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.