- 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
(The appearance of the word “whilst” is another reliable red
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
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
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
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
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:
||“Do you know what’s going on in this book?”
||“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:
||“Does the teacher read our annotations?”
||“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
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
- 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
“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
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
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
(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
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
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
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
And so the state of Texas remedied this gap by… making the test
The next time around, scores skyrocketed.
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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