When Price and Toll Are Mutually Exclusive Concepts

As a tutor I face an abundance of conundrums.  I have to make decisions as to whether or not to take a job as each student I tutor, each assignment I work on with a student reflects on me, my credibility, integrity and reputation. There is no price for having integrity and a good reputation, especially if you have a teaching credential.  My teaching credential makes it even more of a challenge when tutoring in areas involving writing as there is the doctrine of academic dishonesty, which is as serious or more than plagiarism.  It is common for me to turn down jobs and recently I have had to specify for English and History tutoring, there needs to be a draft paper completed by student before I will tutor. All of this came about many years ago for me and has recently reared its ugly head in fine form.

Most teachers figure out a way to obtain a ‘writing’ sample of students the first week of school – in all subjects. This is done as a baseline of sorts and also as comparison for future assignments. It helps support your Spidey Sense if a student suddenly writes above their ability.  When I tutor, I ask to see a past assignment(s) so I can understand my student and understand where the gaps are and work with them to master the rubric or expectations of the assignment.  In addition, teachers who have graded thousands upon thousands of papers, have a true sense of something cut and pasted from the internet versus actual student work AND we should know how to ask appropriate questions regarding work quality before we make the shot off the bow of academic dishonesty.   Often times, students in middle school and the start of high school are not aware of what plagiarism and/or academic dishonesty looks like, sounds like or feels like. More often than not the ‘first time’ can be a great learning experience if handled correctly and professionally. If a teacher really has their game on, they can help the student not only overcome the problem, they can be instrumental in helping the student push forward and do their best work.

In addition to the obvious issues of plagiarism and academic integrity, there is something called style and it is not the latest fashion trend.  Style is how each individual writes and is often something akin to a ‘personality’ of the writer or how the writer presents themselves. It is not easy to qualify or quantify and for some it is easy to replicate (Ex: a current author completing a book based on an unfinished transcript/document of a now deceased author – (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/17/books/review/book-review-the-pale-king-by-david-foster-wallace.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0    and http://nypost.com/2013/08/25/five-new-j-d-salinger-novels-to-be-released-starting-in-2015/) which can, much like a forged painting, cause many problems.   Interestingly though, style is in some ways akin to  ‘quality’ of writing – Can you write a compelling piece of which a bored person will enjoy reading OR will some one just put it down out of boredom?

I have found more often than not, students cheat since they do NOT know better, not the wish to pull one over on a teacher. Some students do indeed pay for essays and there are secret mills which sell all manner of garbage to the highest bidder to submit as their paper.  It is incredibly easy to talk to a student and ascertain they did not write the essay. There is no need to mount a CIA and NSA investigation as simple questions indicate what a student knows or bought.  Some school districts now require students to ‘run’ their essay through some software product which does word count, lexile, sentence analysis and all other manner of  technologically intriguing things to suss out if the paper was indeed written or cut and pasted from various internet sources. Three of my students attend this type of school district.

I never had the joy of cutting and pasting anything other than a quote as I am hell bound to get my specific point across. It is a matter of pride I write my own essays, blogs, papers, etc. I expect the same from students. I will work tirelessly with them to edit, discuss, refine, etc. and at the end of the day, it is theirs. Knowledge can not be bestowed with a magic wand, one must earn it with hard and diligent work. Being as I know a fair enough amount about English and literature for a science major, it is not often I find myself challenged by another teacher for writing a students ‘literary analysis’ paper. In other words, pretty much anyone would never mistake me for an English major or writer.

What  recently happened was not pretty nor was it appropriate. A  teacher  questioned a student I tutor  regarding academic integrity over a literary analysis on ‘Of Mice and Men’ (based upon all manner of selfish reasons to wish the student ill will and no intention of actually being an honors level English teacher).  Said teacher made it clear to student and parents of student I ‘wrote’ the paper as I do not have boundaries for tutoring. This teacher has the foul attitude of letting students know they will not earn an A one moment earlier than she has determined, no matter how well they write as she is the arbiter of all.  Her reputation not only precedes her, it is ill-gotten gains based on her own limited background which does not include anything resembling the hard work of a PhD.  This teacher torments students in Grade 9 Honors English as she is allowed to – she has tenure.  To make matters exceedingly worse than her arrogance and the administrators who support this heresy, is the price of privilege.  This teacher is part of a uniquely interesting school district.

The school district was formed via a community which could not obtain an annexation so they ‘voted’ themselves their own school district – long before charter schools were even a dream. The district operates in much the same fashion as a charter school and is considered a select district. Over the years the number of school age children in the population dropped so they allowed for inter-district transfers. The transfer is meant to keep out anyone who is not white, first and foremost (I looked at the recent data on ethnicity and it is not representative of anyplace else in CA). The second part of this is to force parents and students to be compliant with the whims of the district or their inter-district transfer is somehow magically ‘terminated’ the next year.

Since parents want their children in this school district by inter-district  transfer, they are often willing to accept a degree of  shady behavior and professional ineptitude   by teachers and administrators.  This is where the toll of bad behavior on behalf of the adults who educate children is sometimes greater than the actual price of privilege to attend the district. The exactitude of how the  behavior is meted out is also mainly directed at the inter-district transfers as they are expendable. The English teacher above was motivated as much by her own unhappiness as by the fact of ‘eliminating any challenges to her authority or that of the administration’.

What is truly sad is the student  who was punished in this whole situation. The student is quite intelligent. The student was so frustrated they did not wish to put in their full effort and once they did, viola, it became a nightmare of Stephen King proportion. I know – I was blamed for causing the misconduct. The student was ultimately vindicated, as was I since I would not edit the students most recent paper in order for the teacher to see the waywardness of her claims.

It is not an easy balancing act and I commend the parents who are able to make it work. This includes the parents of SPED students (I tutor one of them) in the district who have had to tolerate teacher(s) not clear on how IEP’s/ 504’s work. The lack of clarity is not due to lack of education, it is due to lack of initiative on behalf of the teacher. No one seems to stand up to these people and they are bullies. They are better bullies than the kids on the playground as they can hide behind the guise of being adults.

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Right, rights, wrong and totally wrong!

http://blog.sfgate.com/cityinsider/2012/04/06/sf-high-school-to-suspended-students-oops-our-bad/?tsp=1&plckItemsPerPage=10&plckSort=TimeStampDescending&plckFindCommentKey=CommentKey:68aaf244-d68d-48e3-813f-b4dcc02ea69c

I could not help but read this piece, sigh in dismay and then realize, alas, it was a teachable moment – for parents and for the children they raise.

I have rights. My rights include working in a safe place and being treated professionally.  I have the right to free speech and expression of my views, within reason – I may not incite a riot.  I have the right to teach in a classroom, at a school where students are desirous of learning.   I have a right to work with principals, students and  parents who treat me professionally and with respect/dignity.

There are countless times when I may wish to demonstrate  what ‘stupid’ looks like in action, but I do not attach a name to it as the participants know who(m) they are.  Stupid in action is instructional.  I talk to people who practice ‘stupid’ and point it out and discuss alternatives as frankly, it is embarrassing enough to be an American, I don’t need people doing stupid here and abroad. I complain when I have an alternative way to solve something – not because I need to complain. Complaining is easy and everyone/anyone can do it. Not every one is smart enough to address the issue and create a solution.

My students and their parents have rights. My students have the right to an education in an environment worthy of learning.  Since all my students have this right, there are times when I need to ask students to leave until they can get their behavior in order to be in an environment of studiousness-for themselves and classmates.   My students have a right to question how I grade, what the purpose/rationale of an assignment is, due dates, books we read and so on.  Fortunately for me I am not a neurosurgeon or ER doctor and so I can CHANGE something if it is not working and no one dies (they may feel sick inside but no one dies from an education).

The parents of my students have rights. They have a right to meet with me at a scheduled time and I expect them to exercise that right. Parents have a right to meet with me when it will not effect my other students, which is why I schedule appointments.   They have a right to question grades, the purpose/rationale of an assignment, due dates, books and so on.  Parents and students have these rights as long as they use them in a reasonable amount of time.  It is not considered an emergency for me  two weeks after the fact (assignment turned in, grades went out, etc.) that a student is failing and I have done due diligence in written notices, phone calls and multiple forms of contact. It may feel like an emergency to the parent and the student, but again, it is not as I am not a neurosurgeon or ER doctor.  Parents have the right to attend my class/school with their child if their child is expressing untoward behavior and not able to productively participate in a quality learning environment.  Parents have the right to parent their children and not expect me, the teacher to do their job.

Since my students and their parents have rights, I do not appreciate or like when issues are not addressed with me. In fact, I find it immature and an abuse of power when a student/parent goes above me – because they can.  It does not inspire respect when people do things because they feel they have ‘power’ to laud over me as opposed to real power in which they can have a conversation and deal with solutions.  It makes me feel disrespected (dissed is the street term) and unappreciated as I put extensive time and effort into my practice as an educator.

When students (in the case in the article above) and parents do things which are inherently mean, I do not find the humor.  It is called bullying.  When parents teach children this skill, they open their children up to a very undignified way to go through life as their child does not become a problem solver.  Children need to learn that the world is filled with adversity and one way around it is to talk about it and work for alternate outcomes.   When students use a power play/grab as noted in the article above – because they can, they lose sight of the true issue and again do not become problem solvers.

By Grade 4, students should have the ability to state an opinion, ask a question and think about a potential alternative outcome to a problem.   Not everything in life makes us happy but we can discuss it.  After Grade 4, when parents are still  the ones coming to the teacher, the student is prevented from developing self efficacy and advocacy throughout their lives.

When parents work with students to intentionally create problems at school, it is unacceptable. It is disruptive to everyone and does not demonstrate the skills necessary to function in the real world for very long.  When principals and other administrators support intentional bad behavior (from parents and students) at school, it diminishes the professionalism of education.

It is wrong for bad behavior to go unpunished – this does not mean something which physically hurts, rather something which emotionally hurts. It is okay for students and parents to apologize, in writing, and explain what they learned.  I apologize to my students and their parents often as I know I am only human and can not do the Sisyphean task of teaching 150%, even though I would love to.

Words carry power – they carry the most power when we use words with meaning, purpose and good intentions.

The other side – being a science teacher and getting in trouble for sending students out for failing to comply with lab rules…….

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article/article?f=/n/a/2010/08/31/national/a070437D12.DTL

VS.

http://bostonherald.com/news/national/northeast/view.bg?articleid=1278163&srvc=home&position=active

Initially I read this article in its condensed/converted form in The San Francisco Chronicle. I then found the link via another person who wrote in a comment. Not only should The SF Chronicle be ashamed for poor reporting of information, I truly believe parents should be much more sincere/serious with their children about foolishness in a lab.

Having worked for years as a science teacher and only have injuries to self (thank you the powers that be), I was also the chastised teacher for kicking students out of science lab for foolishness. Please note, my students took a thorough lab safety test and had to pass it. The student and parents had to sign it and it point blank stated that failure to adhere to rules was an automatic dismissal from class that day and an F grade for the lab. There would not be discussion nor second warnings.

Parents were fine with all of this until their child was sent out for such things as using a microscope slide for cutting – SKIN, randomly mixing lab experiment ingredients to ‘see’ what would happen, ‘eating’ and swallowing a part of the lab, playing with equipment in a manner that it was no longer safe to use and so on. 

 In each case, I had a principal who felt I was unrealistic and middle school and high school students need to be given second chances.  Which is very interesting when you consider that the insurance for students in science and PE classes/sports is the highest insurance costs at any school and an F on one assignment will not truly affect the grades of a good student and for a mediocre student, will clearly indicate they need to get their game on.

I would rather a student take an F and feel upset for not demonstrating better thinking/maturity than a student who has brain damage and heart damage.  Science and shop are serious subjects. Students who can not demonstrate the adequate ability to function with proper judgement should be excluded or there needs to be a parent attending to oversee that their child follows instructions.  It is not up to the school, teacher, aide, etc. to safeguard a child from their own stupidity when proper safety measures and monitoring are in place.  This being said, the worse thing a teacher can do is downplay the seriousness of the work which will be done in lab or shop and teach a MISCONCEPTION about safety.

Personal advice to all science teachers out there: Better to err on the side of safety and being strict than to let any principal or parent define safety in your class. 

Personal advice to parents: Better to err on supporting the teacher than to have to see your childs life dramatically altered because you were worried about a ‘grade’ or your childs deportment.

Personal advice to principals:  Better to err on supporting your teachers than to have to endure a lawsuit.

As the economy goes, so goes grades for students….Please hit the reset button!

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/18/education/18college.html

On the subject of grading, you can ask five teachers their opinion, get 12 answers and if you ask the same group of teachers the same question two weeks later, get seven answers that may/may not have similarity to the original 12 answers given.

Teachers are forever discussing how to grade well, how to improve grading and how to be fair in grading – a process which is mind numbing when you consider that aside from math and ideas involving math (quantitative values which are measureable), there can be a variety of correct answers.  Although teachers (and apparently college profs based on the link above) strive to take qualitative values and put them into quantitative context (the “rubric”), there is no one right answer and, amazingly, teachers may use a variety of grading methodologies over the course of the year due the  specific nature of an assignment.

One area of clarity, which almost everyone (except parents and students and, with a high degree of regularity, principals) agrees is that grades should be a reflection of the scholarly work by the student.   Ex: Having done lab experiments on photosynthetic process, students should be able to describe elodea “absorbing” carbon dioxide, processing it with water all the while using energy from sunlight to split apart and reorganize the molecules appropriately to form a simple sugar and oxygen gas.  If I wanted more specificity, I could ask for the C6H12O6 model….I could, for high school students specify the volume of CO2 going in….Grading the aforementioned concepts is altogether a different story.  Since photosynthesis is the single most important chemical reaction, one might say that 80-90% of the grade for the assignment be based on the ability to describe the process and 10-20% for the accuracy of specific calculations.   Should the teacher be presented with a Larry Gonick style cartoon expressing photosynthesis, all the better, but how to account for creativity? What is the bottom line that I am measuring the student knows….. Well, on a base model – carbon dioxide goes in with water and you get simple sugar and oxygen; on a synthesis level I would want to know that this is the self same process which makes a plant grow, tree rings form and leaves, flowers, fruits form; on an application model, I may want the student to identify that when looking at a tree cookie, one could infer that the more thin/slender tree ring was a result of something (highly probable water) was in drought/missing during a particular growing season, number of years so there was ‘less’ tree growth – what would we know about the climate in that region?

Bottom line (going back to the base model): Be able to let me know you understand photosynthesis is a process which involves substances called carbon dioxide (gas) and water (liquid/gas vapor) and the energy of sunlight for processing to sugar and oxygen. This key piece of info is really the 75-90% of the grade.  Not being able to articulate in a meaningful manner this idea would not warrant a grade above a D. It may approximate a C if there is some implication the student is aware of disorganized information and can logically, in a round about manner explain the process and results. In order to achieve a grade of  B or above, the explanation needs to be clear, concise, instructive (I now am clear the student “gets it”). For an A, the student needs to graphically represent the process.  This grading style may seem, on the outside puzzling, however, let me digress further into what I was thinking:  I am checking to see that my students can explain photosynthesis (generally Gr 6 and 7) and, on AVERAGE (grade C), I expect all my students to get it.  I then know I have a portion of shining stars who take learning seriously and will have studied and give more detail/clarity to the answer so that is a B or an A. Just “accomplishing” the task – which is the minimal amount I expect from everyone, is not above average work.

When students, parents and the occassional administrator scoffs at my reasoning, I am willing to have a discussion – I am generally not willing  to change the grade more than say 5-10% so a C becomes a C+ (rarely a B-). My thought is that in a rational world, the base line is can you just basically regurgitate a process, no different from explaining the making of a PBJ sandwich.  Where I get torqued is the idea that a students self esteem is at risk by being honest with the grading. 

In the same exact manner of high fliers on Wall St. (Merrill Lynch is a perfect example here in), banking (USB), real estate brokers/lenders (take your pick) believe they DESERVE/are ENTITLED to a bigger cut of the pie, we have children and parents who support and believe in grade inflation since the child deserves and is entitled to a better grade merely based on the student showing up to school, maybe doing a halfway decent jobon the lab and write up, not really studying for more than 15 minutes the morning of the test and putting the name, date, period on the paper in the correct place.

Apparently collegiate professors expect more (amazingly, so do employers – just showing up does not obtain a pay check unless you are B. Madoff) and so should parents. 

I encourage any parent worth their salt to think about what the ‘experience’ is you want the student(your child) to obtain from the grade process: more attention/note taking in class? rewritting notes? more, but shorter, study times? group study? teacher after school help? Start thinking about what the student needs to do to accomplish more than hit the baseline (which is what the teacher, and apparently professors) model.

Schools have spent so much time figuring out ways to connive grades that make students and parents ‘feel good’ we forgot to mention that grades are but only one tool in measuring anyones ability.  Did I mention that EVERYONE has the CAPACITY to always do better? 

Updated on 4/29/2009   http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2009/04/29/30koretz_ep.h28.html?tkn=NVOFrov3C%2FZ3K6N23ailiNrQcSf4%2BT6T6jHI