because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

End of the Semester Blues

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Students taking a test at the University of Vi...
Image via Wikipedia

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?

Functional Illiteracy: The Repost

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People who know me know I’m struggling this semester. I try to explain how a larger number of my college students seem to have weaker skills this year; how I can’t get them to use capital letters (or, in some cases, how I can’t get them to stop randomly capitalizing words that don’t need to be capitalized); how they won’t stop writing “im” instead of “I’m”; how I can’t get them to stop using the letter “u” when they mean the word “you.”

“They don’t know how to outline!” I exclaim. “Or write in five paragraph essay format!”

People think I’m exaggerating. “Things can’t be that bad,” folks say.

Finally, here is a perfect example of why my panties are in a bunch this year.

This post called “Functional Illiteracy” from Just Sayin’ addresses some of the very real struggles that educators are facing today, even at the college level.

Do you have discussions with your kids regarding their use of language? Are they writing as well as you would like? Do error-filled papers (with high marks) come home from your children’s schools? Do you think their grades are inflated? Because, I am here to tell you, graduating high school students are not using capitalization or punctuation.  Many high school graduates have not figured out basic written communication skills which my peers and I had mastered in the 6th grade and spent the following years perfecting.

Many of this generation’s students are essentially unemployable, and if you don’t believe me, read this post from my friend, Michael Hess, of Skooba Design. Because as a business owner, he cares about the way people write.

Do you care about how you write?

Or r u 2 busy txtin 2 care?

Cursive as a Font Option?

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image from Wikipedia

Not too long ago, my 6th grade Monkey had to sign several contracts – various agreements between himself and sundry teachers and coaches.

“Do I have to write in cursive?” 11 year old Monkey asks.

“It’s probably a good idea,” I reply.

There is a pause. Silence during which time I assume he is signing his name on the assorted colored sheets of papers. But after a while, I glance over and notice he has written only the first three letters of his first name. He is looking off into space, clearly stuck.

“Mom,” he says eventually.

“Mmmmm?” I ask, pretending to be oblivious but definitely aware of his dramatic pause. But I’m thinking to myself, maybe boy has some deep moral, ethical or philosophical opposition to being asked to sign a particular contract. I’m thinking maybe he is hung up on one of the terms. Maybe something seems unreasonable to him, and he is not willing to just sign on the dotted line. For a moment, I’m actually proud. I figure he’s read the contracts and internalized the content, and now he has questions, reservations. He’s thinking critically about his commitments and if he can take on more responsibility. . .

“I can’t remember how to make a “v” in cursive,” Boy announces. “I kinda forgot how.”

image from Wikipedia

My child is in 6th grade. He is a stellar student. How could it be that he has forgotten how to make his “v’s” in cursive? I wonder. But I am patient. The school year is just kicking off, and he has been away for three weeks at overnight camp, playing in the dirt with friends, enjoying the heat of summer, so maybe he needs a quick mini-lesson.

“Sure, honey,” I say and prepare to give him a quick tutorial in cursive – which morphs into an elongated lesson because, as it turns out, Boy doesn’t remember how to make a capital “J” (which, for the record, is the first letter in his last name); neither does he recall how to make a lower case “b” (also a letter in his last name!).

At this point, I hear the ocean in my ears.

This is never a good thing as it generally means a giant wave is rising up from the deepest, angriest depths of me, and it generally culminates in a boatload of phone calls.

“Buddy.” I ask Mr. Calm, Cool and I’m-Not–Worried-At-All-That-I Don’t-Know-My-Alphabet-In-Cursive, “How is it that you do not know all your cursive letters?”

My son proceeds to explain to me that, while cursive letters were taught in 3rd grade, his teachers didn’t really require that he (or any of his classmates) write in cursive.

“Writing in cursive was pretty much optional,” Boy tells me.

Optional?

Optional!

(Can you hear the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Antarctic and Indian Oceans rolling around inside my head?)

picture from Google Images

I couldn’t help myself. I made a few calls to a few principals (who shall remain nameless) in a few local public schools (which shall remain nameless) in a few nearby districts (which shall also remain nameless). Most principals agreed that there is just so much material to cover to prepare students for standardized tests, that many things have had to go. (Damn you, No Child Left Behind!)  One administrator told me that decisions had been made (note the passive voice) to focus less on cursive writing but that students could select cursive as “a font option” when printing from their computers.

Cursive? As a font option?

Really?

Hold on folks. I’m going back for a nostalgia moment.

I remember a time when we kids couldn’t wait to move from our world of block letters to the world of cursive which was infinitely more adult. (And I’m not the only one who felt this way! Read Kathy English’s awesome essay on the death of cursive!) My babysitters used cursive to write notes to each other, but I could never read their words as they were like some crazy, secret code I couldn’t decipher no matter how hard I tried. But I knew that one day I would eventually be deemed mature enough to learn “The Code,” that I would figure out how to connect letters by one single, continuous stroke. I knew I would learn to create words in loopy cursive letters and that, ultimately, I would be able to read my grandmother’s shaky script, my mother’s slanted hand, as well as my teacher’s perfect penmanship.

from Google Images

In the 18th and 19th centuries, cursive was one’s special signature. It distinguished one individual from another. The most elite received special training, and possessing a “fair hand” was considered a desirable trait for both men and women.

By the 1960s, a standardized method for teaching penmanship called D’Nealian Script had been introduced into schools all over the United States, and handwriting became more homogenized. I didn’t know any of this, of course, as I sat in class in 3rd grade in the mid-1970s. All I knew was that during “cursive time,” each of us learned to write the same way: on thin, oatmeal-colored paper that consisted of a series of two straight continuous horizontal lines with one broken line between them. We students sat with our pencils poised “at the basement” of the line ready to “go all the way up to the attic” or to stop “at the first floor.”

I remember being totally geeked up about learning cursive, but apparently, not everyone was as psyched about switching to cursive as this twit. And while I might have considered learning cursive a bit like taking a second art class, apparently, it wasn’t that way for everyone. For some kids, learning cursive was really difficult. I remember “the lefties” really struggled as did a bunch of kids who probably would have been diagnosed with some kind of fine-motor skill problem if they were going through the ranks today. But they didn’t test kids for things like that back in the 1970s. Instead, our teachers encouraged us (or goaded us, or punished us) until we learned our letters. And while we weren’t necessarily good at it right away, with daily practice, our shaky letters improved.

I wrote all my papers in cursive until my senior year in high school in the mid-1980s when my father brought home an enormous TRS-80 around the same time teachers were setting up the first “computer lab” at my high school.

So much has changed in twenty-five years! With the advent of word-processing and PDA’s and all things electronic, cursive has completely fallen out of favor. In fact, it has almost gone the way of the dinosaur. Without a doubt, typing is infinitely faster and easier to read than handwritten papers – but, now that I hear that cursive is not being reinforced, I wonder, is something being lost in making cursive optional?

First, there is the obvious, esoteric stuff. When written properly, cursive is beautiful. Reading a handwritten note from a friend or lover is actually a completely different experience than reading the same content typed. Don’t believe me? Go back and look at some old photo album that belonged to somebody’s great grandmother. Look at the handwriting. You can actually feel something of the person in the handwriting. It is so much more intimate than reading something on a piece of paper that looks like it came from a school or the mortgage company. Have you ever received a thank-you note via email? Ewwwww. What about a thank-you via text? Double ewwwwww! There is nothing more lovely than holding a card in your hands on which someone took the time to write a nice note thanking you for something that you did for them. I swear, you can feel the gratitude in the loops.

But “pretty” probably isn’t a good enough reason to keep cursive in the curriculum, right?

Ever the pragmatist, my husband says cursive will likely eventually disappear along with so many other “quaint niceties” like handwritten thank-you notes. He says the convenience of email and text will drive us away from handwriting altogether and computerized voice recognition and grammar programs will continue to improve. Hubby points out his signature is barely legible. It is his mark. “Well,” I countered, “At least you have a mark. Soon an entire generation of kids will be making X’s as they won’t be able to put their John Hancock on anything.” Hubby says I’m being overly dramatic, that I should calm down.

from Google Images

But I can’t calm down when I feel desperate inside. I’m the girl who still writes in journals and keeps yellow pads of paper filled with notes – all in cursive. My lesson plans are drawn up in cursive. My first draft of anything is always done in long-hand. I wonder what this means: if people cannot decipher their grandparents’ letters, how can they ever read important documents like our nation’s Constitution, Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” or our Declaration of Independence?

They’ll read those documents in textbooks,” Hubby responds. “Or online. More likely, they won’t read them at all.”

(I am pretty sure Hubby was just trying to pick a fight there.)

I shudder because as an educator I know things: the focus on cursive around third grade serves a larger purpose; it reflects the developmental connection between writing and thinking. Children who excel in handwriting skills tend also to excel in other academic pursuits. Cursive writing assists in the development of fine motor skills and muscle control, and it’s an introduction to self-expression. To abandon handwriting lessons could potentially interfere with the learning process as a whole.

I wish I could make some powerful claim that indicates students who are unable to read and write in cursive are guaranteed to score at least 100 points lower on their SATs than their cohorts who read and write in cursive. That would probably catch someone’s attention.

Doesn’t that look impressive?

Alas,  I don’t have anything like that.

Sigh.

Americans are tired. We have been told that the sky is falling, the glaciers melting; the earth quaking; that strangers want to abduct our children, that neither government nor lawyers nor doctors can be trusted; the rainforests are being destroyed; that – in fact – the entire cosmos is running out of time. So who can bother to get upset over my li’l ole lament over the loss of cursive handwriting?

I think I’ll go write up a nice long grocery list – in cursive.

Just because I can.

Lessons From Mrs. Church

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Mrs. Church stands in the far right of the back row.

I loved Mrs. Church, my 2nd grade teacher, from the very first day of school. Among other things, she taught a unit on Hawaii where we made grass skirts and learned songs about “going to a hukilau”: I still know the words. She let us sample real sugar cane and poi, each of us dipping our fingers into the community bowl with our two fingers. Lord knows where she got the stuff. She wore crazy, clunky necklaces that epitomized the 1970s – owls with big eyes, huge butterflies, giant yellow flowers. She wore two-piece, polyester, polka-dotted pantsuits, and her ragged-edged haircut made it appear she did the job herself at home.

Mrs. Church literally had my back, and she rescued me when a certain twit who sat at the desk directly behind me decided that it would be fun to cut my hair with his dull-bladed scissors. She must have read his mind because I barely felt the tug of his hands on the back of my head when she called out, “Mr. So-and-So, you may bring those scissors up to my desk now.”

She encouraged me to write and revise, and – eventually – to enter a writing contest held at our local library the spring of my 2nd grade year. I don’t know if I won or not (probably not), but I remember the way she made me feel: like I could do anything.

Please share a memory of one of your favorite teachers. What did he/she do that makes you remember him/her all these years later?

The prompt was to write about a favorite mentor in under 500 words. I wrote about this when my blog was very new, and I had very few followers. I’d love to honor my old teacher, a woman I think about nearly every day.

Tweet this Twit @rasjacobson

Is it Okay to Just be Okay?

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Fente d’assaut, originally uploaded by n.vasse.

Today my son participated in his first fencing tournament. He’s been taking lessons in Saber at the Rochester Fencing Club for just under a year and, I must confess, I still can’t tell who scores. Even when the judge is there officiating, I can’t tell who has won the point. My son tries to teach me about the parry and repost and a host of other things with fancy names that I can’t seem to retain. I don’t know what my problem is because I want to understand it, but I just can’t. It’s not that I’m not trying to understand. It just seems like everything is beyond my aptitude. Meanwhile, my 10 year-old understands everything and seems to pick things up easily and by osmosis.

Trying to understand something but not being able to was humbling and it reminded me that not everyone is going to understand the message I am trying to deliver to them. No matter how hard I try, no matter how many visuals I include, whether my class is web-enhanced or not, some of my students still are just not going to get it.

My son didn’t win the tournament, but he did win a few matches. Most importantly, he is willing to keep trying. He was not broken down by the experience of losing. He wasn’t discouraged. He was actually inspired to be better the next time. I guess in some ways I am like an Intro Level Saber teacher; I provide my students with the basics, and some of them will excel and some will be okay. Others will be lousy, and the least inspired of the bunch will drop out.

It is rather awful to not be able to understand something. Frustrating, for sure. And while I suppose it is not the end of the world to not be able to “get it” when it comes to fencing, I am having a hard time convincing myself that it is acceptable for some students to never move beyond a basic skills set when it comes to reading and writing.

Is it okay to just be okay?

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?