What I REALLY Wanted to Say to Parents in that Playbill

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about the nature of failure and the pitfalls of success. This hardly seems surprising as I spend my mornings teaching English and my afternoons teaching Theatre. But, I’ll tell you something: I have noticed some disturbing societal trends.

I don’t know when it happened, but we, as a society, seem to have forgotten that failure is a necessary component to success. Can you imagine what would happen to scientific advancement if failure was no longer an option? It would stagnate. Everyone would be too afraid to attempt anything unless they were 100% certain they were right.

 
So then, why do we place so much pressure on our children to succeed at all times and at all cost?
That already seems to be happening in the world of technology… I mean, how many products have been released before they were completely ready? Programmers seem to operate on the idea that something should be released first and then fixed after customer complaints start coming in. Nobody will even create a prototype unless it’s ready for commercial use! 

Maybe that’s alright for the working world, but that shouldn’t be the way schools work.
 
I don’t know whether it’s because of our government’s over-emphasis on testing, but it seems to me that school is no longer about learning, it’s about getting good grades. What good is a good grade if the material has not been truly learned? Who cares if your college admissions test scores are top notch and your essays sound like they were written by someone beyond teen years? As long as they get in to the college of their dreams, what does it matter? Right?
 
Wrong.
50% of all college freshmen nationwide are not prepared for college-level material and will not graduate from the same university in which they gained entrance as seniors in high school.
 
How can this be possible? If a high school transcript shows a 4.0 or better, then doesn’t that mean the student is college ready?
 
No, it does not.
 
Increasingly, I have noticed college-bound students cheating off of each other in pursuit of those perfect transcripts. I would hazard a guess that very few of those perfect transcript receivers really, truly earned those grades through hard work and proper study habits. Even fewer of them remember any of the content they supposedly learned in any of their classes.
 
Why do they cheat? The answer to this one is so simple, it’s embarrassing. All their parents care about is that they receive straight As.
 
I teach in a high school that is largely Asian in population. I cannot even count how many times I’ve heard students quoting their parents’ admonishment (with complete accent and tone), “You no Bsian o’ Csian, you Asian.” (sic) I have a student who has written her college admissions essay five times because her mother thinks she has no hope of getting accepted anywhere, despite her high SAT score. What’s wrong with this picture?
 
School is supposed to be about learning. We are supposed to be encouraging our students NOT to memorize factoids for test regurgitation, but to fully engage in the process of learning, which includes trial and error.
 
I was doing some research on famous failures throughout history, and I came across a quote that could have been spoken yesterday, or even this morning.
 
“Our schools are not teaching students to think. It is astonishing how many young people have difficulty in putting their brains definitely and systematically to work.” 
 
This quote is surprising because it was not spoken by someone who had any sort of formal schooling. In fact, he had no more than three months’ worth, but spent a lifetime pursuing scientific endeavors and is completely self-taught. The speaker is Thomas Alva Edison.
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Who are you trying to kid?

Recently, during a teacher in-service, one of our school principals led a student panel discussion. The purpose of this panel was to give voice to students; to help them, perhaps, feel empowered and heard. They were supposed to be teaching us how to teach them.

There were several things wrong with this well-intentioned event. First and foremost, the students chosen were not completely representative of our diverse student population. Secondly, they were all articulate. Why is this a problem? Quite simply because many students who feel disenfranchised by the educational system do not use perfect English. They use slang. What they have to say is what interests me.

Here is what I want to know:

Why do you refuse to carry books larger than your back pocket?

Why are you so resistant to hard work?

When did learning become “uncool”?

Why are you so against reading on your own? How can I make reading easier for you?

What makes you think school is supposed to be fun all the time?

Do your parents talk to you on a regular basis, or do they merely complain about your behavior?

Did your parents read to you as children? Do your parents read now?

What can I do to help you — not just academically but also emotionally?

Sadly, these were not the questions asked of the student panel. Instead, they were asked about teachers and lessons that appeal to them. They were also asked about the amount of homework they’re given instead of being asked why they don’t get it done.

I cannot count the number of times I have heard students say, “I LOVE that teacher! He is so EASY.” When pushed for more information, they add, “We don’t really do anything. We just hang out and socialize.” Well, guess what? My job is not to entertain or cajole. My job is to teach, to inspire, to instruct. It isn’t always easy and it isn’t always fun; but nothing that is worthwhile ever comes without some sort of struggle.

Not too long before this panel, the Wall Street Journal published that misleading article on Amy Chua about Chinese mothers and why they are superior. This article was a topic of debate in my department lounge for about a week. We read the article with varying degrees of response. Some of us loathed every single word. Some of us felt like we understood our students better because our school happens to have a majority of Asians. I found myself asking, “who are you trying to kid? Are you really that delusional?”

The fact of the matter is – and I have no research to support this rather than my own personal experience and those of my colleagues – students who are pressured to bring home straight As are the most likely to cheat their way to the top. This is especially true for students who are in all honors and advanced placement classes. I have students whose parents yell, “You are not B-sian or C-sian; you are A-sian!” Some of the students who hear this are terrified of grades lower than an A minus and will beg and plead to have their grades inflated by any means necessary. Some rebel against this entirely and take on the “make me do my work” attitude. Still others decide that, in order to get that A, they must plagiarize on their essays, cheat on their tests, and copy other students’ homework.

Don’t think this is true? Case in point. My students no longer write essays at home. Why? Because two years ago, 7 of my 35 students in an honors class turned in essays that were 93 – 98% plagiarized. This means that their essays – which they had two weeks to write and were based largely on their own opinions – were copied directly from various websites and remained unattributed to the original authors. One student in particular wrote only the conclusion to her essay. I would like to think that these students learned their lesson, but unfortunately, at least one of them did it again the following year with a different teacher.

My mother always used to tell me that it didn’t matter what grade I earned so long as I did my best and I learned something in the process. This is the message that I would like more parents to convey. True – grades are important when it comes to furthering your education. Good grades can get you into a good college. But, if your good grades were earned by cheating, then you will not be able to complete your work once you get into college.

Do you really want the person prepping for your surgery to have cheated their way through medical school?

The other side of this face is that those who are not college bound, those who don’t care whether they learn or not don’t even care enough to cheat. They just don’t care. They don’t want to be failures, but they don’t want to achieve, either. How do I reach THEM? Who will listen to what THEY have to say? If we don’t get THEM onto some life-long path to learning, then what will become of their children? Or their grandchildren?

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Why am I here? What am I doing?

Me: Where do I begin?

Myself: At the beginning, of course!

Me: And just where IS the beginning?

Myself: Just tell them why you decided to start this endeavor that you have little time for, but insist on doing anyway.

Me: But there are so many reasons!

Myself: Pick one and roll with it. See where it takes you.

I: Okay, here goes.

 

Picture this. I’m in my Rabbi’s office having a pre-marital counseling session and I randomly boast of my ability to write a book about all the things I’ve learned as a high school teacher. My Rabbi was intrigued. She thought it was a great idea. She even said that my theoretical book would fill a desperate need. I felt humbled, and admittedly silenced. Who am I to claim that I have any more knowledge or expertise than the random Josephine? Well, I’ll tell you.

I am the teacher that your children go to when they can’t talk to you.

Interesting things have happened between that counseling session and today. New television shows claiming to be about “real” teens have joined the airwaves. I’ve read editorials, heard politicians wax on and my own family members complain all about ineffective teachers, and dangerous schools filled with sex-crazed kids toting guns. I’ve read articles that even had ME thinking that all students engage in dangerous behaviors from sexting to lord knows what else. I’m not gonna lie – some of what you read is true. Not all of my own students are angels. Some of them are in gangs. Some of them have parents who are in jail. Yes, today’s teens ARE exposed to way more than they should be and are given way more unsupervised time than is good for them. Teens are angry. They are confused. They are hurt. They want to feel validated. They want to hear the truth even if they say they don’t. They want to be heard without feeling pre-judged. And that is why they come to me.

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