because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

What Teachers Make

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I can’t imagine that there is anyone in America who hasn’t seen Taylor Mali’s video rant.

But just in case, here it is again, in a different version.

Because it really is true.

What do you think about this piece of free-verse performance art? Does it make you think of any particular teacher? Care to share? And if you are a teacher, which part do you relate to most?

And what exactly do they say about lawyers? 😉

Lessons on Slowing Down

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Nearly every parent I know has wrestled with deciding how important it is to have their children take Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Parents want their children to have all the opportunities they can get so that they can succeed and be happy in life. (If only happiness could be achieved that easily!) Meanwhile, kids feel the pressure and report feeling exhausted, unhappy and anxious.

People often ask me, as a person who has spent nearly twenty years in the classroom, what I think about AP classes. Should their child take this AP or that AP. And they are often surprised when I respond with a question: “Does your child love French? Because if he doesn’t love it, why would you want him to take the AP which is going to require so much of his time and energy?”

What people (and by people, I mean parents) do not seem to understand is that the demand of an AP class is designed to be similar to a 100-level college class. The difference is that, in high school, that class will likely meet every day – while in college, there is usually an “off-day” where students have time to read and generally better manage coursework.

In RACE TO NOWHERE, filmmakers Vicki Abeles and Jessica Congdon speak to educators, parents, tweens, and teens about the pressures they face academically and emotionally, and the physical toll these expectations exact. What results is a picture of a fractured educational system that pushes kids to become successful — but at a cost.

During the Post World War II Advanced Placement pilot program, AP courses were designed to draw the top students into a small class of other students who LOVED the material. In 1952, AP classes were designed to be small so teachers could move at an accelerated pace because of the students’ voracious love of the subject matter. The idea was excellent.

Of course, what has happened over time, is that parents have demanded that their children be allowed entry into AP classes because, these days, there is a warped race to create the best college application. (Believe me, parents want those AP’s on their college applications.) So AP class sizes have ballooned, and there is less one-on-one with teachers. And kids who had no business being in an AP in the first place struggle. Because AP classes are hard. Really hard. When the idea was created, I don’t think anyone from the Ford Foundation would have recommended that any one student take five AP courses.

I always tell parents that AP courses are not the be all/end all. When I say this, they look at me like I have five heads. Then they ignore me completely. (I’m telling you, parents don’t like to hear this.)

I truly believe that the point of education is for children to love to learn. When students are getting sick, when they arrive at college unprepared and unmotivated, there is a problem. Students who feel too much pressure to perform, burn out. Feeling the pressure to achieve, students self-medicate, turn to drugs and alcohol as an escape, and sometimes cheat to complete the ever mounting pile of assignments which need to finished – now! From my vantage point, I see kids who are over-scheduled and overtired.

School should be the place where our teens learn about balance. Schools that allow students to skip lunch periods so they can take five Advanced Placement courses have bought into the hype (or caved into parental pressure). And that is sad. Lunch should not be optional. Humans need to stop and eat healthy food (not a bag of chips) to provide their bodies with energy. I don’t care how many times a parent calls and says, “I want my son to take 5 APs.” Administrators need to grow a set and say, “I’m sorry, but we just don’t think that is beneficial to your child.” Students need help learning how to make healthy choices. Sometimes that means they need the school to shield them from demanding parents. And anyway, kids don’t have to be enrolled in a course to take AP tests: a really self-motivated kid who loves to learn should be able to access all the material he needs to prepare him/herself for any AP test.

For the love of Pete, I’m a Tiger Momma. I believe our children need to pick the things they do and do them well. But we need to help guide them to understand they cannot do everything. Our kids need to study hard – absolutely – but they also need to eat. They need to be able to go to the bathroom without worrying they are missing crucial information. And they need to be allowed to tune school out for a while so they can exercise and nurture friendships. They should not be running from this practice to that recital just be sitting on their asses in front of their computers every night.

When I was in high school, I had the opportunity to take regular English, AP English, or  Syracuse University Project Advance (SUPA English). At the time, SUPA was a college curriculum class taught by our own high school instructors who had been trained to teach the course. I worked my butt off in that class, and I did not always excel. I remember getting one paper back with a big fat “D” on it. (Maybe it was a “C,” but in my mind, I remember it as a “D.”) I also remember taking that paper to the library and weeping next to a huge potted plant. I had worked so hard on that paper. And English was the subject in which I was supposed to excel. I did not understand how I could have failed. My ego was battered, but my love for the subject matter made me want to figure things out. I busted my hump in that class. It was truly an amazing experience, and I believe it was the course that best prepared me for college.

When I think back on it, I cannot imagine how grueling it must put in that kind of work into every subject, every day. To me, taking all those APs seems utterly unnecessary. No one has ever asked me: “How many AP courses did you take in high school?” (Well, one pretentious fuck did, but it was after he had polished off an entire bottle of red wine himself.) In fact, many colleges don’t even accept AP credit anymore. It’s true.

So, my recommendation is this: If you’ve got a kid who is interested in some accelerated academic experience, have him/her enroll in a summer course at a real college. That looks good on college applications, too. And the credit might actually transfer somewhere, and it might help transition him or her to the realities of actual college life. Help your child live a balanced life. Have your kid go to summer camp, get a job, plant a garden, try something he/she has never done before. Not for the college application, just because.

In the United States, success has long meant making a lot of money. And the way to do this has traditionally meant attending a great college. But we need to redefine success for children. We have gotten caught up in this “race to nowhere,” as described by Abeles and Congdon. We need to teach our kids to do what they love – not pressure them into taking five AP classes because it will make them look good on paper.

In 2010, over 1.8 million students took over 3.2 million AP tests at about $87 bucks a pop. I’m no mathematician, but even I can tell that some people are taking more than one test. And I’d like to know five years down the line, where those kids are, and if they feel all that pain was worth it.

Check out this clip from the film below. Tell me you don’t want to see it!

NYS Grads Ain't Reddy For College

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graduation caps
Image by j.o.h.n. walker via Flickr

In case you have not already seen/heard this by now, I am reposting Sharon Otterman’s article: Most New York Graduates Are Not College Ready – NYTimes.com in its entirety. If you like, you can click on the link above and read it in its original format. Frankly, this is the kind of news story that makes me weep inside.

If you prefer, you can read my repost below and catch all my snarky comments in blue. Red indicates sheer horror. (This is why I cannot loan out my books, people.)

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February 7, 2011

Most New York Students Are Not College-Ready

By SHARON OTTERMAN

New York State education officials released a new set of graduation statistics on Monday that show less than half of students in the state are leaving high school prepared for college and well-paying careers. The new statistics, part of a push to realign state standards with college performance, show that only 23 percent of students in New York City graduated ready for college or careers in 2009, not counting special-education students. That is well under half the current graduation rate of 64 percent, a number often promoted by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg as evidence that his education policies are working.

But New York City is still doing better than the state’s other large urban districts. In Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers, less than 17 percent of students met the proposed standards, including just 5 percent in Rochester.

The Board of Regents, which sets the state’s education policies, met on Monday to begin discussing what to do with this data, and will most likely issue a decision in March. One option is to make schools and districts place an asterisk next to the current graduation rate, or have them report both the current graduation rate and the college ready rate, said Merryl H. Tisch, the chancellor of the Board of Regents.

The move parallels a decision by the Regents last year to make standardized tests for third through eighth graders more difficult to pass, saying that the old passing rates did not correlate to high school success. (Oh good, let’s make new, harder tests. That should fix everything.What else is going to have to fall out of the curriculum so that our kids can pass these silly tests?)

State and city education officials have known for years that graduating from a public high school does not indicate that a student is ready for college, and have been slowly moving to raise standards. But the political will to acknowledge openly the chasm between graduation requirements and college or job needs is new, Dr. Tisch; David M. Steiner, the state education commissioner; and John King, the deputy state education commissioner, said in interviews last week.

With President Obama making college readiness and international competitiveness a top national goal, and federal and philanthropic money pouring into finding ways to raise national education standards, that equation is changing, they said. “It is a national crisis,” Dr. Steiner said.

Statewide, 77 percent of students graduate from high school. Currently, a student needs to score a 65 on four of the state’s five required Regents exams to graduate, and beginning next year, they will need a 65 on all five.

Using data collected by state and community colleges, testing experts on a state committee determined last year that a 75 on the English Regents and a 80 on the math Regents roughly predicted that students would get at least a C in a college-level course in the same subject. Scores below that meant students had to often take remediation classes before they could do college-level work. Only 41 percent of New York State graduates in 2009 achieved those scores. (No duh! This is what I have been seeing for years: Baffled community college students claiming to be “A students” in high school who have absolutely no idea how to read for meaning or write in complete sentences. No wonder they start freaking out when they suddenly get C’s on their essays!)

In the wealthier districts across the state, the news is better: 72 percent of students in “low need” districts are graduating ready for college or careers. (You get that, right? Over 25% of students in more affluent suburbs aren’t pulling their weight when they get to college.) But even that is well under the 95 percent of students in those districts who are now graduating. (We live in one of these “low need districts.” I have tutored students in grades 6-12 who still have not mastered basic comma rules. I have had to teach them commas, semi-colons and colons. I’ve thrown in a few mini-lesson on thesis statements for good measure. But that’s about all I can do. But seriously, the schools can’t do it all. I know they can’t. Why? Because public schools are so busy being mandated to prepare students for standardized tests that they simply do not have enough time to make sure that students have mastered certain things, so they have had to let some things go. I think folks at The Board of Regents must believe that kids pick up things like grammar by osmosis.)

The data also cast new doubt on the ability of charter schools to outperform their traditional school peers. Statewide, only 10 percent of students at charters graduated in 2009 at college-ready standards, though 49 percent received diplomas. The state has not yet calculated results for every district and school. (So charter school are broken, too? What a surprise!)

State officials have also begun a series of meetings in local districts to introduce this data and ask local officials what they want to do about it. A common reaction, Dr. Tisch said, is shock and hesitancy. There are fears of plummeting real estate values, as well as disagreement, particularly in rural areas, with the idea that all students need to be prepared for college.

Jean-Claude Brizard, the schools superintendent in Rochester for the past three years, said that while he was surprised by the data, he welcomed the effort to move the conversation away from simply graduating. In an effort to improve, Rochester has closed half its high schools and opened new schools, including its first high school that allows students to earn credits at several local colleges. 

In New York City, roughly 75 percent of public high school students who enroll in community colleges need to take remedial math or English courses before they can begin college-level work. (I would argue the same is true here in Rochester. Many of my incoming first year community college students are not anywhere ready for regular Comp-101. They need a more basic English class to prepare them for Comp-101. That is what my community college is grappling with now. This semester faculty in the English Department started developing a new diagnostic tool as the old AccuPlacer was proving ineffectual. Not everyone had to take it and part-time students slipped through the cracks.) City education officials said the 23 percent college-ready rate was not a fair measure of how the city would do if graduation requirements were raised to a higher standard, because students would work harder to meet that new bar.

While it has not gone so far as to calculate an alternative to graduation rates, the city has already begun tracking how each high school’s students fare in college, and in 2012 it will begin holding principals accountable for it. “Last year, well before the state announced this plan, we told schools we would begin including robust college readiness metrics in school progress reports,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, the chief academic officer.

One thing that is helping districts get over their shock, Dr. Tisch said, is the opening of a discussion about how to improve things. On their tour, which has visited Albany, Buffalo and Rochester and will visit New York City, Westchester County and Long Island in the coming weeks, officials are presenting a menu of options. (Oooh, a menu! Well, I’ll take one helping of smaller class sizes: Eighteen students would be lovely. I’d like two helpings of students with parents who value and support education. I’d like a pile of teachers who are enthusiastic about their subject matter. I’d like intelligent principals who support their teachers and support staff. I’d like a double-helping of students who accept responsibility for their actions. I’d like to see Honor Courts comprised of the most ethical students, as nominated by teachers and peers. I’d like all students to sign an contract stating that they understand no one has the right to interfere with anyone else’s right to learn – because if they do, they will be expelled. And, um, I don’t see this on the menu but if it’s not too much trouble, I’d like to request students who remember to bring the necessary materials to class. Every day. Or at least just a pen.)

One idea is to simply report a college-ready graduation rate as an aspirational standard and leave it at that. (I have no idea what this means. So a principal could report: “We aspire to have 35% of our students graduate by 2015. That is insane! That is called The Anti-Aspirational Initiative.) Another is to impose tougher graduation standards — like requiring that all students in the state take four years of math and science, or permanently raising the passing score on high school Regents exams to 75 in English and 80 in math. (Be still my heart! Could it be that The Board of Regents is starting to realize a 65% is not really a passing grade. It’s a friggin’ low D! Way to go, Board of Regents. For the love of Pete, it’s only taken thirteen years for you to realize that teaching to a low standard is only bound to enforce that standard. Oy!)

But they are also discussing increased flexibility for districts and students, so that they can spend more time on the subjects they are interested in. For example, students might be permitted to choose at least one of the Regents exams they must pass to graduate — currently all students have to pass math, English, science, global history and American history. Students might be able to substitute foreign language, economics or art for one of the five. Or students could replace one Regents with a vocational skills test in an area like carpentry or plumbing. (Non-snarky response: I actually love this idea. Traditional education is not for everyone, and we need to value our vocational students more. Honestly, those middle and high school years are the only times in life where we expect people to be universally excellent at everything from foreign language to math to science to social studies to English to gym to sewing and cooking! People aren’t made that way. It would be great if we could allow students to specialize in their areas of interest. I mean, you could have asked me if 5th grade if I was going to be a nuclear scientist and I would have told you, “Hells bells, no!” and then I would not have had to suffer through calculus. I can honestly tell you that in my career, I have never used calculus. Ever.

Alternatively, the state could grant flexibility to districts to give credits based not on how many hours students sit in a classroom — currently 54 hours per semester per credit — but on whether students show competency, based on examination or online course work. (Really, so a student who can demonstrate that he already knows his shit might not have to sit through a required class. Just because the State says he has to take it? Now that’s somethin’!)

To press their case, state officials said they hoped to get political support from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. The political environment was particularly challenging now, because the state will roll out a new system in July to evaluate teachers that has the potential of strong opposition from teachers’ unions. (Oh great. Let’s blame the teachers who can’t “fix” their students in one calendar year, and if their numbers aren’t high enough, let’s put them on probation (or possibly fire them), ‘cuz teaching is not stressful enough without wondering if you are going to have a job the following September. And everyone knows that when students fail, it’s definitely the teachers’ fault.)

“The obligation at the end of the day,” Dr. Tisch added, ” is to make sure that when youngsters graduate, that graduation means something from New York State.” (I think Dr. Tisch meant to say: The obligation is to make sure that graduation from New York State means they have a set of skills which will enable them to succeed in college and in life. Because right now, that is just not the case.)

A Word On Grades

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Mature Teacher Grading

Not too long ago, I attended a meeting where a lot of teachers were expressing frustration about assessment. A few people were saying they felt uncomfortable giving low grades to college students, especially those who had claimed to be “A” students in high school.

What?

I am not sure how a student’s high school report card should impact his or her grades in a college level course. Twenty-five years ago, teachers worried a lot less about students’ feelings. They just read the papers they received and doled out the grades. They didn’t worry about crushing self-esteem or how a low grade would impact students’ grade point averages.

Teachers need to have a solid understanding of how to assess student work. In any class, assessment can be based on writing an individual paper, preparing a group presentation, class participation, attendance, homework problem sets, exams (essay, short answer, multiple choice, true/false), and so on. Alternatively, when a student performs a task rather than taking a test, it is called performance assessment. There are a zillion different types of performance based assessment.

To me, it’s actually really, really simple:

A range = Amazing work. And let’s be clear, amazing work is very rare. It means the reader can sit back and appreciate the writing because the author really understands how to play with language. The grader should only have to pick up a pen to draw little stars in the margins. When I read an “A” paper, I sometimes gasp audibly because “A” papers are that good. Parents may not like to hear it, but in reality, amazing work is very rare. For me, an “A” range paper earns anything above 90%.
B range = Very good: A “B” means I can tell the student has some solid skill in the subject area. There may be a few grammar errors or awkwardly phrased sentences, but — in general — the paper reads smoothly. Perhaps the meaning wasn’t as conveyed as fully as it might have been. But a “B” paper still shows evidence of a real understanding of the assignment and the material, as well as very good writing and thinking skills. For me, a B paper earns a grade somewhere between 80%-89%.

See? Most people should get C's!

C range = Common. Back when I was in graduate school, we learned that C meant “Average” — and guess what? Most students are average. (Not your kids, of course. Your kids are gifted and talented.) But the reality is that students have to put in some kind of effort to move up from average. Students in “C” range often struggle generating a solid thesis. Their organization is hard to follow. Their grammar is choppy. They don’t spell-check their papers, or their confuse homonyms (words that sound the same but are spelled differently). Lots of people who are currently earning B’s should be getting C’s! There are other ways in which students reveal their average-ness. (That is not a word, but I think it should be.) Let’s face it, some folks are 100% silent participants: they just sit there taking in valuable oxygen, but they don’t really add to the dialogue. Now, that doesn’t mean the shy kid is going to get a “C,” but someone better make sure he participates aloud once in a blue moon. Because you simply cannot earn an “A” if you have never opened your mouth. It ain’t happenin’. People can earn C’s when they earn a low grade on a paper, are given an opportunity to revise, but they opt not to do so. That is, of course, a student’s prerogative.  A “C” basically means the student was average in the course or made average effort. It’s okay. Not everyone has to be stellar in every subject. To me, a “C” grade ranges between 70%-79%.
D range = Deficient. It is not impossible to get a “D” in college. A student may elect to skip an assignment or two. And it’s kinda hard to recover when you have a zero averaged in with very few other grades. (Just sayin’!) Students who earn D’s often have some major deficiencies in the subject matter. In English, they may not know how to structure an essay; how to generate a thesis; how to support their thesis with quotes; how to cite their quotes properly. They usually dislike (read: hate) the subject matter and engage in a lot of avoidance behaviors. They don’t read or take notes on the assigned material. They are not interested in meeting with the instructor outside of class. They do the exact minimum amount of work necessary for them to pass with the course with a D. Students who earn D’s are not struggling to complete their papers on Saturday nights. Reading “D” papers is like stumbling around in the woods at midnight without a flashlight. Slow going. The reader has to constantly stop, as errors abound. Usually dozens. Reading a “D” range paper is toe-curling. It takes forever, so these days I have set a time limit. I can get through any 3-4 page paper in under 10 minutes, if it is written well.  If I am still bumbling around after 10 minutes, I simply draw a line at the place I’ve stopped and write “D” at the top of the paper — along with the ole “See Me.” I just can’t kill myself spending 45 minutes over a paper that a student is probably just going to stuff in his bag and never look at again — even if given the opportunity to revise. Below average no matter how you slice it, either in effort or ability, a D paper ranges between a 65% and a 69%.

F = Failing. There are a lot of reasons why students fail a class at the college level (or any level, really). Sometimes a student doesn’t have the basic skills required to pass the course: plain and simple. Sometimes, a failing student has solid skills but is trying to make a statement to his or her parents: “I don’t want to be here, but you made me enroll anyway, so now I’ll just fail at everything and waste your money.” Given a little bit of freedom for the first time, sometimes students blow it. Instead of studying, they party. They come to class hungover. They sleep in class. They miss classes (so they can catch up on their sleep). While living away from parents for the first time allows the vast majority of students the freedom to thrive, some don’t.

Sometimes students have some serious interference going on in their lives. Some people are wrestling with sexual orientation; some get involved with drugs and alcohol; some good-girls go wild, some bad boys get worse. Some people experience horrible depression — they face that void which taunts them, tells them to give up on everything. Some students bring their demons to campus. Some have been sexually, emotionally or physically abused and don’t know where to turn. Some have eating disorders. Some cut themselves. It is very hard to focus on comma rules when you just found out you tested HIV positive. So real life gets in the way, yes.

I tell failing students that their failure in a course, in any given semester, at any given time does not mean that they could not succeed at another time. It just means that, at that moment in their lives, for whatever reason, it didn’t work.

For the record: It is just as hard to fail my class as it is to get an A. But I will fail people. And I will also award A’s when they are earned.

Grading is not personal.

Why do some teachers have to make it so hard?

If My Kid Writes One More Book Report…

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Sleeping Student
Sleeping Student

Monkey has been writing a helluva a lot of book reports this year.

In an English class, a student can — of course — write a formal essay in response to a piece of literature. And they must know how to do this competently. But let’s face it: Writing five paragraph (or two paragraph or three paragraph) essays after every book, can be a real drag. And there is no reason for this when there are a skillion (yes, a skillion) other ways to evaluate a student’s comprehension that are about 100 times more engaging than any book report.

Students could create a piece of art in any medium that represents a character, situation or theme from the story; they might compose a poem or a monologue which explores a situation or character or which develops a theme from the literature; they could write a script for a scene in the story and perform it before the class, or imagine a scene that could have been in the story/play but wasn’t; they could offer an alternate ending or imagine the characters in the future. A musical student could write a song that explores a situation or a theme from the literature and sing/play it for the class. A dancer might choreograph a piece that represents a situation, character, or theme from the literature. Someone could create a diary for a character, not just chronicling the facts of plot, but the character’s emotions regarding his/her experiences. A budding historian might want to research a historical reference he or she noticed in the literature and was intrigued by. Hell, a student could bake something symbolic which links to the literature. I’ve had students bake highly symbolic (and very delicious) cookies!

With any performance based assessment, there always has to be a written explication that accompanies the more creative project in which the student explains his or her intention and explores how the project helps his or her peers understand something important about the literature. Ideally, the assessment process informs the teacher and the learner about student progress and, simultaneously, contributes to the student’s learning process.

I could go on about some student projects that I have received over the years. One of my favorites involves a student who upon completing Lord of the Flies, made a trip to the local farmer’s market and bought a whole pig’s head and recreated the scene where the terrified boys, beat and unintentionally kill their classmate, Simon, and then put a pig’s head on the stick.

I still have the video (which I’ve had switched over to DVD) and I still watch it. And that kid makes movies now.

I know that No Child Left Behind supports “standards-based education”and is based on the belief that setting high standards and establishing measurable goals can improve individual outcomes in education. The Act requires states to develop assessments in basic skills to be given to all students in certain grades, if those states are to receive federal funding for schools.

So I get it. My school district clearly wants our kids to pass the standardized test.

They want a slice of the pie.

But our kids are dying of boredom.

So please, for this mother.

No. More. Book. Reports.

End of Semester Gratitude

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thank you note for every language
Image by woodleywonderworks via Flickr

The Fall-Winter 2010 semester is over for me. My grades have been reported. The contents of my unattractive yet functional wheelie bag have been dumped and placed with the rest of the luggage — in the nether regions of the basement. Today, I am getting my hair highlighted. It’s been fifteen weeks since my last highlight or cut. (The straightening thing doesn’t count.) Don’t even ask about the state of my fingernails at the moment. I have a way of letting certain things go during the semester. But now it is time to catch up.

This morning, I popped onto my faculty email account to make sure everything was in order, and I found two pieces of email waiting for me. The first indicated that my grades may have been inaccurately reported (are you $%#@! kidding me?) so I had to check another link to a list upon which — thankfully — my name did not appear. And then there was a second piece of mail. Here it is:

Dear Mrs. RASJ,

I would just like to say thank you for everything, Mrs. Renee Jacobson. I learned so much in your class and I am so glad I received an A! I know you’re probably going to write back, “You worked hard for that A and you deserve it,” but there is no way in hell I would have done it without you.

You just did so much to help, and you ARE a good teacher. You have amazing patience with students; you’re fair, and you’re always willing to help. You are very thoughtful and you really put your time in to teaching your students, and you do it all without babying us. That’s the way a teacher should be, and it is really hard to come by these days.

Thank you for putting up with my short temper at times, for sitting down with me to talk almost everyday, and for the donuts and wisdom pendant. You are very thoughtful.

It was nice to be educated by you. I wish you the bast (sic) of luck and times.

With love and sincerity.

Your favorite student ever,
Student X 🙂

This student knows me. Because I would absolutely have said that he earned his “A,” that it had little to do with me. An “A” in my class means he did his work and he did it well. It means he showed up and participated. It means he took advantage of extra credit opportunities. It means he was a good peer editor and gave solid feedback. It means he was respectful. It meant he asserted himself. If he didn’t understand how to do something, he made an appointment to meet with me to figure it out. It means he came prepared with all his materials: all his books, handouts, and writing utensils. Every day. He was on-time. When he contributed to the conversation, his comments were meaningful — and when he received criticism, he was not defensive. His writing often showed great depth, and he taught me something on more than one occasion. He was honest (in his writing) and open (as a human being).

I don’t give A’s. To me, an “A” means something akin to “amazing,” and very few people are. So I will share this letter with all the teachers out there who understand how much letters like these really mean. People so rarely write letters these days, typed or otherwise, it is always a bit of a thrill for me when I receive one. For an educator, a letter from a former student is a shot of fuel that helps fill up a near empty tank. Those little gestures keep us keepin’ on.

So thank you, Student X. You put a little bounce in my step today.

What put a bounce in your step today?

Contemplating Quitting The Classroom

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I have been thinking that this will be my last semester in the classroom. It’s been a hard year for a variety of reasons, but I have been thinking I just am not connecting with my students the way I used to. Part of it may be that I am getting older. I have somehow become an “old-fashioned teacher” who doesn’t show movies, rely on Smart Boards or Power Point presentations. In other words, I have always been able to “be my own show,” create my own bells and whistles, and that was enough. I was enough.

This year is different. I don’t like how my students seem less prepared each year. I don’t like having to repeatedly tell adults to put away their technology/toys. It’s exhausting. I haven’t lowered my expectations with regard to their assignments or how I grade them, but I have a lot of students with D’s and F’s. That doesn’t feel good to me. Part of it is the 15-week gig: It doesn’t feel long enough to get my students where they need to be. I don’t understand why some of my students come to class without full drafts of their papers when I tell them they need to come to class with completed papers. I don’t understand why they leave their books in their cars. I don’t understand why they come to English class without pens or paper, even though it is clearly stated as a basic expectation on my Course Information Sheet. I don’t understand their lateness, why they don’t recognize walking in late as a terrible act of rudeness and incivility. I don’t understand why they struggle so much with citation. Except I do: it requires meticulous attention to detail  – and, based on this last essay I collected – about 7 students out of about every 22 possess the ability to attend to detail. Here’s a newsflash: some students don’t attempt to write papers at all. They take zeros, and they seem fine with this.

Me? I’m not fine with any of this, so I’ve been feeling run-down.

There is a bit of ego in teaching, maybe more than teachers might care to admit. I can’t speak for all teachers, but I think it is fair to say we are willing to take the ridiculously low pay, work the long hours, plan our lessons, grade the papers into the wee morning hours – as long as we see progress. Positive change. Forward movement. Progression. I need to feel as though I am helping my students move from point A to point B: even better if I can take them from point A to point Z! That said, it’s been a little light on that this semester. So I’ve been thinking about jumping ship and hopping onto a different boat.

And then I received a poem from Niquette Kearney.

Niquette in 2010

I taught Niquette in New Orleans back in the mid-1990s at Metairie Park Country Day School, nearly twenty years ago. When I first met Niquette, she was in 10th grade Honors English while struggling with some big life stuff. Big. Life. Stuff. And she was floundering. Because it is hard to focus on writing papers when you are dealing with Big Life Stuff. I suggested Niquette drop out of her high-pressure Honors section (with me as her teacher) and pop into another section of Regular English, (also with me as her teacher.) Poor Niquette. There was no escaping me that year as I taught the entire 10th grade! Boy, was she pissed off! I’m pretty sure she wanted to kill me; instead, she agreed. (Really, though, what was the alternative?) And the Regular section was easier for her. She got her work done, earned stellar grades, and she was able to focus on herself.

From the beginning, I adored Niquette. Teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites, but Nikit (the nickname I began to scribble on her papers) was beautiful and smart and funny and strong. How can you not love that? She was the whole package. She just didn’t seem to realize she was the whole package. But then, honestly, in high school, who feels they are “all that”? Nikit and I spent lots of time on a beat-up old couch in the English Department. Sometimes we talked about papers, but lots of times, we didn’t. Sometimes I just listened to her talk about her life, her experiences. Sometimes she cried, but mostly she didn’t. Her voice always quavered a little, as if she lived right on the verge of tears. That year, Nikit found herself at a crossroads. Without sharing her secrets, let’s just say, because she is beautiful and smart and funny and strong, she has managed to survive this very difficult year – maybe even thrive despite the adversity.

So here I am thinking of leaving the teaching biz, and I get this piece of correspondence.

Niquette’s message read simply: “Here’s a poem I wrote recently and thought I’d share with you, as you were in my thoughts.”

In a moment bigger than I knew,
At a time which could have been many,
I glanced at myself

In the mirror of my own eyes,
As if greeting a stranger for the first time,
I introduced myself with wonder
At the amazing sight of me

After so long without looking,
I finally saw
What I thought they’d lied about
Suddenly, it covered my reflection, overcoming me
So bright, I shuddered, reaching out my hand,
Welcoming the newcomer,
The one I thought I’d seen before

It was then, that I saw myself
And what I’d never even looked for,
And I blushed when I knew
That it was there the whole time

What a rare sight,
To view myself that way,
As a stranger meets another pleasantly, then parts
This moment passed but was mine
I saw what I did, and it was precious; beautiful

It was me.

Niquette Kearney, 2010

I am pretty sure I am one of the ones who tried to convince Nikit about her strength, her smarts, her internal and external beauty. I’m pretty sure I’m one of the one’s she assumed lied to her about all her fabulousness. I’m just so happy to know that she saw it, felt it, if only for a moment. And I’m even happier to know that she sat down and recorded it – as if it had been an assignment for English class – so she can have it to hold on to. I love that, after all these years, she is still writing poetry.

And then, thanks to Nikit, I remember this is the reality for teachers, especially college educators. We do our stuff. We try to shimmer and shine and get our junk into our students’ heads in 15 short weeks – and then, if we are lucky — maybe — 10, 15, 20 years later, someone reminds us that we helped them along the way. Someone might send us a poem, or a card, or run into us in the grocery store and give us a giant hug and tell us how much we helped. Teaching is like parenting; it involves a lot of delayed gratification. Folks shuffle in; they shuffle out, sometimes without so much as a smile. Sometimes it’s really hard to wait for gratitude.

I am happy for my sweet Nikit. She is going places, that one.

Me? I’m not so sure if I’m jumping ship. Time will tell.

For now, my course is set, and I will continue to power ahead through these choppy waters, full throttle.

End of the Semester Blues

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I have one section of students that  hasn’t mastered the necessary skills to show they understand how to properly write a college essay, complete with proper citation. Their last batch of essays was pretty bad. With the exception of a few papers, most students bombed their Works Cited pages and their writing felt unpolished.

I asked a few other professors what to do.

“Tell them to suck it,” one said. “If they don’t have it by now, it’s not because you haven’t shown them; it’s because they haven’t taken the initiative to learn the material.

The other professors agreed.

But I didn’t want them to “suck it.” Why am I hesitating? I wondered. What has happened to me? As always, I want my students to master the material, so regardless of what my colleagues said, I decided to give them an option: I returned ungraded essays to them with extensive feedback and told them they could ask me for the grade they received on the essay and forfeit the right to revise, or they could revise their essays (with rough drafts attached) by Wednesday at the beginning of class. And by Wednesday, I mean tomorrow.

No one asked for his or her grade.

Now, I’m not crazy enough to believe that everyone will actually revise, but I am hopeful that some will. I am hoping that they will use their style books, the extra time along with my feedback, and give it one more try. Because after this, that’s it. There are only a few tiny assignments, 7-minute oral presentations, and self-evaluations.

I know students have other classes, but mine is required. English Composition-101 is required. Required. So if a student fails, he or she will have to take it again. It’s expensive to fail classes, but some students don’t seem concerned about the debt they are piling up.

At this point of the semester (with 6 classes remaining before the end of the term), certain students wake up and realize they have been doing poorly (for most of the semester), and act shocked by this revelation. They ask about extra credit and want to be passed because they need to keep an athletic scholarship, and/or avoid parental wrath. Requests for points for nothing or for passing grades are easy to handle. I offer a “no” along with my sympathy, plus advice about how to retake the class.

Today, as we began week 14 of 15, I had a student with an overall average of 54.4% ask me what he could do to bring up his grade. I shrugged. He shrugged. Later, I saw this video. I’d send him the link, but I don’t think he’d get it.

*Note: This little ditty was made by Clay Morgan at Educlaytion.com*

In reality, it is kind of hard to fail my class. I offer a lot of help to students to want it. I make myself available to conference. I allow students who show initiative to revise their papers. I offer extra credit opportunities throughout the semester – just not as an “emergency out” at the end.

I hate watching students unravel at the end of the semester but – the reality is – there are always some who come unstitched.

It’s reality, but I don’t have to like it.

Seriously though, why am I more upset about my students’ failing grades than they are?

Should We Let Our Kids Sink Their Own Ships?

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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?