2021.05minutiae

  • This month’s minutiae article has a theme: life as a public school teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2021.

  • Even before the advent of the internets, catching students cheating was generally not particularly hard.  When a kid who can’t string a sentence together in class shows up with an essay full of phrases like “prone to disintegration” and “underscore the paradoxes”, something doesn’t add up.  (The appearance of the word “whilst” is another reliable red flag.)  Catching this sort of malfeasance has gotten even easier with the development of plagiarism detection software.  You click on a student’s submission and it pops onto the screen with the bits that have been copied from Sparknotes already highlighted.  Recently I encountered a student who thought that he had figured out an ingenious way to defeat these programs.  You know how sometimes you will run a web search on a phrase and it pulls up a bunch of sites with URLs that look like randomly generated passwords, whose preview text reveals that they collect other people’s posts and run them through thesaurus software?  This kid turned in a bunch of assignments that looked like that preview text.  I had asked students to write responses to each chapter as they read through Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle; here was how one of this kid’s submissions began:

    In chapet 4 candidates welding abilities were sharpened at W-M corporation which makes created Iron articles even as pre-war American ancient Rarity phonies, sold at places like childan’s shop. the biggest interest from the Japanese has made an immense Marketplace for such things and no one addresses them intently.

    Here is the original text from gradesaver.com:

    Frank’s welding skills were honed at W-M Corporation, which makes wrought-iron objects as well as pre-war American artifact forgeries, sold at places like Childan’s shop. The massive demand from the Japanese has created a huge market for such items, and no one questions them very closely.

    What I found particularly amusing was that, as you can see above, one of the main characters is named Frank; the student’s responses repeatedly referred to this character as “Candid” (which, above, was further mutated into “candidate”).  And the plagiarism detection software was indeed fooled!  What the student didn’t realize is that teachers don’t need software to be able to tell the difference between honestly composed sentences and computer-generated gibberish.

  • Another thing I’ve discovered is that many students—​not just a couple here and there, but several in every class—​consistently use umlauts in place of quotation marks and acute accent marks in place of apostrophes.  For instance, here’s a student recapping an issue of Scott McCloud’s Zot!:

    Brandy says, ¨​who wants to go out with me?​¨ All the boys yell ¨​ME, ME, ME​¨. Brandy​´​s first date was with Spike at his house. Woody calls Spike and tells him that it​´​s his turn to date Brandy. Woody and Brandy go to Restaurant for a date. Woody ask her if she is feeling right and she says ¨​yes​¨.

    I don’t know how this happens—​I had to do some poking around on character code tables just to figure out how to replicate the effect.  What’s more interesting to me is the students’ confusion when I point out that, hey, those aren’t quotation marks.  It suggests that they haven’t read enough books with conventional typography to have internalized what quotation marks and apostrophes actually look like in print.

  • Ellie reports overhearing some high school girls at the bus stop talking about The Great Gatsby:

    Q:  “Do you know what’s going on in this book?”
    A:  “Not really. The one thing I know is that the main character goes by he/him pronouns”

    That one is pretty much impossible to beat, but here was an honorable mention from the same conversation:

    Q:  “Does the teacher read our annotations?”
    A:  “Nah, which is good because I just look for when weird things are happening and then write slang words she won’t get like ‘oh shit’ and ‘what the fuck’”

    Ellie was struck by the way this kid seemed concerned not that she would get in trouble for cursing in a school assignment but rather that the teacher would be baffled by such esoteric slang.  Did she really think that the words “shit” and “fuck” were coined by zoomers?

  • Meanwhile, here’s what it’s like in the teacher email threads.  This is a verbatim, non-ironic quote:

    “I didn’t really hear you at first, steeped as I am in a culture of assumed patriarchal white privilege, rank privilege, and inequitable hierarchy.”

  • The school where I’ve been teaching is notorious for its extremely lax attitude toward student discipline.  Back when we were still on campus full time, rarely did a week go by without the fire alarm interrupting classes.  This was usually due to someone smoking in a bathroom, but one time during my student teaching year it turned out that someone had tried to set one of the buildings on fire deliberately.  One of the vice principals came on the intercom a couple of days later to announce that the school was taking a zero-tolerance stance toward arson.  “We will impose the harshest possible penalty,” she declared: “Five days of on-campus suspension!”  My mentor teacher burst out laughing.  “That makes it official—​there is literally nothing you can do to get expelled from this school,” he mused.  But that sort of thing actually has less of an effect on the overall culture of the school than day-to-day issues like the lack of consequences for tardiness.  Most teachers seem to take it as a given that of course half the class is going to wander in half an hour late during first period—​it’s so early, you know!—​and during fourth period, because you know how long those lines can get at the lunch places the kids all go to, halfway across town.  I’ve sometimes even had to remind myself that, hey, wait, when I was in school, class started when the bell rang because everyone was there!  Of course, it’s different at a suburban school where parents are driving their kids to the front gate instead of leaving them to get there by their own devices, except wait no it isn’t because from age sixteen on my old classmates were generally driving themselves.  It really is a matter of school culture.

  • And this culture affects academics as well.  Prior to the arrival of the covids, my program had a no-homework policy: if I wanted my students to write an essay, I had to block off a full week of class time so they could write it at their desks, and even assigning a book meant that I had to either spend a month reading it out loud all the way through or at least devote big chunks of every class to silent reading.  (I did a count of the number of books I was assigned in my last two years of high school English classes, and I came up with twenty-three.  I assigned three per year and had parents emailing me to thank me for the academic rigor of my class, as apparently a number of teachers weren’t assigning any books at all.)  With the move to distance learning came state-mandated homework minutes, but soon the directives from the school in this regard became a confusing mishmash of “you’re legally required to assign this much homework, so make sure you do that, only don’t, because the kids are overwhelmed”.  That too was in keeping with a theme.  The teacher email I mentioned above was from one of the conference threads, but the emails sent to me personally from counselors and administrators have overwhelmingly broken down along these lines: such-and-such a student is feeling stressed, so please excuse her from this set of assignments.  This other student gets nervous about taking tests or giving presentations or working in groups, so please excuse him from work of those types.  Another initiative headed for mandate status is a school policy that no assignment can receive a grade of less than 50%, even if it was never turned in, the idea being that if you blow off all your work for months on end and then decide, with two weeks in the semester, that you actually do want to pass the class, seeing that you have a zero is too discouraging.  It goes without saying that in tandem with this came a corollary that late work must be accepted right up to the end of the term.  And my direct supervisor repeatedly demanded that I pace my classes for the benefit of the single student in each section who was struggling the most, which quite literally would have meant putting students who had signed up for Advanced Placement into a remedial course.  Colleagues from programs where these moves happened earlier have pointed out what the results have been: kids wind up with stellar grade point averages and glowing recommendations, get into top colleges, and… drop out after about three weeks, saying that they feel like they’re years behind everyone else and don’t know what’s going on, because they are and they don’t.

  • Early in my previous career teaching test prep, a trainer told a story about how during George W. Bush’s tenure as governor of Texas, the state implemented a testing regime to identify students whose measured proficiency was not up to standard.  As it turned out, there were a lot: the first batch of test scores was abysmal.  And so the state of Texas remedied this gap by… making the test easier.  The next time around, scores skyrocketed.  Problem solved!

    Anyway, it turns out that you don’t need to go to Texas for that sort of thing.  With half the term remaining, teachers of seniors received a notification that they would not be allowed to fail students unless they filled out a form right then and there declaring that the student was certain to receive an F.  See how that works?  First you require that teachers accept late work right up to the end of the term; then you load up your “F Confirmation Form” with language indicating that only students “receiving a guaranteed F” (at a point when nothing could possibly be “guaranteed”) and who will “absolutely get an F” and are “definitely not going to pass” (at a point when nothing could possibly be “absolute” or “definite”) can be given failing grades.  Failing grades are thus impossible.  Wow, a 100% pass rate!  What a successful school!

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