Monthly Archives: May 2008

Grammar Wednesday

Observe. This sign is hanging up in at LEAST four places at my health club. Sigh…

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AFGO, Part III

Here’s the first letter I wrote to the Powers that Be:

Respected Colleagues:

This letter serves to document my experience of having Jon as a student in my Monday/Wednesday, 11:10-1:20 Public Speaking and Communication class at TCC during the spring semester of 2008.

Jon’s attendance in the course was spotty at the beginning of the semester and, as a result, he missed a significant amount of class time and homework assignments. As early as April 21, he and I were in email correspondence concerning his attendance – a copy of our emails, along with an expression of my concern for this student to Sam, his department head, is below.

When Jon is in class, I have found him to be disruptive and uncooperative. For example, we have had several confrontations over his computer being open during class time. He has left the class numerous times for reasons unknown to me, and he consistently returns late from break. He sits in the back of the room and I have to stop the class on occasion to break up conversations from that area. He does occasionally participate in the class’s discussion, but more often than not his contributions consist of his simply agreeing with what someone else has already stated.

His performance in the course has likewise been spotty. His homework is often of a substandard quality, with Jon giving the barest minimum of answers and often these are in sentence fragments. He failed his mid-term in-class exam, earning a 53, and also failed the take-home portion of the exam, a series of essay questions concerning Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. The students were exhorted to put in a genuine effort and to give thoughtful, complete, and considered answers. Jon chose to respond with sentence fragments handed in on the assignment sheet. Anticipating a confrontation, I made copies of both of Jon’s exams and brought them to Sam’s attention on Thursday, May 8th.

This morning, I handed back the students’ exams and began to review the test questions with them. Jon had taken his neighbor’s exam and was flipping through the test page by page in a way that was disruptive enough to me that I asked him what he was doing. He responded that he was checking his answers against his neighbor’s because he wanted to be sure that I didn’t “jew” him out of any points.

When I asked him what he had just said to me, he said that he wanted to be sure that I hadn’t “screwed” him out of any points. I told him that that was not what he said, at which point he accused me of putting words in his mouth. It was then that I told him to collect his things and report to his department head.

At the break, several members of the class came to me separately and told me that they heard what I had heard. Further, a student confided in me that Jon has spoken crude things about me when I’m not in the room.

These issues very clearly address Student Code of Conduct provisions:

5, disorderly conduct,
6, disruptive activity
7, failure to cooperate
13, insubordination

*I would include provision 10, harassment or discrimination, on the basis of my student’s information, but I cannot personally speak to that, as I have never been in the room when it’s happened.

Following this morning’s incident, Sam and Jon returned to my classroom to have a meeting. I found this discussion to be both disturbing and entirely unproductive. Jon flatly denied using the racial slur. He accused me of being personally biased against him and of failing to live up to my responsibilities as an educator. He seemed, to me, entirely unwilling to seek a compromise that would allow him to be a cooperative and contributing member of my classroom community. Frankly, his temper intimidated me; I am confident that I am upholding my professional commitments, but I am uncertain how far that confidence will take me in the face of this student’s having decided that I am out to get him.

I respectfully request that Jon be removed from my class effective immediately. I feel that he has created an environment where he can no longer succeed in the community we’ve created as a class, and I am concerned that any further confrontations will be met with ever-increasing hostility.

Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you require any further information; I am available entirely at your convenience.

Sincerely,

Mrs. Chili

It turns out, though, that this letter was not adequate to serve the purpose. Joe took me aside the following day and pointed out that the letter could describe more than half the student body at TCC; that I spoke more to Jon’s academic performance in my class than to his behavior in my class. Rereading it now, I can see that, but in my defense a) I’ve never had to do anything like this before and b) I was trying to be as professional and detached as possible. I didn’t want to come off all whiny and accusatory, and I didn’t know exactly how to point out his bad behavior without sounding petulant.

I went home that afternoon and re-worked my letter. Joe liked this one much better:

Respected Colleagues:

This letter serves to document my experiences with Jon as a student in my Monday-Wednesday, 11:10-1:20 Public Speaking and Communication class at TCC during the spring term of 2008.

I have found Jon to be a disruptive influence in the classroom. His behavior ranges from boisterous to combative, and he has been inappropriately challenging on numerous occasions.

Jon very often disregards the computer policy as stated in the syllabus for the class and, on several occasions, has argued with me in front of the other students about putting his computer away. He will often get up and leave the room in the middle of a lecture or discussion, and more often returns late from break. Jon conducted a very loud phone conversation, ostensibly with his mother, after receiving a progress report from me on April 28th indicating that he was performing poorly in our class. During this conversation, he told his listener – and the entire class, who was well within earshot – that I was treating him unfairly and that I was biased against him. He also tends to speak out of turn and at inappropriate times, as when the class was engaged in their mid-terms on May 7th.

Jon has consistently challenged my teaching decisions in class. A typical example follows; a fellow student gave a moving performance during his commemorative speech on May 5th. He was speaking of his grandfather and, about a quarter of the way through is delivery, lost his composure completely. It took him a few moments, but he recovered and was able to finish his speech. When the student returned to his seat, I asked him if he would be willing to share what he needed to do to stay at the podium and recollect himself sufficiently to finish his presentation. At that point, Jon told me that I was wrong to ask the student to talk about the experience when it was so obvious that he was upset. He didn’t present his objection in a respectful way – he accused me, essentially, of capitalizing on a student’s grief.

The latest confrontation, and the reason for my formal complaint, happened on Monday, May 12. The class and I were reviewing the answers to the mid-term exam, which I had just finished returning to the students. Jon had taken his neighbor’s paper and was loudly and dramatically flipping through it, creating enough of a distraction that I asked the students what they were doing. Jon answered that he was checking his answers against his neighbor’s because, and I quote, he wanted to be sure that I didn’t “jew” him out of any points. When I asked him what he’d just said, he changed his word to “screwed.” I challenged him about the epithet, and he became combative and accused me of putting words in his mouth. At that point, I told him to collect his things and report to his department head.

During the break in the class, I was approached by another student who informed me that Jon has been verbally abusive to me when I’m out of the room. I cannot speak to this personally, as I was not present when it happened, but the student voiced a willingness to speak to this if asked.

The meeting that I had with Jon and Sam following the May 12th incident has convinced me that Jon is either unwilling or unable to be a productive member of our classroom. He was verbally abusive to me during the meeting and gave no indication of being willing to work with me. He lied about the conduct that precipitated the meeting and accused me of trying to get him into trouble. He demonstrated an escalation of the behavior I’ve seen in class, and the fact that he was unable to control his temper in front both myself and another faculty member concerns me. Based on that experience, I worry that any further confrontations between myself and this student will be met with ever-increasing levels of hostility and, for that reason, I respectfully request that Jon be removed from my class effective immediately.

Sincerely,

Mrs. Chili


Joe said that this was a much better letter – it addressed the source of my frustrations and unease. Looking at it again, I see that he’s right.

All this happened on Tuesday. I saw Jon again on Wednesday. That class will be the subject of Part IV.

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Critique

Dearest Readers:

I’m at the beginning of a unit on debate and persuasion with both my public speaking and composition classes. As part of my comp. class’s assignment, I tasked them to choose a topic from among those listed in their text book, to establish a position, to write a list of pros and cons and then, using that list, to write a well-reasoned and convincing essay. Today’s class was focused on putting these essays together.

I’d completely forgotten to bring grading with me today, so I decided to use the time in class to write my own essay – I did the assignment right along with them. The reason I’m putting it here is that I want – nay, I need – some reasoned critique. I have a basic grasp of the concepts of persuasive writing, but I’m not confident that I’ve mastered it. I’m sure I’m still committing logical fallacies all over the place, and I need people smarter than I to point them out to me.

So, are any of you masters at debate? Care to help a Chili out?

Resolved: Schools should allow a policy of repeat/delete to their students.

Repeat/delete is a term used for the practice of a learning institution to allow students the opportunity to repeat classes in an effort to earn a better grade. The prior grade for the class is erased from the student’s record and replaced with the grade for the repeated course.

It is a widely accepted premise that different students have different learning styles. Educators and parents alike will attest to the fact that every child is different, and that some students function better in traditional classroom settings than others. These varied learning styles, and the experiences of educators who witness them, are the reason why a repeat/delete policy is a good one for any school to implement.

Schools, particularly now in the age of No Child Left Behind and the fierce competition for students in post-secondary institutions, are heavily invested in their students’ success. Very often, a leaning institution’s very existence and survival are dependent almost entirely on student performance. Repeat/delete gives the students and their schools the opportunity to strive for the best representation of that performance. Allowing students to drop a less-than-satisfactory grade after the successful completion of a repeated course gives the school a chance to not only ensure the best opportunities and learning environments for the students, but also has the potential to lift the overall performance rating of the institution itself. A higher performance rating is a pathway, under the current education funding system, to more money and the potential to attract better teaching faculty and a stronger student body.

Each individual student learns at his or her own pace. Putting a repeat/delete policy in place is a way for an institution to recognize and honor a variety of learning styles in its student body. A student who is easily able to grasp the concepts of the class and who can perform the tasks required to demonstrate mastery need only take the course once. Those students who have difficulty understanding the material or who work at a slower pace are at a disadvantage under the traditional once-and-done model of education. The repeat/delete policy provides those students who fall behind or who need more time or attention to understand the objectives of the course the opportunity to demonstrate mastery at their own pace and does not penalize them for their learning styles and different abilities. If the policy is applied fairly – that is, if the student who is unhappy with his B+ is afforded the same chance to improve his grade as the failing student is given – then it cannot be claimed that the policy provides an unfair advantage to only one group of students.

The argument can rightly be made that the world – the “real world” – does not provide students with many repeat/delete opportunities. I am reminded of a Volkswagon advertisement from the mid-90s that showcased the car maker’s safety innovations. At the end of the commercial, the voice-over made the very correct observation that, “in life, there is no reset button.” Opponents of the repeat/delete policy would argue that schools would be doing their students a disservice by allowing the policy because they would be setting up in the student the unrealistic expectation that failure has no meaningful consequences. Students would learn from the repeat/delete mode that it doesn’t matter if they don’t succeed the first time – that there’s always an opportunity for a do-over. While there is some validity to this contention, it is only valid if the school and its teaching faculty promote the policy in that light.

The fact is that students who choose the repeat/delete are doing so under a very real set of consequences. First, there is the social stigma associated with repeating a class, and with having to acclimate to a new set of classmates. Peer pressure can be a very powerful motivating force in a student’s life, and the thought of having to repeat a class with a group of students not of one’s own peer group may be motivation enough to push a student to succeed the first time. The student would not simply be handing in work that he or she has already completed; the work required for a better grade would necessitate that the student put in more substantial effort than was given for a prior attempt at the class. Finally, the repeat/delete policy would likely remove the option of an elective or free period in the student’s schedule or, depending on how late in the student’s career the repeat/delete happens, could well delay a student’s graduation date. In short, the repeat/delete policy is not a “free pass” to failing students. It comes with quite a few “real world” consequences.

The fact of the matter is that schools, while they should certainly provide practice for the real world, are, first and foremost, learning environments. Schools are places where students are expected to make mistakes, where students are taught to rethink and revise their work, and where failure should not be looked upon as failure, but as an opportunity for improvement. Schools do not, nor should they, expect perfection on the first try. Schools should be places where it is safe to fail and, though failure should certainly never be encouraged, neither should it be chastised. A student who shows the initiative and motivation to take advantage of a repeat/delete policy should be afforded every opportunity to improve his or her grade point average specifically because it’s what schools should be – environments where students to learn how to succeed, even if it takes them more than one try to do it.


My inner critic tells me that the introduction sucks and that the bit in the fifth paragraph, about the student not having the opportunity to just hand in work they’d already done, is weak; I didn’t establish that as a counter-argument to take down (should I, or should I leave it out altogether?).  I’m also not sure that I’ve properly established the “each student learns at different paces” argument.

I think this is good, but I want it to be great. In order for that to happen, I need your advice.  Rip it, please.

Aaaannnd – GO!

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WORK!

I was sitting at my computer this afternoon, working on my next AFGO post, when the phone rang. I answered it, and it turned out to be one of my favorite former English professors with a job offer!

Mrs. Chili is going to be teaching two sections of Freshman English at LU in the fall! I’ve got a class on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings from 8-9, and another in the early evenings on Monday and Wednesday from 5:40 to 7:00.

I cannot BEGIN to tell you how thrilled I am to have gotten this phone call. I’ve already received my first rejection letter (the first of many, I’m sure) and I wasn’t sure how September was going to shape up, but it looks like I’ll be teaching in the fall, for sure!

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Grammar Wednesday

California Teacher Guy comes through for me AGAIN!

My dear Mrs. Chili,

The following sentence appears to be irredeemably mangled, but I suspect you’ll find a way to improve it:

But if it wasn’t him and the Democrats, Obama said to reporters in South Dakota, whom was Bush referring to — “Some straw man…?”

http://www.time.com/time/politics/article/0,8599,1807377,00.html

I’ll be watching for your version of redemption in the next edition of Grammar Wednesday!

Fondly,
CTG

Oh, WHERE to BEGIN?!

For starters, you all should know by now how Mrs. Chili feels about starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions. It’s FINE for conversational, informal writing – hell, I do it in comments all the time – but I continue to hold that conjunctions do not belong at the beginning of sentences in formal writing. I know that this is a point upon which I and my linguist friends agree to disagree, but I stand by it, nonetheless. In this structure, the “but” isn’t even really necessary – the sentence could start just as well with the “If.”

Were I editing or reviewing this article, I would probably write “awk” in the margins next to this sentence. It’s decipherable, certainly – Obama is responding to Bush’s “accommodationist” remark to the Israeli knesset – but it doesn’t flow seamlessly off the page. It made CTG choke – and it did the same to me when he sent it to me – and anything that makes the reader hitch, even a little, isn’t great writing. My suggestions to this writer would be to reframe the idea in a way that allows the eyes to glide a little more smoothly. Perhaps like this:

If Bush wasn’t referring to Obama and the Democrats in his comments to the Israeli legislature, Obama asked, then to whom were the remarks aimed?

I stopped to think about the subjunctive mood in this structure – should it be “if Bush weren’t referring“? I can’t say with 100% confidence that it is proper to use the subjunctive here – Bush DID make the comments; that is not in question.  The referring part is in question – if it weren’t, we wouldn’t be having this conversation – but I’m not sure that warrants the use of the subjunctive…

Finally, the idea of the “straw man” is that of a fallacy of logic (which is timely, given that I’m starting debate and persuasion in both my public speaking and composition classes this week!). Essentially, the fallacy involves the speaker ignoring or distorting his or her opponent’s position, thereby setting up an easier to refute “straw man” that can be knocked down with little effort. I’m pretty sure that the fallacy doesn’t apply here – though the implication is that Bush IS distorting Obama’s willingness to enter a dialogue with the leaders of states that the current administration refuses to talk to, the remark seems out of place in this sentence and likely didn’t make any sense to much of the audience. If I’d been editing this piece, I’d have recommended that the author leave it out entirely.

Happy Wednesday, Everyone, and thanks again, CTG!

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AFGO, Part II

The class ended and several students came to me on their way out the door to ask if I thought they should go and find Sam to tell him about what happened in class that afternoon.  I told them that I didn’t think that’d be necessary, but that I’d let them know if Sam asked to speak with anyone.  As I was explaining this to the third student to approach me, another student came back in the room to tell me that Sam and Jon were outside, so I sent everyone else out and invited them in.

Jon was hot.  His butt hadn’t even hit the seat before he was going off about how unfair I am, how EVERYONE in the class thinks that I’m unreasonable and that I’m not actually teaching anyone anything (it was all I could do to say “well, it’s obvious that I’m not teaching YOU anything, but I don’t think you’ve got any right to speak for anyone else,” but I managed to keep my mouth shut).  He continued with “I pay your salary” (I LOVE that) and that if he wanted this kind of terrible treatment, he’d go back to high school and pay his teachers there to abuse him.  He completely ignored Sam – not a good sign, and this should have been a tip-off to me that this was going to continue to go badly – and launched off on a rant about how terrible TCC is, that it’s no wonder it has such a rotten reputation (again, biting my tongue; it’s kids like this that contribute to the school’s reputation in the first place) and how, if it’s supposed to be such a “hands-on” school, why aren’t there more field trips (I swear to God/dess, he actually complained about the lack of field trips).

Sam was doing his best to rein the kid in, but it wasn’t working.  Jon continued to yell, continued to make gestures at me, continued to throw papers around and to kick the table as he vented his rage.  Sam asked him what happened in class this morning, and the child LIED TO OUR FACES.  He accused me of being unfairly biased against him and of scheming to do everything in my power to disenfranchise him in class.  I had manufactured this latest event in order to get him in trouble, and that it didn’t matter what anyone else says he said, he KNOWS what he said, and he said “screwed.”

I know that Sam wasn’t buying any of it, but I’m still disappointed in how he ran this “meeting.”  I felt vulnerable and disrespected, and I SHOULD have insisted that the kid speak respectfully to us or not at all.  When he refused (and he would have refused), I SHOULD have gotten up and left.  I’m still angry at myself that I stayed and allowed myself to be treated like that, and one big lesson I’m going to take from this experience is to never let that happen again.

There was really nothing productive to come out of this meeting; at least, not while I was still there (Beanie had a presentation at school and I had to leave before we’d settled anything).  Jon was unable to produce work that he claimed he’d finished, he refused to listen to me when I tried to explain to him that there are certain behaviors that might be okay in others’ classrooms that aren’t okay in mine (that whole “social contract” thing – remember that?  We’ve only been talking about it for two weeks!), and I left the room shaking, angry, and more than a little frightened.  This kid was off the rails, and I wouldn’t put it past him to take his frustration out in ways that were far more inappropriate than throwing papers around and kicking chairs.

I thought about it all afternoon (I tried my best to stay focused on Beanie’s presentation, really I did) and ended up going BACK to TCC in the late afternoon to have a powwow with the Powers that Be.  I had Joe (my department head), Sam (Jon’s department head, and someone who’s been trying to get Jon on the track since the first week the kid was in classes), the interim Dean of Students, and the Registrar in one room to try to figure a solution to what I was seeing as a pretty significant problem.  Aside from the fact that Jon had seriously damaged the environment I’d worked pretty hard to create in the classroom, he demonstrated with his behavior, both in class and in the meeting, that he is unwilling to make any sort of compromise that would allow him to be successful in my classroom.  Beyond that, I said, I don’t really feel safe with the kid around; he’s significantly bigger than I, our confrontations have escalated over the course of the semester, and I don’t want to put myself or my students at risk of violence.

That was really all Joe needed to hear and he was ready to pull Jon from the class, but the interim Dean put the brakes on that plan.  There are procedures that need to be followed to remove a student from a class – hoops through which we must jump – and unless the student makes an overt threat, those procedures have to be checked off.  I was sent home with instructions to write a letter to the important people about my experiences with this student and we’d get the ball rolling.  In the meantime, I was told that security would be put outside my room while class was in session, and that the (rather large and formidable, black-belt) teacher whose class is across the hall from mine would be put on alert should I need him.

I wasn’t happy, but I didn’t really have much say in the matter.  I went home, started drafting the letter, and started wondering what kind of hell would be the class when we met again on Wednesday.

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AFGO, Part I (Reader Discretion is Advised)

My friend O’Mama has an acronym for those difficult and unpleasant situations in our lives that we KNOW are chances to learn and change, but which we hate having to endure. She calls them “AFGOs” – Another Fucking Growth Opportunity – and I’m in the midst of a doozy.

I’ve decided to start writing about it, despite the fact that I’m not yet on the other side, and I’ve also decided to serialize the adventure. Writing about it in one shot would be too much, and I can’t imagine that any of you would be able to sit through one serving, anyway.

Here’s the background: Public Speaking class (alternately titled “Effective Communication”) in which we’ve spent the last two or so weeks in focused discussion about what is and is not ethical speech. We’ve talked about racism and racist language. We’ve talked about demographics and inclusion and the origins of some of the things we say without realizing their original implications (“I was gypped at the used car dealership,” for example). We’ve talked about social contracts, connotation and denotation, and the idea that what I say may not always be what you hear. What I’m saying is that I HAMMER this stuff into my class – I don’t always hold by the “sticks and stones” philosophy, and it’s important to me that my students understand that language is powerful stuff. They can use their power for good or for evil, but they’ve got to understand their power before they can mindfully make that choice.

I’ve been having trouble with this one student since the first week of the semester, and I knew, when he failed his mid-term in spectacular fashion (he earned a 56 on the in-class portion and a zero on the take-home test), that there’d be some sort of trouble on the day that I handed them back. Anticipating this trouble, I brought photocopies of the tests to the boy’s department head, with whom I’ve been in conversations about the best way to deal with the student for literally weeks. Last Monday, I handed back the exams and started going over them, question by question.

Jon had taken his neighbor’s exam (whether with her consent or not I never found out) and was noisily flipping through the thing page by page. He was making enough of a rukus that it was distracting to me and I asked them, in as lighthearted a way as I could, what they were doing back there. Jon looked up at me and said, full to my face, that he was checking his answers against his neighbor’s because he wanted to be sure that I didn’t “jew” him out of any points.

“EXCUSE ME?! WHAT did you just say to me?”

“I want to make sure you didn’t screw me – I got all these points off and…”

“No, I’m sorry – that’s NOT what you said..”

“What! Now you’re putting WORDS in my mouth?! Why you gotta be like that? I know what I said…”

“Collect your things and get out. Go find Sam – we’ll talk about this later.”

“Oh, I’ll go find Sam, alright – I’m gonna tell him all about THIS!” as he’s waving his paper and stomping (muttering expletives the whole way) out of the room.

I looked around to see the entire room in a state of semi-shock. It’s not as though we could never imagine a kid like that saying what he said, but the environment that we’d managed to foster in the class really didn’t allow for that kind of outburst, and we – all of us – were taken aback by it. I managed to get through the rest of the review of the test (visibly shaking – I had to put the paper in my lap to read the thing. As a matter of fact, I’m shaking from the retelling, which surprises me a little), and got through the rest of the class as best I could.

During the break, several students came to me to tell me that they’d heard exactly what I did, and that they’d be willing to talk to Sam to back up my story. I told them that I was grateful for that, but I doubted it would be necessary. One student went on to tell me that Jon is often verbally abusive to me when I’m out of the room making copies or whatnot – it seems that the word “bitch” is bandied about quite often just outside my earshot.

Jon and Sam came back after the class was over to have a conference that did not, by any stretch of the imagination, go well. I’ll tell you about that in a bit.

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