Monday, July 28, 2014

Old School 101: Accountability, or If You Ain’t Cheatin’, You Ain’t Tryin’?

Academic dishonesty was a (if not “the”) pet peeve of this now retired public school teacher. My gripe was not merely about morality, but also about practicality. If “your” work is not showing the teacher the results of “your” thinking, how can said teacher be expected to guide “your” understanding?

Instructional innovation over time has clouded the distinction between collaborative effort and “cheating,” already and inherently a “gray area” in the teaching and learning process. Stir in some data-driven “accountability”; post school “rankings” in the newspaper right along with the major league standings. Little wonder “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’!” has become a lifestyle rather than a ballplayer’s excuse.

Especially in a city where Enron Field can morph overnight into Minute Maid Park – and the team that plays there can lose 100 games while simultaneously being anointed its sport’s most profitable. Now there’s an Exit-Level Math problem for your state-mandated test.

But I digress.

The second half of my career was spent teaching English to the freshmen in a well-respected college-prep magnet program. The primary challenge to building an entry-level course for those students in that setting was finding and tweaking the appropriate level of difficulty (and maybe subtlety) in the work itself.

The issue of cheating was the furthest thing from my mind. My attitude pretty much was that any kid who needed to cheat to survive as a magnet-school freshman was unlikely to become a magnet-school junior. During a meeting of the magnet staff during my rookie year, I pointed out (only partly in jest) that there had been times in my middle-school teaching days when I’d consider a student’s caring enough to cheat a sign of progress. (I can still conjure up in my mind’s eye the expression on the face of one of my new colleagues to that little nugget of pedagogy.)

“What did you put for question such-and-such?”

If the inquiring mind simply writes the other student’s answer on his own paper? There’s no way to justify that – not in a competitive academic environment. However, if a student has thought through “question such-and-such” and wishes to compare with another student who has done the same? In a test setting, that would clearly be wrong … but not necessarily for an item on a homework assignment, huh? Such academic effort and curiosity in kids should be encouraged. Sometimes students’ curiosity and creativity are directed towards techniques by which to work smarter rather than harder. On occasion – e.g. “You do the even numbers, I’ll do the odd, then we swap answers.” – they “out-smart” themselves and end up crossing the line.

As time passed and I became more acclimated to the magnet program and its culture, I began to wonder whether my laid-back, often subtle approach to this matter was actually exacerbating what some peers perceived to be a problem. There was even a rumor afloat that some upper-classmen were promoting creative cheating as an academic survival skill.

Now, I have nothing against creativity – indeed I tried to discover ways to encourage and reward it.

But it requires little ingenuity to copy someone else’s homework … and to submit such “work” as one’s own opens a whole ‘nother can of worms, all of them slimy and distasteful.

Often enough, something would catch my eye and arouse my suspicion: multiple uses of an illogical answer, repeated and identical misspellings, journal entries that seem unusually familiar.

And then there was this little scenario –

Student: I had the same answer to #whatever as so-and-so. Why did you mark mine wrong?
Teacher: Why don’t you read #whatever on both papers.
Student: Oh, you mean there’s two versions of the worksheet?

How dare I, huh?

‘Twould seem my laissez-faire, law-of-natural-selection approach wasn’t working out so well. One colleague, both a PHD and superb teacher (not always a “given”), went so far as to stop assigning homework altogether.

My approach to these situations grew less subtle, my comments not always private. What was once a brief, moralistic digression was becoming a sermon, then a diatribe, and ultimately a downright hissy-fit, replete with parental as well as administrative involvement.

A hissy-fit was indeed a sight to behold, typically lasting for several days. I’d minimize my classroom interaction with the students, opting for “pop” quizzes and other types of independent classwork. Anger and irritation would ooze from every pore. Sometimes a little embellishment can induce the right kind of peer pressure.

A little pressure from home wouldn’t hurt, either. Thus, for the students whose “academic dishonesty” had caused my distemper, a parent signature verifying authenticity would be required for all work completed outside of class. I figured I’d give the parental units a little incentive for issuing a stern “Never Again!” Over a couple of weeks or so, a student or two at a time, I’d rescind this policy.

This grand display of mine did engender a little inconvenience – some additional paperwork, several parent conferences. One parent was unwise enough to actually say “How dare you” and defend her child, even when presented with the evidence. Our little chat was soon joined by a counselor and assistant principal.

It would be untruthful to claim that I’d foreseen and planned the whole thing. Once I got going, I just trusted my instincts. The objective was to generate a sense of “Don’t make him do THAT again!” in the students.

Did the tactic work?

Not in perpetuity, since I felt compelled to deliver an encore performance of sorts every three or four years. A benefit to the repetition was that there were always kids on campus who could vouch first hand for my attitude on the issue. Predictably, few of the participants in the shenanigans survived in the program for very long. (Overall, our retention rate from freshman to sophomore year was always about 85 percent.)

Like the old folk (including, in my case, numerous nuns) used to tell us, when you cheat, you’re only cheating yourself.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Old School 101: The Basic Sentence Unit

“In only the post-seasons of 2006 to the present has this likewise been true.”

Those words emanated from my pen – literally – a few days ago while scribing a rather ponderous piece on how the NBA has chosen to structure and adjust its post-season playoff tournament through the years.
During a lengthy career as a secondary-school English teacher (sentence structure a specialty), such an arrangement of verbiage would have had a place in my course – quite possibly as the basis for some extra-credit grammatical questions on a test or quiz. For example,

·         Which word is the simple subject of this structurally simple sentence? (Hint: It’s the only pronoun in the sentence.)
·         Identify any two words in this sentence that are adjectives.
·         What is the second prepositional phrase in this sentence?
·         Match the word with its part of speech (as it’s being used in this sentence):
1.       “present”     (a) noun
2.       “likewise”     (b) verb
3.       “been”          © adverb

In those more technologically simple days of teaching, my class’s initial activity frequently was the grammatical analysis of a short set of sentences from the blackboard. It was a versatile little teaching practice: suitable for review, a practical context for revealing some new syntactical twist, a familiar way to introduce the style or idiosyncrasy of a to-be-studied author. That the ultimate teaching purpose was not readily apparent created an edgy curiosity in a certain kind of student and spurred its share of teachable moments, within and without the curriculum. (I was given a hefty push down the path to retirement when non-school-based administrative authority mandated, in order to facilitate the teacher assessment process, the prominent posting in the classroom of the learning objective(s) for that particular usage of valuable teaching time.)

Whether pre-planned or a spontaneous reaction to what was deemed a collectively inadequate effort, the ever-popular “pop quiz,” accompanied by the obligatory adolescent groan, paid regular visits to my classroom.

In our “sentence-du-jour,” an Abacus-trained sentence-parser would immediately spot the introductory prepositional phrases, three of them. The second of my short series of Grammar Packets establishes as a rule that the Subject, Verb Phrase and Complement in a sentence will never be discovered within the confines of a prepositional phrase.

Well, that wipes out all but the last five words, two of which clearly are verbs. Indeed “has” and “been” are among the 23 helping (or auxiliary, as they are called in really old textbooks) verbs available for use in proper English – not including colloquialisms like “should of” and whatnot.

Now, a convenient little custom in how our language has evolved is that a helping verb, while not a mandatory element in any sentence, will always precede the main verb that it’s assisting. So, is “true” our main verb here – heck, is “true” a verb at all? Something gets described as “true” or valid. Describing words are adverbs or adjectives, not verbs.

Apparently, “has been” is the verb phrase, making “been” (one of the eight forms of the common verb “to be”) the main verb, i.e. the simple predicate. Aha, that actually clears things up significantly – the sentence has a Linking Verb rather than an Action Verb. (A “Be” form, when used as the main verb, is always and automatically Linking.)

Here are a couple of pieces of helpful language trivia for ya. A sentence with a linking verb is required to have a complement; that complement may be a noun, a pronoun or an adjective; and the job of said complement is to rename or to describe the subject of that very sentence. E.g.

Fluffy [subj] is [LV] a beagle [comp].
She [subj] is [LV] friendly [comp].

Then “true” must be the complement – technically a Predicate Adjective – and the message of the sentence-in-question must be that something or other “has been true.” (Notice that the series of prepositional phrases identifies the time frame for this particular bit of veracity.) Even though it wasn’t part of this version of the assessment instrument, we’re left with the question of the subject of the sentence. The only possibilities we seem to have are “this” and “likewise.” The latter, which conveys the meaning “in the same way,” answers the question “How,” information typically provided by an adverb.

The word “this” is most frequently used as an adjective to specify “Which one.” But it’s also a demonstrative pronoun – remember “dis, dat, dese and dose”? – and as such is allowed to serve as the subject of a sentence. (Notice how “She” substitutes for “Fluffy” as the subject of the second “friendly beagle” sentence above. A pronoun still takes the place of a noun, right?)

Upon embarking with any group of students on a “journey” through a piece of Shakespearean drama – Romeo & Juliet dozens of times with my freshmen; Julius Caesar with sophomores a few times; even Macbeth in a couple of once-over-lightly treatments with seniors during summer income-embellishment sessions – the student/“passengers” were asked to cast such a grammatically discerning eye to the following polite refusal of a request to dance:

My feet can keep no measure in delight
When my poor heart no measure keeps in grief.

Almost all students, many without the benefit of instructor-input, could recognize the patterns and pieces of this centuries-old usage of their language. The fun question to ask was always, “OK, now, what does it mean?”

In today’s sentence, the question we’re left with is, “OK, now, what does ‘this’ mean?”

Any guesses?

“Teach” is offering Extra Credit.