Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Who Is to Blame for Cheating on SATs?

The recent Long Island SAT cheating scandal has people asking: is the SAT a fair assessment tool when it's apparent that people can pay smart kids to take the test for them?

That's a valid question. 

See this article by my former prof, Nicolaus Mills. I read it on CNN today:

We've also been asking for a while: is it ethical to put so much emphasis on SAT scores when it's clear that students can be trained--at great expense--to perform well on this exam? Is the obvious correlation of familial wealth and high SAT scores just another example of the shimmering plutocracy and "might makes right" that reigns in the good old USA? 

Poor kids, ones whose parents can't afford costly test prep and have to rely on getting adequate prep in high school (trust me: there is no time for this) don't usually have this same advantage. Therefore, rich and average students might have far higher scores than poor, more-intelligent kids. The rich kids will then gain admission to better the cycle continues.

There are, however, regular kids whose parents will go the extra mile to find and pay for good test prep. Some parents will spend whatever they must to get their kids help. This is commendable, but it is a struggle. Not everyone's parents are so concerned or so selfless--and I don't think that families should have to go into debt just for the sake of the SAT. Even so, it would be nice if parents everywhere paid more attention to their kids' test scores, and worked to get them help (and not the cheating kind).

Another big question now is: should the economic disparity associated with SAT performance nullify its results? Some colleges think so, including my alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College. I agree in principle with SLC's recent decision not to consider the SAT because of this economic (and oftentimes racial) injustice, but I hate to see the college lose its USA Today ranking because of it. That actually bothers me quite a bit.

So what's the answer? Mills points out in his Op Ed that admissions staffs should be expanded in order to allow more attention to be paid to applications and the human beings behind them. I agree with this. He also calls for more interviewing of applicants. I agree with this, too (and I am always shocked when I hear from my students that they applied to 20 schools they've never even visited, and they rarely arranged interviews). I don't know if it will happen, especially at the big state schools, but it's a nice idea.

Getting back to the SAT, though, I personally think the exam needs a re-design. (Yes, I am aware that it just had one.) Even though I spend a great deal of time studying and teaching the SAT and showing my students how to get past its traps, I don't have much faith in the test as a realistic measure of academic ability--merely training.

Specifically, I see issues with the hard-to-grade essay section (and I'm a writer!) and the confusing "improving paragraphs" portion. I would rather see the return of analogies, substituted for some of the weird and nearly pointless, IMO, editing sections.

I don't want to shoot myself in the foot and call for the de-emphasis of the SAT (since I earn much of my living teaching it), but I would ideally like the exam to be more equitable, a more accurate measure of intelligence. This is how the SAT was originally conceived.  I think the first idea was a good one: assess whether students have the native intelligence to succeed in college. 

What happened to move the SAT away from its original purpose? A business empire built up around the exam, the books, and the test prep, while our society changed its expectations and now everyone has to go to college (and grad school).

Besides, it's just easier for the really big schools to assign a number to a student than to assess her or him as a human being with a complex history and talents that might not be apparent on a fill-in-the-bubble test.

It's also easy to pay others to take the test in your place. Despite the ID requirement, people who can afford to pay a test-taker can also pay for fake documents. It happens all the time.

Of course, it's unethical to take the test for someone else. It's also highly unethical to ask and pay someone to be a fake test-taker.

Notice that in the Long Island scandal, the people who are in serious trouble are the students who took the SAT for others. They are facing jail time, fines, expulsion from college, and more.

What about the people who paid them? Why are the worker bees (the ones paid to take the test for others) the ones shouldering the blame and the punishment? These people obviously needed the money. Why is our legal system going after them? I see the test-taking students here as victims who were taken advantage of by ruthless types who had enough coin to get around the system.

I'd like to see some news focusing on the people who pay others to take the SAT for them. Obviously, some parents had to give their kids thousands of dollars to pay others to take the SAT in their place. It seems sort of strange that we're not reading stories about that.

Those thousands of dollars could surely have been better spent.

On test prep.  

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader Jumped, Then Muzzled. Familiar?

An unsuspecting, pretty young woman gets tackled from behind and dragged to the ground. She shakes it off and smiles brilliantly. So cool under pressure. Then she dares to post two adorable, self-deprecating tweets about the incident.

[Dallas Cowboys vs. Miami Dolphins, November 24, 2011. Cowboys cheerleader Melissa Kellerman tackled by TE Jason Witten.]

The next thing you know, she's been muzzled. It turns out, something weird can happen to you out of the blue, but if you dare to talk about it intelligently, certain people might threaten your job and force you into silence.

Why, Cowboys? You hired a capable, attractive young woman (Melissa Kellerman) who has been working for you for years now (four years is a long time in cheerleading) and knows how to write about her experiences (in 140 characters, no less) in a way that actually makes you look good. 

So you silence her. What for?

I saw this incident unfold in real time, which is unusual because I generally don't watch football (it bores the hell out of me, and I can't stand how long it takes and how it stops and starts incessantly, and how even the best plays are over in three seconds), but my father wanted to see the Cowboys-Dolphins game on Thanksgiving.

Three hours or so into this seemingly interminable game, Kellerman was on the sidelines, back to the field, just doing her cheerleader thing when TE Jason Witten careened out of bounds. For some reason, he grabbed her as he did so, pulling her to the ground and landing on top of her. 

Why this happened, I have no idea. Did Witten think he'd keep his balance if he took her with him? The whole thing was so strange, such a freak occurrence.

I felt bad for the cheerleader, but she seemed delighted, or at least acted that way, laughing it off on the jumbotron.

There must have been thousands of people (fans, followers, friends, reporters) asking her about the incident, so she tweeted sweetly:

The next thing you know, her Twitter account has gone bye-bye. 

This bothers me for a few important reasons
1. I do not care for the muzzling of people who dare to write about their own lives. 
2. I worry that this is another example of the Man paying a young woman a crappy salary for a high profile job, and then trying to control her in every way.  
3. It also seems to be a perpetuation of the sexist mandate that women should just stand there and look pretty, and not actually use their brains or think for themselves.

Kellerman apparently plans to become a teacher next...and it's just going to get worse, I fear. Who is more muzzled than a teacher?

I am also very tired of people getting in trouble for using social media. Contemporary culture is such that we live and experience things and then we write/post about them. We share them. We connect to other people in this manner (an important detail, considering that people are more cut off from each other than ever before, it seems).  I want to see more acceptance of the idea that people can reflect and share.

How long is it going to take before people stop attacking and threatening others for daring to discuss their own lives? Why should anyone get in trouble when they were just writing about what happened? It makes no sense to me.

In the meantime, I wish Melissa Kellerman good luck and quick healing. She appears to have won a big following of fans for the way she handled herself after the accidental tackle--and that is how it should be.

The Cowboys franchise, on the other hand, looks like a bunch of big, dumb oafs.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Turkey Farm: Just Like a Horror Film

Back when I was a reporter and Thanksgiving was coming up (full disclosure: it was still at least two weeks away; we worked in advance for the non-essentials), I was assigned the requisite trip to the local turkey farm. 

"I really don't want to see a turkey slaughter," I objected. ("Animal lover" is my middle name.)

No slaughter, I was assured. Just get some nice photos of a sea of live white turkeys, their heads bobbing, looking pleasantly expectant; ask some questions about how many turkeys will be ordered and "dressed" this year, when customers should ideally order their Thanksgiving turkeys, etc.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images North AmericaWith less than one week before Thanksgiving, hundreds of turkeys standAn estimated forty-five million turkeys are cooked and eaten during annual Thanksgiving 
I have interviewed some VIPs; I met and shook hands with and close-up photographed President Clinton. Could I write a fluff piece about turkeys? Hell to the yes. I just did not want to.

I don't really like turkey, and I can't remember when I did not feel guilty about  the main dish of Thanksgiving (I still won't buy or cook turkey; I make my parents do that.  One year, I "earned" a free turkey from the supermarket. I gave it away. We don't do turkey in this house.)

As it turned out, the professional photographer was coming to the turkey farm, so I could focus on writing the story and not worry about capturing the images. This was a partial relief.

We drove to the farm separately. I parked my car, and even through the air vents, I could smell something bad. It was the smell of death.

"Do you smell that?" the photographer asked me, crinkling his nose. I nodded; I certainly could, and in fact, the odor will haunt my dreams...for the rest of my life.

We walked past a pen where turkeys roamed freely. I was relieved to see they still had their heads. 

Did they look "pleasantly expectant?" I can't say that they did. What I saw read more as abject terror.

Then, as we got closer to the barn, we heard the screaming. Turkey screaming. Axes were being used. Six axes at once. It was a freaking massacre. 

"Don't look over there!" the photographer shouted at me (which of course made me look there). 

A thick river of blood coursed down the dirt driveway. When I write, "thick river," it does not adequately describe how thick this river was.

That was it for me. No turkey story would be written this morning (I would get the interview by phone; even from 15 feet away, the farmer stank so bad of blood and guts, and his overalls were so slimy that I could not deal). 

"Then all I saw of Collins was the dust churned up by her silver Saab," the photographer (who was equally traumatized but could laugh about all this) later said back in the newsroom.

If you learn anything from this, it is: Do not visit a turkey farm before Thanksgiving or any other holiday when people traditionally eat turkey. 

Sarah Palin once gave an interview at a turkey farm, right before Thanksgiving. She was officially pardoning a turkey, back when she was governor of Alaska. Then came the post-presidential-election interview questions. Palin blithely smiled and prattled on in her folksy twang as a man dispassionately beheaded and bled turkeys right behind her.

The executioner kept looking around as if he couldn't believe she would have chosen that spot for an on-camera interview. How could she not know what was happening? No matter what you think of Palin, and I don't have the highest views, it came across as either callous or unbelievably stupid.

You know what? That Sarah Palin turkey video is so crazy, I am going to repost it. Enjoy!

I would add now: Maybe don't eat turkey, but people tend to get pissed at me when I suggest vegetarianism. I don't have many other ideas for how to get around the Thanksgiving conundrum besides, "Cook some great side dishes; take the focus off meat." (Or, as Palin put it at the pardon, "Find nourishment elsewhere." This may be the smartest thing I've ever heard her read.)

"What about protein?!" people always ask then, as if humans will literally drop dead if we don't eat big slabs of meat at least twice a day.  

Digression: we do not need nearly as much protein as we think we do, and besides, there are plenty of other non-flesh sources. But do what you want to do; I am not trying to tell anyone else how to live. 

Have a happy Thanksgiving, and if you're so inclined, please pardon a turkey.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Shakespeare for Everybody! Starting Young for Best Results

I am of two minds about Shakespeare: I love Shakespeare, and I'm over Shakespeare.

During my own high school years, I got almost nothing but Shakespeare (and Hemingway), as if no other authors existed. I had so much Shakespeare that I did not know what else I could write about on my AP English Lit exam.

[Back in 1989, we had a doozy of an open question on the AP English Literature exam.  Go look it up, if you're so inclined. It's the hardest prompt you ever saw, right? I thought so. Just for kicks, compare that prompt to one from three years ago. Notice the dumbing down; it would be funny if it weren't so sad.]

Since we had only read Shakespeare in my senior year AP English class, I wrote about King Lear in response. (It was a stretch.) I thought I had failed; I got a 5--but God knows why. Maybe because I deeply knew King Lear...but that doesn't mean that I would not have appreciated variety in our reading.

As an English teacher, I have taught many works of Shakespeare (and King Lear remains my favorite), but even though I think the themes of Shakespeare's plays are perennially important, and his use of language and imagery impressive, I don't think Will S. is the end-all, be-all.

I once had a supervisor who wanted to know which works of Shakespeare were covered each year in high school English ("a Shakespeare a year" seemed to the prescription under which this admin was operating. I guess that this is old school; needless to say, I don't believe in blanket prescriptions for curricula, and I DO believe in flexibility).

I had to explain that I don't teach Shakespeare in AMERICAN Literature...since Shakespeare was not American. To make up for it, though, I taught two works of the bard in senior year. I would have loved to assign Atonement or Middlesex, instead.

Because that made sense, I was left alone to teach as I see fit.

I am all for varying the reading lists: I find that high school students will turn off reading if the reading feels as if it needs translation, and if they can't see parallels with their own experience. This is why I mix it up and make sure I don't overdo a genre or an author (I also cruise when I teach--meaning, I never spend months on one book or one topic. Not only do I personally find that boring, but it keeps my students more lively, too).

Having said all that, I recently corresponded with a teacher who has some very good ideas about teaching Shakespeare to younger children. I love this; I think it's the messages in Shakespeare that are of the most use to contemporary students, and if we can pique students' interest in Shakespeare when young, then it will become that much easier to engage them and effectively teach other works of Shakespeare later. Classes will be more productive and run faster (which means we can teach MORE!).

Here then, from guest writer and teacher Elaine Hirsch: Teaching Shakespeare to Young Children

William Shakespeare is known for his complex plays, literary genius, and exposing things about humanity that are not the prettiest or most appealing. Most adults have been exposed to Shakespeare at least once in their lives, likely during high school or college, yet a far smaller percentage can say that they were introduced to his works as a young child. Furthermore, some scholars devote their entire studies to Shakespearean texts. Despite the complexity of the language and the dark themes prevalent throughout most of his work, Shakespeare's plays can resonate with a young child and early introduction to it can help them more easily process and interpret these stories as they encounter it throughout their education and beyond.

Here are a few ways to make Shakespeare easier for young children (and even adults as well) to understand and interpret.

1) Modernize the stories. A lot of the language in the books can fly over the heads of adults, let alone young children, so it's best to simplify the outdated language and paraphrase it into something more contemporary. If children are reading the story themselves, each section of the book should be read aloud in a group with the teacher present to elaborate for those who might be confused. If they are being read the work aloud by the educator and do not need to read themselves, it can be easier to use Cliffsnotes/SparkNotes or help students better understand the text and context. There are also many websites that provide links to kid-friendly remakes of these classic plays. Finally, complex expressions should be removed if they do not greatly impact the main storyline.

2) Focus on the main story and try not to get too bogged down in the details of smaller, less important side stories. Shakespeare is known for running several themes throughout his works at once, and it's less overwhelming for a child if you focus on the main theme until it's understood. Then, depending on what else there is to cover, you can explore side themes as needed.

3) Use other forms of media to help children visualize what is happening in the story. Find age-appropriate movies or cartoons that are based loosely off the stories being taught. 'The Lion King' can be used for 'Hamlet' and 'High School Musical' is also a great movie to use to talk about Shakespeare, due to the 'Romeo and Juliet' theme prevalent through the movie. Another great idea is to find a kid-friendly play that is locally produced and take a field trip.

4) Tone down the controversial topics. Shakespeare is notorious for having dark themes in his writing, such as suicide, murder, violence, etc. While some of these themes are hugely important to the storyline, it's best to try to either choose stories with less obvious expressions of these themes or to dumb down the dark themes by slight modification of the 'truth' in the story to something more age-appropriate. 
--Elaine Hirsch

I appreciate Elaine's ideas about teaching Shakespeare and making his work accessible to kids. I especially agree with finding connections to other novels and films and plays. For example, kids never seem to tire of discussing The Taming of the Shrew as compared to Ten Things I Hate About You. They also love to talk about why works of Shakespeare tend to be set in new locales and times (sometimes this works and sometimes it's ridiculous...but it's all good when it comes to having a productive class and getting students to articulate ideas about literature and drama!).

So, whether you have to teach Shakespeare or you want to teach Shakespeare (or both), it's all about finding ways to make Shakespeare sing for your students--whatever their age.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

What I Learned from Andy Rooney

AP file photo, 2009

Oh, Andy Rooney.  You have just died, and while it is natural to die, it seems fitting, somehow, that you died one month after retiring at age 92. I still feel bad that you died (almost as if you died because you lost your purpose). The fact that you lived and worked so long doesn't make your ending that much easier for your family or your most devoted fans.

I understand your desire to keep going until the end. I understand that writers never retire (or want to retire). I understand your mission--telling the truth--and I share it. It's a writer thing.

I am not sure how much you changed the world, Andy. I hate to say that I thought your writing was highly over-rated. At times, you could even come across as a jerk (but the curmudgeon act might have been just that). I thought at times you were brilliant and other times you were boring.

For the last decade or so, whenever I caught 60 Minutes, I'd think, "He's still there?" and "Why?" Now, I feel mean for thinking that, but I had honestly stopped seeing the point of your broadcast essays.

What I admire is the way you kept working and building up a body of words, some of them remarkable, some of them not. I admire the way you didn't even need to finish college and yet had a long, illustrious career in network news (for which I am sure you were paid lavishly) and several homes. 

The world has changed: my generation saw your shining example of an easy, decades-long, highly-remunerated career and most of us will not be able to have any of it. At least you knew you were, as you put it, "lucky."

I do know you had hard times. As every writer is (now and then), you were attacked for having and daring to share opinions. You were even--gasp!--suspended without pay for things people thought you said (but I doubt you did).

From the AP article linked above ," [Rooney] said he probably hadn't said anything on "60 Minutes" that most of his viewers didn't already know or hadn't thought. "That's what a writer does," he said. "A writer's job is to tell the truth."

People are ridiculous. You knew that. I know it. People will freak out on a writer who dares to admit to an opinion--and I'm not talking about mean writers, such as the ones seen in the right-wing papers. They know who they are. They are simply out to cause division and trouble; they like the negative attention.

You, though, you just told it like it is, and people can't even deal with that. They'd rather someone rip apart the character of another than expound, as you did, on minutiae, such as what's silly or poorly made.

Rest in peace, Andy. Despite my occasional lack of appreciation, your example taught me much.