Monthly Archives: May 2010

Epic Failure: The Demise of Education (Conclusion)

Although there are probably a billion issues that could be nitpicked (funding, the lack of qualified teachers, censorship of textbooks), the last issues I want to talk about are some that I deal with daily.

Issue 3: Entitlement and Integrity

I was having a breakfast with my parents a few weeks ago and met the sadly very stereotypical West Texas Old Man–racist, sexist, and more than ready to tell you how the old days were better and he is better and everything he stands for is better. After telling my mother and me that women had too many rights, he latched on to the fact that we were both teachers. He then asked us,

“Do you feel that there are certain students nowadays who think they deserve stuff they don’t earn?”

This is actually a frequent conversation my mother and I have, so we started to answer. It turns out that WTOM didn’t want to hear our real answer; he just wanted to tell us how Blacks and Mexicans are lazy. He especially didn’t want to hear that we pretty much disagreed with his profiling.

My mother, my fellow teachers, and I have noticed that there are more and more students with a feeling of entitlement. Although they represent all races and genders, they more often than not tend to be young white males between the ages of 30 and 18. Most of them come from affluent backgrounds, but again, not all of them. However, my point here isn’t to pinpoint demographics; it is to discuss the behavior.

These are the students that tell me they ‘deserve’ certain grades. They argue that they have gotten good grades in the past, that their previous teachers loved them, that they should be excused and treated differently because of some reason (and there is always a reason), that they have to have a certain grade to do [fill in the blank with career/university aspiration]. But never do they mentioning ‘earning’ a grade. It is usually what can I give them that they feel they deserve even though their work does not support that.

Beyond that, these are the students who tell me I should be happy they came to class, happy they turned in an assignment, happy they did the reading. And on some level I am because I am often so desperate for some sign that anyone cares about their education. But it never seems to occur to them that in the long run, it’s their grade, not mine, and they have to earn it. I don’t get more money for their grades or their attendance. I don’t get a special trophy or a signing bonus. And neither do they, for the most part. Perhaps that is their issue.

Many of these students are raised in a world of instant gratification and rewards for completing things everyone does out of responsibility. To heavily paraphrase Chris Rock, they want credit for doing stuff you are supposed to do. If you elect to be a college student, you are supposed to come to class and turn in your work. The fact that America requires free education for all children (no matter the level of quality) has given them the idea that it is their God-given-right to pass or get whatever they want, no matter how little they commit to it.

This brings us, in a round about way, to the idea of integrity. Cheating is an issue that I battle ever semester. Unfortunately, I have elected to teach a subject where the lines of cheating are extremely gray to some students. I’m talking, specifically, about plagiarism. In my academic experience, I have always had teachers with strict policies on plagiarism. But I honestly think it was easier for them. I’m not completely the internet generation, so in high school that was never an option for me. It just barely was in college. Now, the internet is plastered with not only legitimate information, but websites that will write your paper or provide you with a paper on any number of topics.

I try to circumvent these issues by creating prompts that stray from the norm, in addition to using plagiarism detection software. Even with that, I still end up failing at least 5 essays a semester for plagiarism. Many times the student doesn’t say anything. Other times, I’ll get apologetic emails. But more often than not, I get outrage. They argue that it is their work, even though I can show them word for word where it came from. Or they tell me I am being ‘unfair’ to give them a zero for a paper that is not entirely original, even though that’s what I tell them the first day of class. I actually had a girl this semester tell me:

“No one ever told me it was wrong to present someone else’s work as my own.”

I was speechless. Even if that was true, how can a person not see that there is something wrong with that? How little do you care about your personal integrity that someone has to tell you it’s wrong not to do your own work. Why bother getting an education if you are just going to use ideas that are not your own? I literally could not wrap my brain around it.

This falls into a sub-issue of responsibility. So many of my students refuse to take responsibility for any aspect of their education. They see it as my job for them to pass. Certainly, a large part of my job is to convey the information in an effective way and measure it fairly. But when they don’t show up, turn in their work, create original work, put in effort–I don’t see that it is my responsibility to give them whatever grade they tell me they need two days before the end of the semester because they just realized they are failing.

I tell my students at the beginning of the semester that I don’t take late work and I don’t excuse absences (save school related things). I tell them that I don’t judge why things weren’t done or why they weren’t there. Just own up to it and move on.

I have been very lucky to have students who do just that. Last semester I had an incredibly bright woman for whom, as I phrase it, it just wasn’t her semester. She had illness issues, child issues, court issues . . . you name it. Her attendance was somewhat shaky and there were several assignments she didn’t turn in. Never did she ask for special treatment. She would come and ask me about assignments. We discussed if dropping was right for her and she told me she just wanted to finish what she started, no matter that the grade wasn’t exactly what she was capable of. I have such respect for this student because she took responsibility.

I have been called, on more than one occasion, cold (and much more extreme versions of that adjective). It’s not that I don’t care about my students; I do, very much. But I think one of the most important skills I give them, much more important than an understanding of iambic pentameter, is a sense of integrity and responsibility. Life is not a Greek tragedy being manipulated by the gods. For the most part, we are in control of our actions. And even when we aren’t, we are the ones responsible for how we react, what we learn, if we grow. If your top priority isn’t school, that’s fine. In some cases (such as if you have children) it shouldn’t be. My job is important, but my family comes first. That is my choice and I take responsibility for it. I don’t ask for breaks or special treatment. And that’s what I expect of my students.

So endeth this year’s rant on the failings of education. Next week we are off on a family vacation, so look for more to come in the following weeks. In the meantime, take responsibility for your own cake. If it burns, don’t blame the oven.

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Epic Failure: The Demise of Education (Part 2)

Last time I waxed less than poetically about the lack of critical thinking encouraged and enjoyed by my students. I should have added to that thought that there are some teachers who lack critical thinking skills. I actually know another teacher who thinks she encourages her student to think for themselves and analyze things by giving them spelling tests. In college. For credit. No need to dignify that with any commentary. Moving on . . .

Issue 2: Stupidity facilitated by technology is the new black.

A student in one of my classes told me early in the semester that he saw no point in studying history or government because who cared about that stuff. This is the same student who, after watching the movie Pan’s Labyrinth, informed me that fascism wouldn’t have worked on him because he just would have told them no.

Cause you know how those fascists love personal opinion and expression.

I actually tried explain to him that while that’s all well and good to say, it has no bearing on the reality of fascist regime. I tried to use the most basic of examples to prove my point–WWII Germany–but he was too interested in telling me how he would have done things differently. He had no knowledge or respect for the significance of the past and therefore is one of the growing masses going around sharing an opinion based on nothing. (This is not, by the way, a younger student. He’s actually four years older than I am.)

The general  consensus of my students that with the internet, there is no need to learn fundamental things like history, government, or culture. We have more technology and access to resources than anyone could have dreamed of and we are a world that uses it like a crutch to avoid actually knowing anything.

The question used to be, “When are we going to need this?” Now it has changed to, “Why bother when I can look it up on Wikipedia?”

Nevermind that Wikipedia is not reliable and has no academic or scholarly moderator.

And what’s more is that people consider it ‘lame’ or ‘stupid’ to have any fundamental knowledge. That isn’t a new development; where do you think the Geek stereotype comes from? But the point is, students now more than ever fight any sort of learning because they think they are too cool for it. To which I want to reply one of two things:

a. Then why are you in college?


b. And what career exactly are you planning on where you can sit around and be cool and know absolutely nothing?

My athletes are usually more than happy to tell me that when they go pro, they won’t need all this. I try not to point out the statistical probabilities of every community college athlete going pro (see–a good place to use math!). I ask them what’s going to happen when they get hurt or can’t play anymore because they are too old. Coaching is always the answer. So hopefully there will be a sports team boom so all my athletes can have careers. Of course, most of them don’t bother to watch the sport they play or have any idea of its history. But apparently, in their minds, it doesn’t matter. Cause they’re cool.

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Epic Failure: The Demise of Education (Part One)

This week represents the final week in my second year of teaching. I thought that after the first year, the learning curve would be minimal, but I have actually learned more this year than last. And while I am no means perfect, there are issues that I commonly see with my students that are alternately shocking and disheartening. Recent reports show that American students are not just middle of the road when competing with the rest of the world; they are dropping in to the lower half drastically. The question is, why? I’m no expert—only a novice teacher with observations. But they represent a repeated pattern with my students that might help explain some of the issues. Over this next week I’ll be posting some ongoing thoughts on the issues of education.

Issue One: They can’t or don’t want to think for themselves.

In preparing my students for their final exam, I gave them an 86 question review with questions that gave them direction as to the things that will be on their 50 question final. I did note that the questions would not be verbatim from the review, but they would cover the same topics and ideas. I then gave them an entire class period to work the review together and made myself available for any questions they did not understand. The next day I received an email from one of the students telling me that he does not know how to study for an exam where he is not given the exact questions and answers in advance and that it is unfair for me to ask them to study 86 questions when they wouldn’t all appear on the test.

Part of this is just plain laziness (we’ll talk more on that later), but the idea that a student who is supposedly advanced enough to take college level courses in high school does not know how to study for a test when they do not have exact answers and questions from a multiple choice test in advance is staggering to me. I think this relates to something another one of my dual credit students said earlier in the year:

“In high school they have spent all this time telling us what to think. You’re the first person who bothered to teach us how to think.”

On the whole, my students don’t engage in critical thinking. They have trouble with problem solving and struggle when asked to analyze or interpret anything on their own. As a literature teacher, analysis and interpretation are the core of my work. Yes, “Young Goodman Brown” is an allegory, but how do we know that? Why did Hawthorne write it that way? What do these elements represent? What is he really trying to say?

Blank stares. They want to memorize plot points and character names—basically concrete facts—and not actually think about what the author is trying to say and why they are doing it in this particular way. They want to pass a test and get a grade, not bother with any sort of understanding.

This leads to several sub-issues. The example above shows a student who does not understand how to study for a basic exam. They cannot make arguments because they can’t detect what the components of the argument are without being told. They struggle to form opinions based on anything other than “I just didn’t like it” or “It was boring.” Logic and making connections are things that they avoid. And when all else fails, they just cheat.

I believe that much of this issue begins with our teaching system. Many teachers do just as my student said—they tell them what to think without bothering to explore the reasoning behind it. Everything is about results rather than process. What good are understanding results if you don’t understand how they were reached?

One of the things I desperately try to do is to make my students think. I rarely lecture, but instead discuss literary works through question and answer. I ask follow up questions that require the students to tell where they are getting ideas from and why they believe what they believe. Last semester one of my students told me:

“You have a very tricky way of dealing with us. On one hand, you tell us that you won’t ever tell us that our answer to your question is wrong. But then you loop back and always want to know where we got it from and why we think that. Then we figure out our own wrong answers.”

Trying to teach students to think is exhausting. There are days where we sit in silence because no one wants to talk. Then I have to start calling on people. Or if no one read the story, I send them home to read it with a written assignment that covers the questions I would have. I feel like that’s a bit of a fail because most of them just don’t do it.

This relates to one of the biggest sub-issues related to this topic and calls back to the student complaint about the final exam. After years of being trained to parrot, these students not only struggle with being asked to think, they resent it. They call me too hard, complain that I expect too much, don’t do the work, or cheat. It gets pretty disheartening. But I refuse to give up, mainly because of my final example.

This year I have had a student, who I will call Julie, both semesters. By her own admission, she graduated from high school around the time I was potty training. She struggles in class, but asks questions and tries really hard. This semester I required her class to read a book outside of class and compare it with the movie version in an analytical essay that looks not just at the differences, but at why those changes were made and how well the movie captures the essence of the book. She told me the other day when she first heard the assignment, she thought it was stupid because how different could they really be? (She also hates reading.)

Last week she told the class that she sobbed her way through the end of the book, even more so than the movie, and for the first time she really got how books can be so engaging. She said she finally understood the assignment and it made her look at reading and movies in a different way.

What I loved most about our conversation was that she didn’t approach it as a compliment. She was literally flabbergasted by her revelation and just wanted to share that experience with her classmates.

They didn’t care. It was one of the best classroom moments I’ve had all year.

Look for Part 2 in the coming days.

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Back in Black: Bring on the Blockbusters

This Friday harkens the beginning of one of the major seasons in America: summer movies. I’ll admit it–I love going to the movies. Always have. Stephen King once wrote that while part of him goes to the movies to analyze and consider, part of him is just geeking out that he is at the movies. I am the same way.

I love the whole experience: the shared moment with strangers, the popcorn, the tension, the absolute darkness that carries you away to another time and place. For me, even now with rising prices, the movies are still pure magic. Actually, even more so because with the birth of my daughter, my movie-going as taken a dramatic drop. I’m not one of those people who believes, “Well, I want to see Dark Knight so I’ll just take my 2-year old.” My message for those people? You decided to have a kid. If you can’t find a babysitter, you just don’t go. And so often I don’t. I have a limited number of babysitter passes available, so it is with great care I pick the movies I do attend. Generally, because summer is the land of special effects, big guns, and big explosions, I tend to select those movies because I just know they won’t be the same on my tiny home TV.

It is with great pleasure that I welcome this season, which officially starts Friday with the release of Iron Man 2, by giving my list of the five summer flicks I can’t wait to overpay for.

1. Iron Man 2–From the moment I heard Robert Downey, Jr. was set to sport the gold and red suit, I was game. I know enough about the comics to appreciate what the brilliant, yet troubled Mr. Downey could bring to the role and he did not disappoint. That, coupled with Jon Favreau’s cheeky, yet emotional directing made the first film a winner. The sequel looks to follow that happy trend set by X-Men, Dark Knight, and Spiderman where the second time around is even better. The shot of Mickey Rourke, another reformed bad boy, with the laser whips shredding the race track had me from go.

2. Sex and the City 2–Unlike Iron Man, when I heard they were doing this sequel, I was like, “Why?” Don’t get me wrong; I adore Carrie and Co. I laughed, cried, and cringed through 6 seasons of fashion and frivolity and I saw the first one opening day. But I feel (still do) that there is really not much story left to tell. Be that as it may, this is one of those movies that for me is about the experience. I will probably go opening day again. I will put on my most stylish maternity clothes and the highest heels my swollen feet can manage. I will probably have lunch with my BFF and then we’ll go to an afternoon showing filled with other women like us. We’ll oohh over the fashions, laugh at the antics, and cry at those sly emotional moments. And maybe it won’t amount to more than the movie equivalent of cotton candy. But just like that–we’ll all have a little taste of a big girl fairy tale. Maybe that’s the point, afterall. Not the story but the fantasy. Nothing wrong with that.

3. Inception–Christopher Nolan has become one of the most interesting directors of recent years. Even his mask-less works, such as Memento and The Prestige are intellectually stimulating and visually intriguing. I love that going into his movies, even if I think I know what they are about, they still manage to entertain and surprise me. In this case, I am particularly interested to see what Nolan will do with DiCaprio. The actor finally managed to grow up and become the actor he foreshadowed in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape under the tutelage of Scorsese, particularly in The Departed. Now let’s see what someone else can do with him.

4. Toy Story 3–As it’s release date approaches I will probably dedicate an entire entry to the wonder that is Pixar. For now, I will just say that the studio has consistently turned out some of the most original, creative, touching, and entertaining movies in the past almost 20 years. Toy Story 2 followed the Godfather 2 in doing everything right–deepening the characters from the original while adding new faces and complications. But unlike the schlocky GF 3, I have faith that Pixar wouldn’t have made this one if they didn’t have something else to say. I’m all ears.

5. Salt–This one is probably pretty polarizing since people seem to look more at Angelina Jolie’s personal life than her work. But if Wanted proved anything, it’s that Jolie knows how to pick action roles and she doesn’t mess around when it comes to taking a hit. Add in a little more dramatic gravity and hopefully this will finally allow her to marry her formidable acting skills with her love of all things that go bang.

And while I said 5, I will add on that should I not be having a baby, I will probably also go see Eclipse. Can I wait to see it? You bet. But it sure will be fun to grab my BFF and watch teen angst and chastity at its height. My only sadness is that it will lack the fabulous Michael Sheen this go around. I’ll have to wait until Breaking Dawn for his return. And that I won’t miss.

Categories: Let Me Entertain You | Leave a comment

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