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.