Artist • Author • Activist • Advocate

Cliffs Notes, originally uploaded by Purple_man.

I stumbled into a local Barnes & Noble yesterday and happened to enjoy watching a small group of high school students studying together. One student had a laptop and was tapping away and the others were reading. It was at that point I realized these students were reading those insipid CliffsNotes. You know the ones: Those skinny little yellow pamphlets designed to help English students better understand literature. For those of you who just landed on the planet, a well-intentioned guy named Cliff Hilegass started the company in his basement with a few Shakespeare titles; the company (no longer owned by Hilgrass) now offers notes on hundreds of titles. Detractors of the guides claim they allow students to bypass reading the assigned literature. The company, of course, claims to promote the reading of the original work, and views its material as a supplement, not as a substitute to the assigned reading.

I can only tell you what I saw: Several high school students sitting in the café sipping expensive coffee drinks not reading the primary text. They did not even actually appear to have the original text with them, and in between reading the CliffsNotes, they alternately texted friends, took phone calls, listened to music on their iPod Touches, and chatted it up with other friends who entered the café area.

Here’s my feeling on this topic. Ick. While these were high school students, I have no doubt that this is a similar process with regard to the way my college students approach reading and, later, writing. These days I feel a little hesitant about praising the work of students whose work I think is interesting or fresh, as I worry I may be positively reinforcing the habit of some students of picking up critical information from an outside source – a practice commonly called plagiarism.

I know that there are a million other sources available to students today besides CliffsNotes. Hell, they can purchase entire papers right off the Internet. Last year, a student actually listed a posting on Craigslist requesting someone to write his final English paper because he just didn’t have the energy to do it. He was willing to pay $150. I believe someone from the Monroe Community College English Department responded to the post and nailed the lazy, little twit. But I do wonder what has happened to personal pride and the hard work ethic. I wonder how many parents actually sit down to discuss cheating with their children. Do students understand that taking someone else’s ideas and presenting them as their own (without giving citation) is actually unethical? Do their parents?

For me, the person who uses CliffsNotes is a type of person who is afraid to think critically. Reading literature gives students practice in making their own connections, drawing their own conclusions, which can be supported by the facts with which they have been presented. I want my students to practice critical thinking so that they recognize that their voices and opinions are vital, and have power, not only inside the classroom but outside the classroom as well. The fact that students would trust a person that they do not even know just because he/she has a few extra letters after his/her name (PhD, M.S., D.D.S., M.D., J.D., etc..) represents another problem we have today; namely, people are too willing to take it from “the experts” before considering things thoroughly themselves. Students who use “Notes” of any form are not only cheating themselves, but they are cheating the world of their ideas. The best students are ones who are willing to take risks, engage in a dialogue about the literature: They are the ones who will be prepared to deal critically and creatively with opposing views, and recognize they need not feel threatened by ideas or beliefs which are different from their own.

I know great students exist. It just seems so dang easy to cut corners these days, like we have made it too easy for students to not do all that hard work that must occur inside their brains long before the pen ever hits the paper, or fingertips ever touch the keypad.

What do you say to your children to encourage them to think independently and express their own ideas, especially if they are struggling with the material?

photo from goldsardine at

When I teach, I come to class prepared. In fact, I sometimes come to class with a Plan A, Plan B and an Emergency Back-Up Plan. I think this stems from the days when I didn’t exactly know what I was doing. Case in point: Many years ago, when I was just starting out, students were completing their last day of oral presentations. One girl was standing up before the class doing her thing and a small group of boys were being – well, let’s just say, a little bit disruptive. Nothing major. They just weren’t really interested in the symbolism that she had found so riveting in Ordinary People.

I tried to get the attention of one of the boys. No luck. I tried to make eye contact with another. Nothin’. Finally, I took my pen – a Precise V5 extra fine tip pen in hand and attempted to throw it so that it would hit the main offender: Let’s call him Hugo. It should be noted here – and you can’t make this stuff up – that Hugo just so happened to have one good eye, having lost the other eye several years earlier although I never found out the circumstances surrounding how it had happened. Anyway, I tried to aim for Hugo’s leg – to get his attention without disrupting the entire class. I figured he’d feel the pen tap his leg, look at me, I’d give him “the death eye” and he’d stop screwing around. It seemed foolproof.

I don’t know how it happened because I usually have pretty good aim, but anyone who was in the class that day would vouch for the fact that the pen did not hit Hugo on the leg. That pen had a mind of its own and fueled by green ink, it launched itself upwards right into Hugo’s face just below (or maybe above?) his good eye.

Hugo stood up before the entire class holding his face, “What the hell are you are doing?” he shouted (and with good reason). “You could have blinded me?” And with that, Hugo announced that he was going to the nurse, the principal and, then, he was going to call his mother.

I had done precisely what I had set out not to do. I had disrupted the class completely. At the time, I pretty sure that I was going to be fired. After apologizing to the student presenter for creating such a commotion, class ended, and I hustled up to the Upper School principal to whom I confessed all my terrible, unforgivable sins. She clucked her tongue at me, told me to call Hugo’s mother, and explain what had happened. Thank goodness, Hugo’s mother was wonderful, supportive, understanding – and even joked that sometimes she wanted to poke out Hugo’s good eye. Later, I also apologized to Hugo who  apologized to me for being disruptive and disrespectful.

I have often thought about my experience with Hugo. As a new teacher, I was trying to figure things out. After throwing a pen at my wonderful student, I learned many things: First and foremost, I learned to never throw anything at anyone in-class ever again.  But I learned a lot of other things, too. Over time, I discovered more creative methods to communicate with students about their behavior without making the class come to a grinding halt.  I learned a great deal about respect that day and how quick-actions can lead to terrible consequences. I learned that sometimes teachers need to apologize to their students because sometimes teachers are the biggest twits of all. We learn from experience.

Oh, and I didn’t  get fired.

What’s a not-so-great thing you did on the job that turned into a huge learning moment?

My son happens to be a very cool kid. A smart boy, he naturally gravitates to science and math, thus making me wonder how it is possible that he sprang from my loins – but then my husband is a math-science guy, so it makes sense. A voracious reader, my Monkey cannot easily be torn away from a book. I have never had to ask him to do his homework. He comes home from school, makes himself a snack, eats it, puts his dishes in the dishwasher, and then disappears to do his homework. He just does it. I know some of you must be wondering what could this woman possibly have to complain about, so here it comes.

Recently, Monkey’s 5th grade teacher asked me to take a look at his English assignment due that next day. Monkey had been asked to answer a question, making sure to provide the title and genre of  the work, and a thesis statement. He was also asked to use topic sentences and provide textual support and cite the page number as well as explain how the quote supported his idea about the topic. I was elated. I mean, this was a friggin’ awesome assignment and not too different from the type of assignment I might give to my own students in an Intro to Composition class.

“What should I be looking for?” he asked.

“Monkey doesn’t integrate quotes into his papers; I’d just like to make sure he understands how to do it.”

Seemed simple enough.

That night, I explained to my Monkey that his teacher had asked me to take a peek at his assignment. His handwriting was solid, his topic was interesting, he included the title and genre of the book, but – nope, she was right, no textual support. I asked Monkey about the missing quote. He shrugged his shoulders and said he “didn’t care” because he knew he was “still going to get a high score on the rubric so it didn’t matter.”

“You need to find a quote,” I said quietly, handing him his notebook.

“It’s fine,” he said, attempting to slide his notebook into his backpack.

“It’s not fine,” I insisted. “Please revise it.”

“It is fine, and I’m not doin’ it.”

“You need to do it,” I argued, my voice a little louder.

“No, I don’t, and I’m not!” he shouted.

If an alien had landed in my kitchen at that moment, it would have thought that – on Earth – children communicate by screaming and crying and that mothers communicate with their young by wrestling them to the ground and screaming even louder. I am quite certain that we looked something akin to Bart and Lisa from one of those episodes of The Simpsons where the siblings are choking each other; in these episodes, they are generally screaming,  their necks are really long, and their eyes are bugging out of their heads.

Finally, I brought out the big guns.

“If you do not do this, you will have a huge consequence.”

A people-pleaser, my Monkey hates consequences, so with resignation he took his notebook and retreated to the office, closing the door behind him. Like I said, he’s a smart kid; he didn’t want to lose his screen time for the rest of the week. One-half hour later, he emerged with a fabulously fabulous journal entry that was even better than the first. It was neatly written, well punctuated, included capital letters; he even remembered to include the page number for his quote. So why all the drama?

I don’t micromanage my son’s academic career. Lord knows, he’s moved beyond me in math and science already, and when it comes time to create a Power Point presentation, he’s my go-to guy. He accepts criticism from his schoolteachers and baseball coaches, his fencing instructor, and his piano teacher. He accepts fine-tuning in violin and he doesn’t mind when his religious school teacher tells him he has mispronounced something. So what is it about the parent-child relationship that brings out such ugliness, such hysteria when it comes to academics? Why couldn’t he just do it for me?

Had Monkey’s teacher not asked me to look at his homework, I would not have found myself involved in that little power struggle, which is really what it was. And what stuck in my craw was that he said he was getting good grades for not doing all the work properly. Could that be true? It occurred to me that if my son’s teacher had given him a low grade – a really low grade – on any of the assignments leading up to that one, it might have motivated him to work harder to give her what she wanted. He’s no grade grubber, but seriously, what motivation is there to change your ways if you’re being rewarded for doing something half-assed?

I called Monkey’s teacher the next morning the moment he hopped on the bus and told her that, while he had completed the assignment, it created real tension between us.

“Do me a favor,” I added. “Next time, if he doesn’t follow the instructions, give him a low grade. He isn’t motivated to work harder because he says he has been receiving high grades on these assignments even without doing what you’ve asked him to do.”

“I can’t believe you are telling me to give him a low grade,” she said. “Would you want him to have the opportunity to redo the assignment if he really blows it?” she asked.

“No,” I said. “I want him to see what it feels like to fail.”

I wonder how many teachers feel held hostage by American parents, afraid to give low grades to students who aren’t really living up to their full capabilities. They must know that if they give low grades, they will face an onslaught of angry emails and phone calls. But how does inflating grades help our children? From where I stand, all it means is that I have to teach it to them later when they hit college level.

Yesterday I made a mini-resolution: From here on out, unless my child specifically asks for my help, I am going to consider him the captain of his own seafaring vessel. That means he’s pretty much on his own, but he’s equipped with a CB radio with a direct line to me. I’m there on the beach in case of rough waters (or confusion about how to use semi-colons) in which case I’ll hop into my little motorboat and ask permission to come aboard. And once the seas have calmed and he has control of his ship again, I’m outta there, back to my spot on the beach.

How involved are all of you in your kids’ daily homework assignments? And could you stand by and watch your child go down with the ship?

They are celebrating Teacher Appreciation Day in my son’s elementary school. Yesterday a note came home asking parents to send in $5 and to have each child bring in a single flower so that room parents might construct a bouquet to present to the teacher along with a conglomeration of gift cards. Upon receiving these instructions, I took $5 out of my purse and, because nothing is blooming in my yard, I hurried to my local grocery store in search of a few rogue stems, no small feat given that Sunday was Mother’s Day. And then it occurred to me: Here I am running around, but what is my child doing to express his gratitude to his teacher? I mean, I put in the bucks for the gift certificate. I schlepped across town to find flowers. Being an evil teacher-parent, this morning, instead of letting my child watch Sponge Bob, I asked him to compose a short card thanking his teacher for all she has done for him this year.

These days I remember Teacher Appreciation Day with nostalgia, as it simply doesn’t seem to happen at my local community college. Maybe that is wrong. Maybe I haven’t been there long enough to enjoy such privileges; perhaps it is because I don’t really have a home-base: I am without an office and float between classrooms. Maybe it is a college phenomenon: Students come and go, even within a semester. And because everyone has his or her own unique commitments (work, family, finding time to get wasted), there are precious few opportunities to get to know each student on a more personal level. I miss that.

When I taught at the secondary level at Metairie Park Country Day School in New Orleans, Louisiana in the mid-1990s, I worked my booty off. A new teacher, I was forever making lesson plans, grading papers, trying to stay one page ahead of my students. I served as Faculty Advisor to the student-run Literary Magazine and, to make extra money, I proctored on Saturday mornings any time the S.A.T.’s were administered. Every teacher knows you don’t enter this profession for presents or monetary rewards; that said, the folks at MPCDS were crazy thoughtful. On Teacher Appreciation Day, faculty and staff were served a delicious lunch and — I’m not sure if I am making this up or not, but I am pretty sure that one year the chef actually made us Baked Alaska for dessert.

Sometimes it felt like Teacher Appreciation Day came three times a year: on Appreciation Day, around holiday time, and then again at the close of the school year when students would pile candy, crawfish pies and mounds of baked goods atop my heavy steel desk. There were always a few lovely cards and letters stuck in there, too. I loved those best of all.

Essayist Cynthia Ozick writes: “We often take for granted the things that most deserve our gratitude.” I know this to be true. I like to believe the fruit of my day’s work, though nearly invisible now, remains that way until about a decade later when former students suddenly start crawling out of the woodwork – as doctors and lawyers and book editors and engineers and social workers and real estate agents and photographers – and teachers. And then, unsolicited, amidst casual conversation, they let me know I made a mark on their lives.

So, I keep on keepin’ on: developing new curriculum, continuing to take courses myself, hoping to inspire my students to believe that reading critically and writing masterfully are two of the most important skills they can develop during this lifetime. At the end of each semester, I bring in doughnuts and recognize folks who have made perfect attendance (an astounding accomplishment in and of itself these days) as well as those who have repeatedly blown my mind with their written expression.

Let me be clear: I do not want a candy-filled mug that with the words “#1 Teacher” stenciled on the side, nor am I secretly pining for a t-shirt that declares I am the “World’s Greatest Teacher.” I do not mean to imply that my students are unappreciative people because that is simply not the case. I would, however, like to suggest that in this age of the all-too-convenient reckless communication that comes in the form of email and texting and IMing – a short but sincere, handwritten note expressing appreciation is truly the greatest gift a student can give a teacher. Ask any teacher and I’ll bet he or she will tell you the same thing.

After twenty years, I still have them all.

photo from john_a._ward from

In an effort to stay competitive in my job at my local community college, I recently signed up to take a 20 hour course to learn the latest and greatest ANGEL technology which – in theory – is supposed to help me to help my students by allowing me to “web enhance” my class. Some people teach entire classes online and love it. I have not jumped on this bandwagon. In fact, I imagine that is not a wagon I will ever jump onto without kicking and screaming.

I believe part of the educational experience – at every level – involves the relationship between the instructor and the pupil who need to interact with each other in real life, not just via email. I also believe it is necessary for students to learn in a classroom filled with other bodies – bodies that have minds and mouths which can vocalize serious differences of opinions and that it is an important role of the instructor to act as a moderator in some of these interchanges.

I attended the very first 5-hour ANGEL session and left feeling a little pessimistic. The man heading up the session started off with an ice-breaker activity where everyone introduced themselves, explained where they taught, in which department, and how they planned to integrate ANGEL technology into their curriculum. Many people attending the hands-on seminar were strictly online adjunct instructors. They were happy to have jobs and didn’t seem to mind that they had never actually met their students and seemed content to receive the one required digitally uploaded photo. One woman proudly announced she had individual conferences with half of her students via SKYPE right before a major essay was due. There were lots of ooohs and aaahs at this, lots of frenzied note-taking. Math teachers and gym teachers seemed to all really like ANGEL; I’m not sure what that means.

When it was my turn, the instructor pointed at me and asked, “And you? The one in the black turtleneck who is hiding a little?”

“Well,” I admitted, “I’m not planning to go all the way with this new technology. I am merely looking to enhance.”

I looked across the room and saw a few people roll their eyes. I wondered what that was about. And then I had an out of body experience. I realized they saw me as a dinosaur. I suppose at 43 years old,  I sort of am. I actually remember loose-leaf paper. It came in two choices: wide-lined and college lined. My 6th grade English teacher didn’t like us to rip out paper from our notebooks; “shredded wheat,” she called it, and she wouldn’t accept assignments written on it. That’s when I discovered my preference for college-lined loose-leaf paper. (This same teacher did not like girls to wear clogs to class and made us line up our shoes at the front of the room and walk in socks to our seats. Our shoes, she insisted, were “too noisy” and “forever falling off feet.” I’m pretty sure she had some major issues, but I digress.) In high school, Mrs. Landfear had us write in those black and white composition notebooks and taught us the traditional five paragraph essay format and citation which has served me well for my entire life.

As an undergraduate student at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, I had a fabulous professor who required his students to read a particular book by a particular author and told us to write an essay on a topic of our own choosing due in one week. There were no email reminders. I would never have dared to call him, and anyway, I would have had to have found a phone-book, a payphone, and a bunch of quarters. If I didn’t know how to do something, like citation, I consulted my pocket manual or style book or I asked a fellow classmate. In other words, I figured it out myself. No one owned a personal computer. Instead, we hauled our books and our butts to writing labs, where dozens of computers loomed silently on long tables. If every computer was taken, you simply had to put your name on a wait list and wait for someone to finish. The room of thirty or so computers was linked to one black and white laser printer designed to handle only text. There was no Internet access because the Internet had not yet been invented.

These days I am repeatedly being told that students “need to be able to access online technology” because they have grown up using it. I have also been told they cannot read entire pages of text, so it is imperative to incorporate funny little pictures into my hand-outs. So far, I have refused to do it.

So what exactly am I hoping to do with this ANGEL technology? I suppose I might use it to provide my students with a page to see my Course Information Sheet, my policies regarding plagiarism, my deadlines; maybe a link to some grammar exercises; perhaps a link to to help them with the terrifying act of citing their sources properly. To be honest, I’m not 100% sure what I’m going to do with ANGEL. I’m not a big fan of all this cyber-coddling. I will tell you what I will not be doing with ANGEL. I will not be using it as a place where students can have “online discussions” in lieu of real life discussions. And while proponents of the environment may shudder, my students may not send me their essays online in some drop-box so that they can blame technology when I didn’t receive it. I want to see their eyes scan their finished drafts, checking for comma splices and run-on sentences.

Who knows, maybe I’ll use it on the first day of class next fall, you know, as a homework assignment to get them to find my online site. Maybe I’ll have them do some kind of ice breaker activity; there’s no reason everyone should have to suffer through those heinous get-to-know-you activities when you can simply do them online, right?

Sigh. I always liked that part.

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