate this or that, my response is always the same: Yes I can. I can, I do, and I will. I don't have to "accept" appalling, deplorable, antisocial behavior no matter how old the actor is. No person is reasonable and civilized by default; they have to be taught. One way to teach them is to not enable them by "accepting" such behavior because "they're just kids."

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


It amazes me sometimes how much some of these children reveal about themselves without intending or realizing it. Here is last night's homework question:

Judges in the Kingsborough Student Essay Contest disqualified Sam's entry because it broke one of the contest rules. The rules specified that students should place their name ONLY on the cover page of the essay, which the judges would not see, to make sure they judged it fairly and without bias against the individual student. Sam, however, put his name on each and every page of his essay. Nevertheless, Sam's entry should be allowed to qualify, because Sam's parents recently got divorced, and it's been very hard for him.

Which one of the following explains why this is a flawed response to the judges' decision?

A. It presents a conclusion without providing supporting evidence.

B. It treats a factor that may cause a particular outcome as the only possible cause of that outcome.

C. It focuses on a trivial, unimportant aspect of the judges' argument.

D. It incorrectly states the facts that formed the basis of the judges' decision.

E. It appeals to the judges' emotions instead of addressing their reason for disqualifying the essay.

Here is one student's answer, technical errors included:

Choice "A" is correct because first the explanation only says that Sam's parents were divorced as the only reason he did disobey the rule, however it doesn't say other resons such as Sam's age if he was a little boy or young student he may have emotional reasons why he did such a thing. He probably feels he didnt want to lose his name after losing a parent, and doesnt wanna except the change, and doesnt want to. No one can judge nor tell him what to do with his name.

Need I say more?

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Reflections on My Last Open School

Open School evening and afternoon passed without any over-the-top melodrama and no unreasonable complaints. Other than a few encores from parents I've heard from already, whose antics I've written about in the last few entries, there really were no unpleasant confrontations at all. This was a relief, obviously, as was the fact that the parent I wrote about in Silly Season did not show up at all. One parent complained bitterly about the fact that I put the homework online and require the students to get it even if they don't have easy or convenient access to a computer, then the very next parent who came in had high praise and appreciation for the exact same practice. Any confrontations I have with parents from here on out will have to be by appointment.

I really used to enjoy open school. I won't go so far as to say I've come to dread it, but there's almost always one or two whack jobs who manage to ruin the whole experience. Here's what I wrote at this time last year, when I thought I would only have one more Open School to deal with. The last two were busy, but generally uneventful. There are a few things I've noticed, however, that I wanted to put down.

One is that it helps tremendously to have a principal who "gets it." With all due respect to the first high school principal I worked under, who was an excellent administrator but interacted less directly with teachers because the school was so large, I think my current principal may be the best in the city. Certainly the best I've seen since I left that first high school in 2001. She is more than willing to hold students, and parents, accountable and does not automatically assume that the teacher is wrong, like some principals I've encountered. She does not accept wild accusations against teachers at face value and does not bend over backwards to appease unreasonable people, like some principals I've encountered. While some principals are ultimately concerned only with making parents happy, her primary concern is getting at the truth, and the reality of the situation. "Your problem is not with my teachers," she said to one parent last year. "Your problem is your kid not doing her work." This approach is certainly better for teachers, parents and students in the long run. What's more, knowing this makes it easier for me to be more frank and honest with parents, and avoid some of the silly, patronizing games we sometimes have to play.

Another is thing I noticed is that students seem to feel a great deal more comfortable and confident lying to their parents than they have in years past. At least three parents told me specifically that when they had received correspondence from me informing them of either the child's misbehavior or academic failure, their children told them that I was lying. Fortunately, at least for now, more parents are willing to believe me than the children in these situations. I doubt that this behavior by students is anything new; I just found it curious that it came up so often. And, of course, there is a correlation between parents who act as enablers and dishonest, self-serving behavior by children.

The only truly negative experience to come out of Open School this year actually happened after everyone had gone home on Friday. After meeting with a student and her mother during conferences, at which the student hemmed and hawed and evaded and equivocated and sat completely silent when her mother asked her to explain the evidence I showed her of the child's non-performance, it was time to actually grade the child's notebook. Long story short, much of it was copied from another student, an Honors student who sits in the same seat in a different class period. The latter told me a few weeks ago that her notebook had gone missing, but it turned up shortly thereafter. Apparently the former actually took the latter's notebook out of the room and brought it home to copy it.

The amazing thing about this is that it's not the least bit surprising, but it still makes me so angry every time I see it happen. It never takes long before at least one student, and usually more, reveals him/herself to be a liar, cheater and/or thief. And kids wonder why I never give them the benefit of the doubt.

All in all, I'm glad Open School passed without incident. 2½ more months and I'm done.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Silly Season

Once again, for emphasis, from Merriam-Webster's Medical Dictionary:

en·abler ( i-'nA-b(&-)l&r) noun : one who enables another to persist in self-destructive behavior ... by providing excuses or by helping that individual avoid the consequences of such behavior.

We're now in what politicians call "silly season," or what I have called "crazy parent season" here at school. The first marking period is ending, report cards are coming out, and since kids never take September academic work seriously (and only care about their grades after they see their report cards), a lot of them are failing. I'm in the process of sending out notifications to parents of kids who will fail the marking period, after already notifying the parents of those who did not show up for the essay exam on October 15.

I have to say I feel a little bad about burdening my Assistant Principal and the 10th grade Guidance Counselor with stacks upon stacks of letters which I've sent home to parents so far this term. Since I'm giving homework for the first time in years, and the children are (predictably) not doing it, I've had to notify parents of that. I've had to notify them of every failing notebook grade and every chronic behavior or attendance problem; anything at all that the child does or neglects to do that might cause the child's grade to be lower than it otherwise would. Reams of paper and scores of dollars in postage. And why? Because the first words out of the mouths of most parents when they discover that their child failed are, "No one told me!"

This is the typical high school parent's favorite logical fallacy. I wasn't aware that my child was failing, was in danger of failing or was going to fail, therefore he cannot fail and must be given a passing mark. You didn't tell me about it at the time it happened, therefore it didn't happen and any consequences of it must be rendered null and void. It doesn't matter whether or not informing the parent at the time would have made any difference. The first argument a parent will make when they don't like the outcome is that they were not informed of it or its causes in advance.

I've written about this extensively, and I've also repeatedly referenced a story about a parent who insisted, based on the child's word alone, that the child had been in class on the day of an essay exam despite my showing her four separate items of objective proof to the contrary. "If my daughter says she was here, then she was here." Now, apparently, I have another one of these. "My daughter doesn't miss class," was what this one said to me on the phone, demanding "proof" that the child had been absent. Among other grievances, she objected to the fact that I require students to do their work at the time it is assigned, the fact that I write answers and explanations for the homework questions on the blog instead of on each individual student's paper, that they need to read those explanations on their own (which, when I was in school, was called "studying"), that I had made a minor exception to the rule about late homework since she was initially notified, and that I had not given her child the direct personal attention that she deserves. Repeating her child's absurd fabrications as if they were gospel truth, she accused me of being disorganized, sloppy and careless with student work, when the truth and my reputation in this school is the precise opposite. It was one of the most insulting and offensive parent phone calls I've ever received.

It should be noted here that this child not only does very little work; she is one of the most nasty, peevish, reflexively hostile, unpleasant children I've ever had as a student. It's obviously not hard to see why. Narcissism breeds narcissism. Her mother is the worst kind of enabler, one I've rarely seen in New York City but which seem to be growing increasingly commonplace. To paraphrase Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), talking to a parent like this, trying to explain academic policy and the rationale behind it, is like talking to a dining room table. This parent is only interested in an outcome, and won't accept anything other than that outcome or that doesn't lead to that outcome, logic and reason be damned.

Thinking about this parent and some of the things she said has led me to realize something else. As a teacher, I am a public servant. I work for the City of New York and have responsibilities to my employer, my school, my supervisors and my students. This parent, however, and others like her, see me as their personal servant. As a public servant my job is to serve the public, and the best way to do that is to set objective standards and rules by which everyone must abide, treat everyone fairly and honestly, provide the instruction, materials and expertise that all of my students need to succeed, and use impartial, independent judgment to determine whether and how to make exceptions in individual cases. I think I have done that.

This parent, on the other hand, and perhaps understandably, is only concerned about her own child. However, that concern on her part does not create responsibilities on my part. Either this woman sees me as her personal servant, or does not understand the difference between a public servant and a personal servant. I work for the city, but this parent thinks I work for her and her child. She is unable to distinguish the two because, again, she is only interested in an outcome.

I have one more Open School to get through before I'm done with this nonsense for good. Hopefully it'll go smoothly. We'll see.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Stupid Is as Stupid Does, Part II

Well, here's a new one.

Thursday I gave my first final-essay exam of the semester. Naturally, a lot of students did not show up to take it, and therefore received zeros for the essay, which is worth 40% of their grade. I was very emphatic in the days leading up to it that they would have a very tough hill to climb if they did not show up; they would have to produce the essay and have it in-hand the next time they came to class, AND, provide proof to my satisfaction that their absence was unforeseen, unavoidable, and occurred for reasons much, much more important than their grade in English. If they were absent by choice or negligence, then I would not accept their essays.

About half of the 40 or so kids who did not show up to take the exam were in first period. One of these showed up just after the period ended, essay in hand, and I asked her why she had not come to class. "Because I was late," she said.

"Because..." I replied.

Again she said, "I was late."


Shrug. "I was late."



"Why were you late?"

Shrug again. "I overslept."

I shook my head. "Negligence. No good." I did not accept her essay.

Like everyone else who didn't show up, her parents got a letter from me to notify them that she would be receiving a zero and would fail the first marking period. Today, I got an e-mail from her father. In it, he claimed that her absence on Thursday "was due to car trouble that I had that morning, causing her to be late."

OK. So the child comes into school late, missing an important essay exam, with no explanation other than that she "was late" because she "overslept." Then two days later the parent contacts me and claims to have had "car trouble...that morning." Usually this happens in reverse, you see. Usually the child will claim some insurmountable obstacle to her arriving on time, and the parent will blow the whistle on it later. This time the child shows up late with no explanation, then the parent comes up with one two days later.

Is it possible that this parent is now lying to me, to cover for his child's negligence? Is that what it's come to? I now have parents who lie and make up phony excuses for their kids after the fact? Really?

Three more months... Three more months ...

UPDATE: After I responded to the parent by telling him that the reason he gave me was "not the same reason [the student] gave me," without specifying, I received the following message:

over sleeping is an everyday thing due to the anti-seizure medication that she is currently using.[Name] get dropped off and picked-up everyday by me. I felt bad,because she was up the entire night before preparing her assignment and studying for your class.

Not sure what to make of this, whether it is a subtle mea culpa for lying about "car trouble," or an unsubtle plea for sympathy. Never mind the fact that the students had almost two weeks to work on the assignment, which amounts to reading two short passages and writing a four-paragraph essay, which would seem to obviate the need to be "up the entire night before preparing" for the final draft. They'll have about two hours to do the same task on the ELA Regents next year.

Of course, the parent immediately attempted to shift the blame to me with his next sentence:

I thought that it was made clear in our last meeting, that if you had any problems with [Name], you were more than welcome to give me a telephone call.

I've written before about this bizarre obsession parents seem to have about being telephoned every time their child breathes the wrong way, as if the lack of such notification nullifies any and all misbehavior. In this case, I have no idea what he is complaining about. I notified him earlier in the term of the child's chronic lateness. I notified him that she was not doing her homework. I notified him that she missed the final-essay exam. I don't know what other "problems" he thinks I should have phoned him about. His previous message also included something about this. I'm going to wait until tomorrow to e-mail him back with the exact dates of all previous correspondence.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Stupid Is as Stupid Does

I had an interesting conversation with a parent this morning. He dropped by to ask about his daughter's progress and the topic of homework came up. I mentioned that she had done 11 out of the first 15 assignments but had received either 1 or 0 points on 9 of those; in other words, she had answered only two of the 11 questions correctly.

I explained that these were logic questions; the purpose of the exercise is for students to learn and practice logical thinking and reasoning. As I was explaining this, the man said that he had seen some of the questions on the homework blog. Then he asked a question which I found rather incredible:

"Isn't logic just a matter of opinion?"

I was a little stunned to hear this, and I answered adamantly, "No, absolutely not. Opinions are inherently illogical."

"Really? Doesn't the answer depend on your point of view?" he asked, or something to this effect. Can't people disagree about what the answer is? Don't different people have different opinions about what's logical?

No, I explained, that's the whole point. There can only be one logical answer to a question which is designed to elicit such an answer. Logic does not depend on opinion, feeling, bias, point of view, experience, or anything else. You can't "agree" or "disagree" with logic. 2+2 can only =4.

When I hear parents say things like this, whether to defend their children against mean teachers who have the audacity to insist that students answer questions correctly in order to receive credit for them, or otherwise, it makes it much easier to understand why kids make such stupid decisions. Many of them really are being taught at home that whatever they "think" (or feel, or believe, or whatever) is fine, or "right," regardless of logic and regardless of how their actions affect others, let alone themselves.

I encountered this kind of nihilism before, when I taught on Long Island, although it was much more intense there; the attitude that nothing could be considered "right" or "true" or valuable. In their minds, everything was a matter of opinion. EVERYTHING. Whether it was an interpretation of a novel they were reading or a grade they received on an essay, they dismissed and rejected everything I said as "just your opinion." It became impossible to teach.

I started giving these logic problems (basically dumbed-down LSAT questions) as homework this year in part because of the ACUITY test results from last year, which showed that students had a very difficult time connecting evidence to conclusions and vice-versa. Their performance in my class, especially on essays but also in terms of their behavior and deportment, bore this out. And the results, so far, are not encouraging; most of my students, except for the Honors class, are getting the questions wrong, and even those who get them right have a hard time explaining their reasoning. (Of course, that's only among those who are doing the homework at all...) Most of the wrong answers and explanations appear to be based on intuition rather than logic; they're picking the answer that feels right, not the one that actually makes sense logically. And they chalk up their getting the questions marked wrong to meanness on my part, rather than flaws in their own thinking or their own inability to think. As such, they see no reason to address the problem.

Sad to say, the students' overall performance on the homework so far has demonstrated something I've known for some time: These kids are not very smart. What's really sad is that they think they are, and have unwittingly trapped themselves in a permanent state of stupid, enabled by their parents. Someday this will change, but I don't know when, or what will precipitate it.

Read the homework blog and judge for yourself.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Homework, Re-revisited

From Merriam-Webster's Medical Dictionary:

en·abler ( i-'nA-b(&-)l&r) noun : one who enables another to persist in self-destructive behavior ... by providing excuses or by helping that individual avoid the consequences of such behavior.

Well, it's started already. The parents of the 49 students I mentioned in the last post all got letters home about their children not doing their homework, and some of them are already in full enabler mode.

Here's one message I received from one parent:
I received your letter in regards to [name]'s missing assignments.  I was very disturbed by this and both her father and myself had a very in-depth conversation with her.  I understand as per your letter that you do not accept missing homework's.  I do however feel that a child should be given a chance to make up work.   
Here's another gem:
Apparently the web address to your homework blog was either misspelled on the board or she copied it wrong into her notebook, leaving her unable to retrieve and complete previous work. ...  Now that she has the correct address, you should be receiving homework from her on a regular basis.

I would also like to ask if you could extend a professional courtesy and allow [name] to make up the missing credits. I was told that you do not allow homework to be made up, but maybe giving her an alternate assignment would be possible.
[emphasis added in both.]

I wish I could say that such vapid, self-serving nonsense was rare, but obviously I'd be lying. It is also not even the least bit surprising that these messages came from parents of two of my more unpleasant, self-absorbed and peevish children (one, in fact, got so many questions wrong on the responsibility/attitude-based take-home quiz that I almost thought she was joking).

I'm not going to pick apart the (il)logic of the "unable to retrieve" canard in the second message (except to point out that the students were given the web address two weeks ago), nor dignify the "misspelled on the board" lie with a response. I was struck, though, by the second message's characterization of makeup/extra credit work as a "professional courtesy." On the one hand, at least the writer did not characterize it as an entitlement. I also give the writer credit for phrasing it in the interrogative. But why call it a "professional courtesy?" The way I understand it, a "professional courtesy" is a courtesy extended by one professional to another, usually where both parties are members of the same profession. That obviously doesn't apply here. I don't want to belabor the point, and I'll give the writer the benefit of the doubt. I just hope it wasn't an attempt to shame me into granting the "courtesy" at the risk of being "unprofessional."

The first writer, on the other hand, is apparently under the belief that "a child should be given a chance to make up work." I hear that a lot. "They deserve another chance." Stuff like that. To which, I have one question, and I challenge anyone to give me a good answer:


Friday, September 18, 2009

Homework, Revisited

I am assigning homework this year for the first time since at least 2004. The reasons why I have not given homework, I discussed earlier this year in "Testing 1-2-3...".

I have 146 students this year, all 10th graders. As of yesterday I had given three (3) homework assignments. Out of 146, 49 have yet to submit a single one (excluding the Honors class, the numbers are even worse: 48 out of 115). Of the remaining 97, 28 have submitted only one of the three. Only 18 of the 115 non-Honors students have submitted all three.

Your witness, counselor.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A-B-C, Easy as...

After suffering through 10 weeks of studying for, and then taking, the New York and New Jersey Bar exams, I spent the last two weeks of the summer at the upstate sleepaway camp where I used to run the music and theatre programs before my career path shifted away from education toward the law. I had originally intended to stay only until the outset of the camp's annual "color war," but the directors asked me to stay on and help with the music for the culminating "sing" event.

[For those of you unfamiliar with the whole summer-camp thing, "color war" is an event that just about every camp ends the summer with. The entire camp is split into two teams pitted against each other in ostentatious and melodramatic competition for several days until one of them wins, at which point everyone hugs, sings the camp song and realizes just how pointless the whole thing was.]

This camp has a huge population, so when for example one age group is scheduled to play basketball or soccer against itself, there are too many kids in the group to have only one game. What we (and presumably every other camp) have traditionally done is had an "A" and a "B" team (and in some cases a "C" team) divided according to athletic ability. The best athletes play on the "A" team, the next-best on the "B" team, and those who can't walk in a straight line without tripping over themselves end up on the "C" team. It's really no different from the varsity/JV concept in scholastic athletics. It makes a lot of sense and works very well for all concerned.

Well, I suppose it was inevitable that one day the parents of the camp's less-than-stellar athletes would take angry and vocal exception to this perfectly reasonable idea and arm-twist the camp into plumbing new and profound depths of sheer abject stupidity in order to placate their fragile and well-moneyed egos.

You can probably guess what happened: The camp decided to abolish the athletic-merit-based A-B-C hierarchy and instead divide the A, B and C teams in an egalitarian fashion. In other words, instead of making a varsity, a JV and a taxi squad, the teams were supposed to make three roughly-even teams from among all the children in that division and then pit them randomly against each other. (There was an initial exception to this for hockey, because of the unavoidable issue of who could skate and who couldn't.) I won't go into all the details of how this idea was implemented in color war, except to mention that by the end of the first day it had created so much confusion and proven to be such a failure that it was essentially reversed as quickly as it had arisen, at least for the older kids. Whether they intend to try this again next year I have no idea. Suffice it to say that I didn't hear anyone at camp defending or promoting it.

Anyone who has ever been involved in athletics, at least as a player or coach, knows that the best competition occurs when everyone on the field is of comparable skill and ability. In a training or practice environment, it is certainly helpful for the lesser athlete to work side-by-side with highly skilled coaches and teammates, but in game competition, it does substantially more harm than good; to the game, to the lesser athlete himself, and to his teammates. Neither does the skilled athlete benefit from playing with (or against) lesser players. In short, this sort of arrangement does not help anyone in any real sense. The only benefit is to the lesser player's self-esteem, and it's a negative benefit because it's designed more to avoid "feeling bad" than to accomplish anything positive.

I guess the only thing that surprises me about all this is that it took this many years for the idea to creep into color war (it's been in camp for years; we played dozens and dozens of inter-camp tournaments each summer just to make sure every kid made at least one team). I really wish I could understand just what these parents think they're accomplishing by complaining to the camp directorship about their kids' lack of athletic prowess, and demanding that the camp make things difficult and counter-intuitive for everyone else in order to accommodate their insecurity. They're certainly not doing their kids any favors.

I was a terrible athlete as a child; I never made an "A" team at camp. I went sailing and raced go-karts and built contraptions at the wood shop and wrote skits and songs. And I hated color war (we called it "Olympics" at my camp). Pretending I was an "A" athlete would not have changed that. I became a better athlete in high school, when I was through with camp. Would I have done that if I had been led to believe that I was already an athlete? No way.

I understand that camp is not school, and it's certainly not real life. These people spend an awful lot of money to send their kids to camp for 7 weeks and can obviously therefore be very demanding. It's just that the educator in me often emerges and objects when I see these anti-educational ideas come out, in a place which I believe should at least attempt to provide some semblance of an educational experience.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Feigned Helplessness

One thing I cannot and will not ever accept is when a student responds to a quotation or a reading by saying, "I don't understand this."

I put a quotation on the board every day. Its function is to get the students thinking about something which is germane to that day's reading or lesson (as well as invoke the "critical lens" task on the ELA Regents). Students are required to write brief responses to these quotes in their notebooks for the first five minutes of class, while I take attendance and they settle in (what old-school DLP adherents would call the "Do Now"). Never is there any particular thing I expect the students to write; the responses become part of their notebook grades. There's no "right" or "wrong" "answer;" indeed, it is inappropriate to characterize the response as an "answer" because no question has been asked.

Invariably, inevitably, there will always be students who read these quotations off the board and say, "I don't understand the quote." This can have one of several connotations, but they all essentially mean the same thing. In some cases, it's not so much the quotation that the student "doesn't understand" but the task before him, i.e., he thinks there is a "right" "answer" that I'm specifically looking for and he doesn't know what it is, since I haven't given it to him in advance. Such students may be so accustomed to the binary Q-and-A approach to school and learning that they have not developed the capacity to think beyond the right-or-wrong-answer paradigm. Others are fixated about what the quote "means" in the same sense that they would ask what a phrase in a foreign language "means;" i.e., they're trying to translate English into English, which is futile and pointless.

Most likely, and ultimately in most cases, they fail to understand not the quote, but understanding itself, i.e., what "understanding" actually means. "Understanding" occurs when one arrives at a realization of meaning, at the end of a process of thought and inquiry. Students who claim that they "don't understand" a quote have not engaged with that process; they have not given it much, if any, thought and have not asked a single question of me or anyone else. They expect understanding to just happen automatically on its own, without any expenditure of time or effort, and if it doesn't, they give up.

This is where the problem arises. Partly out of narcissism and partly out of intellectual laziness, students in this situation fall back on a posture of complete inertia and utter helplessness. Because they expect "understanding" to occur automatically, it must follow that if they "cannot understand" the quotation, then it must be either impossible, or at a minimum too much to ask of them. Their response, in this helpless state, is to announce that they "don't get it" and wait for me to "explain it" to them, to give them the understanding which they cannot find, and cannot be expected to find, on their own.

I refuse to do that. I tell students all the time that I will answer any questions they have, but I will not under any circumstances do their thinking for them. Of course they hate that, and of course some of them think it makes me a bad teacher, and I accept that. But I truly believe that I, or any other teacher for that matter, do students a terrible disservice by allowing them to take a posture of complete helplessness and then giving them everything they need all at once.

My first response when a student says "I don't get it" is always, "Ask a question." Unfortunately, they don't really know the difference between asking a question and declaring that you are helpless, or perhaps more charitably, asking me to think for them. I've probably written here before that it is impossible to read something in one's own language and "not understand" it, again in the same sense that one would "not understand" an expression in a foreign language. But kids don't want to hear that (neither do parents, for that matter). To them, if they "don't understand it," it's the teacher's job to "explain" it, and they will sit there feeling helpless and victimized until I do.

The problem is that by taking a position of helplessness every time an intellectual challenge appears is of no use to anyone who is actually trying to learn. The obvious corollary is the English Regents; what are they going to do when they take the exam, read the "critical lens" or the literary passages, and say to themselves, "I don't understand it?" Then what? Where will this helplessness get them then? What they don't realize, and which a lot of English teachers and administrators still don't realize, is that the ELA Regents is a test of first-encounter, in that no one has any way of knowing what its content will be (although the tasks are always the same). Whatever they are given to read, it will be something they have never seen before and will have had no opportunity to prepare for, let alone have explained to them, in advance.

My supervisor on Long Island in 2001-02 used to enable the kind of helplessness I'm talking about here. She would say it's "not his fault" if a student "doesn't understand" a text or a quotation, so I have to explain it to him otherwise I can't expect him to write anything. She believed, without any logic or evidence to back it up, that if I provided the answers to helpless students now, if I do their thinking for them now, they will be able to do the tasks themselves when they actually take ELA Regents.

Hogwash. My telling them what one quotation "means" will not help them determine on their own what a different quotation "means." My telling them what the main idea of one poem is will not help them find the main idea of a different poem. Students have to practice these skills on their own. And yes, they need to try and fail. This supervisor dismissed "trial and error" as if it were cruel and unusual punishment. Since when is "trial and error" not a legitimate means of learning?

Students who learn to always take a position of helplessness when presented with an academic challenge will always fall back on that position. It's easy, it's convenient, and it relieves the student entirely of any intellectual responsibility, let alone any need to improve himself. We need to stop teaching kids to feel helpless, and start teaching them to help themselves.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

15 Minutes of What?

To follow up on "The Spanish Inquisition," it seems the Grand High Inquisitor after he left my classroom last week declared to my principal and A.P. that my class was nothing more than "a Regents prep class." See, the children were working on writing projects, an assignment of my own design based on the Literary Response essay task on the ELA Regents (Session Two, Part A). They were assigned, in groups, to come up with questions about each of the two passages, and about the writing task. Therefore, since he "did not see anything else going on," he concluded that I taught nothing but Regents prep, with no other meaningful content.

Forget the fact that the ELA Regents Exam, like any other standardized test, is designed to measure certain specific skills (not content knowledge) that students are expected to learn in high school English. Forget, also, that the ELA Regents is actually an excellent tool for developing those skills, as it is not a content-based exam; indeed, the content changes with each Regents administration. The tasks are always the same, but the material which the students are given to use in performing those tasks is always new and cannot be studied in advance. And forget the fact that I explained to this person while he was here the function of this particular assignment in the grand scheme of my English syllabus.

The point is that this person came into my class for 15 minutes, asked me a few questions, had me explain and show him a great many things, took a few notes, and concluded that the thing he saw for those 15 minutes must be the only thing that ever goes on in my classroom. Does anyone else see the flaw in the logic here?

There are 180 days in the school year. Each class is 47 minutes long. That means this person saw 15 minutes out of an 8,460-minute course, less than 1/5 of 1% (0.18%). Yet that 0.18% was enough for this person to make a broad, conclusory generalization about the other 99.72%, none of which he saw.

Obviously it did not occur to this person that any academic course is going to have a Regents-prep component. We would not be doing our jobs if we simply ignored the existence, and requirements, of these high-stakes exams. But contrary to the complaints of the no-teaching-to-the-test crowd, it is possible to incorporate and develop the skills associated with standardized tests without "teaching to the test." This is especially true with the ELA Regents, given its task/content duality.

I have always been irked by administrators and others who spend a few minutes in a classroom, or a few seconds standing outside the door, and conclude that whatever they see and hear during those few minutes or seconds is "all that ever goes on" in that class. The disgusting, demented gargoyle of a principal I had at that phony, corrupt so-called "School of the Arts" in Queens thought the same way, and did the same thing. He'd stand outside the door, watch or listen for half a minute, and then accuse me of never doing anything other than what he had seen or heard during that half-minute (or, alternatively, of never doing something he wanted me to do because he had not seen or heard it during those 30 seconds). People like this are impossible to please, and impossible to reason with. Their thinking is inherently unreasonable.

Ultimately, the criticisms the Grand High Inquisitor leveled at my school are laughable, and completely meaningless. The bullet-point suggestions use a lot of vague and passive language, and repeat the paradoxical edicts that we "raise expectations and rigor to improve achievement in academic subjects," and "ensur[e] that [assignments and expectations] are differentiated for each student." Since differentiation and rigor are irreconcilable, I imagine these evaluations will continue to see-saw back and forth between insufficient rigor and insufficient differentiation, until we get a reasonable Grand High Inquisitor to come in and take an honest, reasonable look at what we are doing here.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition.

Well, the Quality Review has come and gone. And the result, like the Monty Python sketch from which I draw the title of this post, is absolutely HILARIOUS.

If I may be serious for one moment, we did better than last year, but not quite as well as we'd hoped. That, obviously, is not the hilarious part. All year long, all we've been hearing about is "differentiated instruction;" have to show evidence of "differentiation;" "differentiate" this and "differentiate" that; have to show that we're customizing every lesson and every assignment to each and every individual student's needs, abilities, intelligences and tendencies. I've written at length recently about what a ridiculous and education-killing notion this is, but that was what last year's Grand High Inquisitor felt was our primary weakness.

Anyway, as I mentioned above, we did not do poorly on the Quality Review. But the Grand High Inquisitor's primary criticism of our school was ... wait for it, it's a doozy ... here it comes ...

. . . our academic classes are not sufficiently rigorous.

Pardon me while I ROTFLMAO until I lose consciousness.

Ahem, not rigorous enough? I can't really speak for anyone else, but I have found that every other teacher here, as well as the new administration, is of like mind with me when it comes to academic standards and accountability, and no one is more "rigorous" than me. They don't call me "Dr. Evil" for nothing. But this is not about me, obviously. The Grand High Inquisitor visited my classroom and didn't have any critical comments or questions (whether he made any such comments to the Principal or AP afterward, I have no idea), but that's not the point. The point is, and I'll put it in really big, bold letters just so anyone who has not been reading my blog lately, and therefore doesn't realize that this is what I've been saying for months, not to mention any Grand High Inquisitors who may happen across this blog someday, can understand it... Ready?...

You cannot have "differentiation" and academic rigor at the same time.

These two concepts are incompatible. They cancel each other out. An academic program cannot be both "differentiated" and rigorous. Put simply, you cannot customize content, assignments and standards to "meet" each individual student "where they are," while at the same time making that content and work rigorous and challenging.

An academic program is only rigorous if the work is challenging, the standards are high, and it is difficult to achieve high grades. "Differentiation" is nothing if not an attempt to make the work easier, the standards lower, and put high grades within the reach of every student. It is impossible to reconcile the notion that if a student feels he "can't" do the work or understand the material because it is "too hard" then we must "differentiate" the work and material for him, with the notion that academic work and material should be "rigorous" and students should not pass their classes or receive high grades until they can do the work and understand the material.

I've been down this road so many times on this blog I've lost count. I just can't get over the fact that after all this ... yes, I'll say it, bullshit ... about "differentiated instruction" they come in here and criticize us for not doing something that is effectively canceled out by the thing they have been insisting and demanding that we do. This result is just so incredibly ABSURD that all I can do is laugh about it.

Un. Freaking. Believable.

A moment of silence, please, for the demise of public education. May it rest in peace.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Five Years Gone, Never Forgotten

Five years ago tonight, 17-year-old Craig Grumet of Roslyn Heights died in a car accident on Wheatley Road. I had known Craig since he was 10 years old when I was his Group Leader at Camp Pontiac, in the summer of 1997.

I don't want to go into a whole recap of the events of that terrible week; there's more contemporaneous writing on the memorial webpage I set up about five days after the accident. Click here to visit the page, and sign the guestbook if you like.

Craig was an amazing kid, a pleasure to know and to be around, and had great potential, but like so many others his age he thought he was indestructible. As much as it pains me to say it, and as much as I loved him and still miss him, he died because he took risks he should not have taken; because he engaged in risky behavior without considering, or perhaps even perceiving, the risk. He made a mistake, the kind of mistake one cannot undo. And it cost him everything.

One of the recurring themes on this blog, and the focus of my recently-published Note in the Brooklyn Law Review (74 Brook. L. Rev. 439), is that parents and educators do young people no favors by teaching them that their acts and forbearances do not carry risk, that they don't have to bear the costs of their unwise choices, that their mistakes can always be un-done for them after the fact. Parenting and education practice, and the confluence between the two, have combined to create a generation of not only narcissistic and shortsighted, but dangerously reckless kids.

Sadly, Craig is hardly alone among teenagers killed in car accidents on Long Island; it seems we lose one every few weeks out here. Nor is he the only acquaintance of mine involved in a fatal Long Island crash; in 2002, another kid I knew from Pontiac, Blake Slade, was drag racing with a friend of his on Route 106 in Muttontown when they slammed into a Jeep making a left turn and killed its occupants, a young couple about to be married. Blake was 19 when this happened; the other boy was 17. They were sentenced to three years in prison.

No one has ever suggested, nor have I, that teenagers ought to be expected to have the wisdom of experience that adults have, be as cautious as adults, or avoid risk entirely. Taking risks and learning from mistakes is part of growing up. But we fail when we enable the former without requiring the latter. If a student knows that he will be excused, bailed out, accommodated, given another chance, etc., whenever he makes a mistake, if he knows that someone else will have to bear the costs of his mistakes, he has no incentive to even try to avoid making them. We don't need to smother and frighten kids into inertia, but we do need to teach them that their choices involve risk, and when they gamble and lose, they must pay a price.

Craig Grumet, five years ago tonight, paid the ultimate price. He gambled, he lost, and there was nothing left of him to be given another chance. He bore the full measure of that fatal roll of the dice. Despite what I've said, no one should have to pay for his first mistake with his life. If only one kid has since thought twice about taking a grave risk because he didn't want to end up like Craig, then something good came of it. His life lost may have saved someone else.

I can't believe it's been five years. I still miss that kid so much.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Where have you gone, Emily Post?

Here's a new one.

I take it almost as a given now that most teenagers know nothing of good manners, let alone make any effort to learn or practice them. I remember vividly being six years old, getting ready to enter first grade, and my mother insistently teaching my brother and me a whole canon of good manners, particularly table manners but also simple customs of etiquette like how to properly and politely ask for something you want or need. Today's kids apparently have no idea how to do that.

A particularly annoying behavioral tic has gained my attention in recent weeks, and compelled me to take measures to correct it. I find that when a student wants something, or needs something, (s)he will simply announce to me, or to the entire class, that (s)he does not have it. If the student cannot find his notebook under his seat, he will simply tell me, "My notebook is missing," then neither say nor do anything else. On final essay days, when a student comes to class late after I have distributed the essay forms, she will simply say, "I don't have the paper;" or, alternatively, "I need the paper." This is merely part of a what I am noticing is a larger pattern; "My pencil broke;" "I don't have a pen;" "I need a sharpener;" "I can't find my book;" etc.

I've written before about students' lack of resourcefulness and inability to solve even simple problems on their own or deal with even minor inconveniences. This behavior is an indication of that, in addition to being just bad manners. While it's true that very young children may grow accustomed to having adults solve their problems for them, by the time one reaches high school one should be able to, metaphorically speaking, tie one's own shoes. But by phrasing the want or need as a declarative statement rather than a question or request, the children reveal both appalling narcissism (the belief that someone else just automatically will, indeed must, address and accommodate the stated need or solve the stated problem) and pathetic childlike dependency (utter helplessness in the face of a simple inconvenience).

In situations like this I sometimes feel compelled to employ a little mind-trickery to elicit the proper request, rather than correct the child's manners outright. If a student tells me that she needs something or that he does not have something, I might respond with something to the effect of, "Thank you for letting me know," "I'm sorry to hear that," or a Seinfeldian "That's a shame." The response obviously depends on the student; some kids can't handle this sort of thing. But the idea is to teach the child that simply declaring that you don't have something is not the proper or appropriate way to go about obtaining it.

I must admit to taking a sort of perverse glee in watching some of the more clueless children squirm and pout their way through one of these exercises, but only because they almost always turn out OK; i.e., the student realizes in short order what (s)he needs to say. Sometimes they don't get it, though. I once had a student sit idly at his seat for an entire class period while the rest of the class wrote their essays, receive a zero on that essay and ultimately fail the class because he could not bring himself to say, "May I please have the essay paper?" Imagine that; a child who would rather fail the course than be polite.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

An Assault on My Conscience

There's something I've been needing to get off my chest.

Last week, I went out to dinner after class with three of my very dearest friends; we were catching up after not having seen each other for a while, and celebrating the return of one of them from a 14-month tour in Iraq. All in all we had a great time, but there was one part of our conversation that bothered me, so much so that it had me feeling ill the next day.

I was talking to my friends (none of whom are teachers) about some of the issues I've written about on this blog, particularly the difficulties of teaching students who behave abominably on an everyday basis. At one point I related an incident from a few years ago in which a particular student had exhibited borderline-psychotic behavior on several occasions, and when I had made a poor choice of words in describing this child's behavior to a family member on Open School Night, the mother misinterpreted my meaning and complained to my supervisor. The result, and the point of my bringing it up, was that the issue became my unfortunate word choice and not the need for this child to correct his behavior and/or receive professional help, thus eliminating any possibility of actually helping this kid.

At this point one of my friends proceeded to tell me, after prefacing with a set of boilerplate "I know you have a tough job, but..." platitudes, an unbelievably depressing story about an acquaintance of his who, at the age of about 17, had his parents go through the most contentious and ugly divorce imaginable, with one parent becoming a crack addict and the other a violent criminal, or somesuch embellishments to that effect, and others, which I cannot remember with any specificity because I found it all so upsetting. This story was so over-the-top horrific that it dwarfed anything I've ever actually heard about any student I've ever taught in 12 years in this profession. The point, apparently, was to criticize me for, I guess, "failing" to take this ghastly scenario into consideration.

I remember feeling ill all the way home on the train, and coming to school the next day in the most depressed state of mind I've experienced in years. What was my friend, whom I have known for almost 20 years and love like a brother, trying to tell me? That I should go easier on my students and be more tolerant of their despicable behavior because there might be a story like that behind it? That I am wrong to discipline kids when they misbehave, for the same reason? Was he accusing me of injuring this unfortunate kid myself, by proxy, because of the way I uphold standards and discipline kids in school? Or was he accusing me of injuring every kid I've ever disciplined in all my years as a teacher, because they all may have had a story like that to tell? That I should now have to re-think and mitigate every disciplinary referral I've ever written up, every punishment I've ever meted out, every standard I've ever upheld, every consequence I've ever imposed, nigh every comment I've ever made, to a misbehaving student?

I've written on this blog before about the dilemma all teachers face between being sensitive to students' out-of-school "issues" on the one hand, and maintaining order and consistent academic and disciplinary standards on the other. When I started teaching, I would have leaned toward the former; twelve years later, I lean hard toward the latter. I do so not only because I've just become so thoroughly disgusted with the way kids behave in school, a fact for which I refuse to apologize, but because I think it's more important that we not feel sorry for kids and thus teach them not to feel sorry for themselves. One cannot help but feel sorry for a kid in the predicament my friend described, but he is the exception rather than the rule; of course his story has to be taken into account, but not every kid is that kid. Is it worth it to undermine discipline across the board just to protect the one-in-10,000 who are in that kid's shoes? If we treat every kid like that kid, or like he may be that kid, then school will become one giant, chaotic pity party. Where is the social benefit in that?

No one can define precisely where the line must be drawn between the kind of "sensitivity" my friend seemed to be advocating, and the need to maintain consistent, universal standards of conduct for all students. No one can explain the difference between a brutal tragedy like that for which we should feel sorry and might mitigate discipline, and any other unfortunate circumstance in a student's life for which we should not and would not. As with so many other issues, the tension is between what is good for the individual and what is good for society (i.e., the school) as a whole. The only way to deal with it intelligently is to treat everyone equally and fairly, and be very careful about when, how and why we make exceptions.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: We do students no favors by teaching them that nothing is ever their fault. There is a reason why there is essentially no "excuse" defense (as opposed to justification) in criminal law. I have always been an advocate of clear, consistent, universal standards of performance and conduct in school. I have always believed that students have a duty to know, and follow, reasonable school and classroom rules, and if they choose not to do so they act (or forbear) at their own risk. I've never believed that a student's out-of-school "issues" should be a blanket excuse or justification for antisocial behavior in the classroom. I've always believed that we need to teach kids to persevere, not self-pity or self-indulge, and that we serve them better in the long run that way. Of course much depends on how we go about it. But I just have a hard time reconciling these principles with that story my friend told me.

I honestly don't know what I would do if I had that kid in my class and he was acting out in a substantially disruptive, or destructive, way. As far as I know, I've never had a student with such an extreme backstory. Obviously the school has resources to deal with that kind of situation, but that's not the point. My inclination is always to hold students accountable for their actions no matter what motivates them. Is that wrong? What happens to principles in the face of a tragic situation like that?

I don't think my friend would disagree with most of what I've written here. Yet this felt like an assault on my conscience. My friend basically used an anecdote I had told, to make a different point, as an impetus to attack me relentlessly for something I didn't even do, to someone I've never even met -- and I can't figure out why he did it. This is going to weigh on me for a while.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

One Step Up and Two Steps Back

Another thing that occurred to me recently about "differentiated instruction" (which I've decided to refer to from now on as "discriminatory instruction" until someone can explain to me why it isn't) is that it, like so many other fads that have drifted in and out of the high schools in recent years, is just another way of making high school more like elementary school and less like college.

I don't know exactly when this happened, but some years ago the thinking, at least here in New York, with respect to the high schools was that the best way to improve performance and achievement in high school was to use elementary-school methods in high school classes. Kids complain that school is "boring" and "dull" and "not fun" and they don't like reading or writing or listening to a teacher speak or taking notes or anything like that, so we in turn have to try to make school "fun" by turning academic subject matter into games and physical activities and entertainment, cover the walls with posters and colored paper and fancy borders and cutesy slogans and all manner of colorful eye candy, and of course student work with little gold stars and happy faces on it ... you know, "fun" stuff. Add that to the reflexive blaming of teachers for failing to "make it interesting" or "make it fun" and presto! we turn high school into Romper Room.

(For those of you too young to remember, here's Wikipedia's page on Romper Room. Wonderama is another good one from the same era.)

Using elementary school methods in high school has its occasional utility, obviously. But when the concept of "making learning fun" in this fashion becomes doctrinal or ideological, to the degree that we actively try to make high school as much like elementary school as possible, we approach the point where we defeat the ultimate purpose of upper secondary education. Private high schools are typically called "prep schools;" "prep" as in "preparatory." Public high schools are generally not referred to as prep schools, but their underlying essential purpose is the same: to prepare students for either (a.) higher education, or (b.) employment/entrepreneurship in the real world; or both.

It is just possible that making high school more like elementary school and less like college is a tacit acknowledgment that certain public high school students are not expected to go to college so they don't need to be prepared for it. The implications of this are obvious, and of course no one will ever publicly admit to such a mindset. But even if that's true, for those high school students who do not go to college, high school is the last stop on the educational train before they have to go out into the real world and try to make a life for themselves. I can think of nothing less like the real world than elementary school.

I've always believed that high school should be as much like college as possible, particularly in the upper grades. The intellectual and personal-responsibility skills that one needs in college (not to mention the workplace) do not magically appear out of nowhere on one's 18th birthday or the day he shows up on campus; they need to be in place when he gets there. Or do we really want to send kids to college or out into the world thinking they can abstain from doing required work because a professor (or employer) "didn't make it fun?"

What happened to the idea that students come to school to study? That high school should be a place for serious intellectual inquiry and academic rigor? These are supposed to be institutions of learning, are they not? Are there no serious academics left among secondary-level educrats?

Those who believe that we should make high school more like elementary school and less like college are not serious people. They cannot truly be concerned with creating anything like a serious learning environment, let alone the long-term prospects of these kids. If our job is to prepare them for what lies ahead, then no purpose can be served by looking backward.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Differentiation vs. Discrimination

One thing I would like to ask the Grand High Inquisitors when they come here for the Quality Review later this term is: What is the difference, as you see it, between "differentiation" and discrimination? Assuming there is a difference, at what point does the former become the latter? And if there is no difference, then isn't it illegal?

"Differentiation" still strikes me as essentially meaning: Teaching different kids different things different ways, to get them the same grade in the same class for the same credit. If we think of the grade and the academic credit as a "government benefit," i.e., something of value which the child receives from the state in exchange for meeting certain criteria, then having different criteria for different people to receive the same government benefit is illegal; that's textbook discrimination. It is manifestly unfair for me to require one thing of one student, and something entirely different of another, if they are both to receive the same thing in return.

This is true whether the grading standards are objective or subjective. Under an objective standard, the grade each student receives has the same relative value as any other student's grade, in that all grades are based on a comparison between the same objective standard and the work the individual student actually produced. Even if Johnny gets an 85 and Susie gets a 65, if they were evaluated qualitatively relative to a single objective standard (and by extension, relative to each other), then they each received the same value in return for what they produced. If the standards are subjective, i.e., if we 'handicap' the students based on ability, then Johnny and Susie both get an 85 even though Johnny's work is of objectively higher quality. That just makes it more unfair if what Johnny had to do to get that 85 is different from, let alone more difficult than, what Susie had to to to get the same 85.

My job, as I see it, is to differentiate without discriminating. I don't actually plan to ask the Inquisitors the question of if, when, how and why "differentiation" is not discrimination. I'm going to play it close to the vest as I don't want to say or do anything that will hurt the school on this Quality Review or moving forward. I hope the topic doesn't come up. But at the same time, I won't teach or evaluate my students, nor claim that I am doing so or will do so, in a way that is plainly illegal, immoral, and unconstitutional.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Race to the Bottom

Here's the official meme from the Grand High Inquisitors with respect to the tragicomedy they call "differentiated instruction." The following is quoted directly from a memo we received last week about the upcoming Quality Review:


Reviewers understand differentiation as:
"...modified instruction that helps students with diverse needs and learning styles master the same challenging academic content...through the use of varied material, varying instructional activities and varied assessments.
Additionally, Reviewers will observe that teachers are demonstrating the skill of differentiation when they:
erentiate the method of instruction by utilizing: flexible, skill-based groupings, cooperative groups, etc., group investigations, learning stations/centers, learning contracts and independent studies, modeling/demonstrating, think alouds and meta-cognition... visuals, varied questions and strategies to promote thinking such as: compare/contrast, categorize by characteristics, hypothesize & experiment, predict, evaluate using criteria, etc."
"differentiate the content by: providing supplemental or levelled materials at varying degrees of difficulty, offering multi-option assignments, allowing student to select..., creating simplified and/or extension activities, etc."

"differentiate the products by varying, modifying, and/or offering student choice..."
(emphasis in original)

Allright...does any of this make sense? The first paragraph, the supposed "definition" of "differentiation," seems to be somewhat innocuous. It does not suggest, however, that the use of "varied material, varying instructional activities and varied assessments" has to be carried out simultaneously, at the same time. It is perfectly reasonable to interpret that "differentiation" implies that these various materials, activities and assessments will be presented to students at different times throughout the course of a school year. How this definition necessitates any of what follows is beyond me.

The second paragraph, concerning "method of instruction," is naught but gobbledygook, a litany of buzzwords and euphemisms that bear no meaningful conceptual relationship to one another, are not presented in any sort of coherent sequence, and don't really add up to a larger point. Each of the ideas presented is, by itself, worthy of consideration, but unless a "Reviewer" observes a teacher for a long and continuous period of time, he cannot assess whether or not a teacher has "differentiated his method of instruction." That is, unless the Reviewer expects to see several of these things being practiced simultaneously.

The third paragraph, "differentiate the content," introduces the idea of letting students select what materials they want to learn and what assignments they want to do. I think there could be some value in this and have actually done it before, giving kids two or three options to choose from when producing a writing project. I can't really do it anymore, since all of my writing projects are now Regents-based. I've done independent readings too, in the past, where kids select the book they want to read, although when I do that I always have several students pick nothing at all. But during literature studies, all the kids read the same book. I cannot and will not teach multiple titles simultaneously.

The last paragraph, with respect to differentiated "products" provides nothing of use or value; it only repeats the vague concepts of "varying, modifying" and "student choice." If we think carefully, though, about what "differentiated products" means, it is probably the closest to what I do. The "product" that the student produces in my class is the individual response to the reading. Each student writes his own response, can choose which of the provided Guiding Questions to answer, and there's really no "right" or "wrong" response. In other words, every product which my students produce is unique to the student who produced it; no two notebooks or essays can ever be alike (unless they're copying from one another, but that's a separate topic). However, they're all graded on the same Volume-Comprehension-Response rubric.

Ultimately, I don't see much to this "differentiated instruction" business; the material provided here suggests that the Reviewers don't really understand it either, let alone have a clear or workable idea for how it might be practiced. The key will be whether the Reviewers approach this from a pragmatic or an ideological standpoint. A pragmatist will look at my classroom and find students writing their own responses to readings and their own essays, and find me basing my writing lessons on their previous work, and conclude that my instruction is adequately "differentiated." An ideologue will look at the same class and find that the students are writing responses to the same reading, or doing the same Regents essay writing assignment, and being graded on the same rubrics, and that will not be satisfactory.

This was the problem I had at the phony, corrupt Queens "Arts" high school, and the psychotic demented gargoyle who was principal there in 2002-03. When it came to pedagogy, and particularly his ill-considered "Humanities" idea, he was an ideologue, not a pragmatist. He wanted two things: (1) "student-centered" instruction; and (2) that the English curriculum consist entirely of Social Studies content. Rather than go on a lengthy dissertation about this arduous and ultimately heartbreaking experience, suffice it to say that everything I did fit reasonably within the definitions this creature had given us for what he wanted. Yet nothing I did seemed to satisfy him; whatever it was, it was not sufficiently "student-centered" or did not sufficiently involve the Social Studies content.

My sense right now at my current school is that the administration has taken a pragmatic approach to "differentiated instruction," not an ideological one. That is good. Who knows, it might even work if it is approached pragmatically rather than ideologically. Whether the Reviewers will do so remains to be seen.
The problem with "differentiated instruction," as either an ideology or a pragmatic concern, is that it will encourage what economists and legal scholars call a "race to the bottom." The term is usually used in the context of federal regulations, in that where the federal government does not regulate a particular business, the states will then compete to have the fewest rules and the lowest, most lenient regulatory standards, in order to encourage businesses to go there. In the school context, not only does "differentiated instruction" remove the student's incentive to learn and improve, it actually gives the student an incentive to become, and remain, as unintelligent, uninformed and incapable as possible. It punishes the smart and industrious in order to reward the dumb and lazy. Instead of competing with one another for high grades under the same high standards, as they should be doing, students will instead be competing with one another to get the easiest, least challenging assignments and the lowest, most accommodating standards.

As it stands today, Special Ed students each have something called an IEP, or Individualized Education Plan. These may include, among other things, testing modifications such as extended time, physical accommodations like reading aloud or scribing, and specific enumerated learning goals. The expectation is, however, that if a Special Ed student with an IEP is in a regular academic class, that the teacher has to accommodate that student by giving him separate materials and teaching him on a different level from the rest of the class. This, of course, is impossible in most circumstances. The only practical way to accommodate Special Ed students in a regular class is to lower the entire class' content and standard to the Special Ed student's grade level.

This is the point I'm trying to make. "Differentiated Instruction," as it's been described to me, essentially seeks to give every student in the system an IEP. I'm starting to believe that this is where we are truly headed. Within five years, every student in the New York City schools, and beyond, will have an IEP. The whole idea of an academic "course" on the secondary level will completely disappear, as every student will be allowed to choose his own materials and set his own standards in every academic class. Ultimately, the lowest standards and least-challenging content will become the norm. Hence the "race to the bottom," for students, teachers, and schools. Students will compete for the easiest work and the easiest path to an "A", teachers and schools will compete for the highest number of passing and high-average students and hence will have to pursue the lowest possible standards.

I don't see any other alternative. "Differentiated Instruction" is just another way to make high school more like elementary school and less like college. It's another avenue to the subjectivization of content and standards that I've criticized and lamented so often on this blog, an attempt to codify and mandate this "race to the bottom." The objective standards I've been advocating are going to disappear completely from our educational lexicon. When that happens, it's over. Thankfully, I won't be around to see it.

Education is dead. Long live "differentiated instruction."