Friday, March 27, 2009

Dis honor

As my students walked into class yesterday, they were confronted with this message from their teacher in 300-point font on the projector screen:
Write and sign this pledge on your test (if you do not, I will not mark it):

On my honor, I pledge that I have neither given nor received improper assistance in completing this task.
"Are you kidding?" a few demanded.

"That's bullshit," a couple mumbled under their breaths.

"No, I'm not kidding," I said, "and I don't care what you think. We now have an honor code."

"What if I don't have honor?" one wiseguy wanted to know.

"Then this is completely meaningless to you," I said. "Just sign it and cheat. But if you get caught, there will be consequences."

A group of students had led the effort to start up an honor council at the school. This was after months--if not years--of seeing others getting away with cheating on exams and assignments. For my part, I was disturbed by the administration's failure to deal severely with an alleged cheater, someone that different teachers on different occasions had caught. So when the email came asking us to discuss the honor council and code with classes next week, I decided to start here and now. With four of my classes having quizzes yesterday, I had them write and sign the pledge on their papers. And I spent valuable class time responding to student complaints and anger about it.

I was a hero of honor! Or so I thought.

After school, the teacher-advisor of the honor council approached me, saying a couple of the kids were upset with me. Upset.

I tried to process. I rewound through the day, wondering what I might have said to offend.

Possibly: "So this means that from now on, you either don't cheat, or you cheat so well that you don't get caught." I did say that.

Or: "If you don't believe in honor, then why do you care? It's just one more thing you have to do, like go to chapel once a month."

Or: "You might as well get used to it. Most colleges and universities have some sort of honor code you sign, and if you're busted cheating, the consequences are more severe and more expensive than here."

I was feeling pretty good about how I had defended honor. But still. "What did I say?" I asked.

Apparently, two of the kids were upset that I had also said something about how this pledge does not apply to me, to "do as I say, not as I do." I don't remember saying it, but I probably did. My initial thought was to apologize for this dis of the honor code. But when I thought about it later, I decided I was right.

The student honor code absolutely does not apply to teachers. It's like anything else: There are rules that students must follow. Teachers may lead by example, but we shouldn't be held to the same standards.

Instead, teachers are held to a much higher standard. Or we should be. We are professionals, having been educated and then hired to fulfill a responsibility. If a student is caught cheating, he may get a zero on the assignment and possibly a one- or two-day suspension. A teacher, on the other hand, can lose his job for a transgression. So, saying that a teacher should sign the student honor code is a false analogy, comparing apples to oranges.

And speaking of, I need to remember to give extra credit to the kid that brings me an apple every day.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Lost and found

For the past month and a half, I've been weighed down by a heavy backpack full of student work. Seven weeks into the second semester, I've realized two things:
  1. I've really hit the kids hard this quarter. Five formal essays so far for my eleventh graders; heavy reading and weekly essays on that reading for my English twelves. All this work, as any English teacher knows, translates into a mountain of marking. In fact, today was the first day in more than a month that I did not bring any papers home to grade. I simply refused to accept some work yesterday. "Take it home and revise," I demanded. "I don't want it."
  2. I don't know if it's connected to number one (it probably is, but it probably has more to do with other things), but I've also realized that I've lost something: My sense of humor. I've been grumpy, cynical, sarcastic, and mean--all rolled together into a ball of unpleasantness. One student summed it up perfectly last week: "You've become old," she announced, and this week, she has gone on the offensive, telling me which mannerisms I've picked up, comparing me to other teachers. All I need to do is grow a moustache and talk to my computer, and I'll be a history teacher.
When you lose something like your sense of humor, it's difficult to find again. It's not at the high school lost-and-found, that's for sure. And students--grumpy and cynical from all the work you've assigned--aren't going to help you search for it.

But I think I might have found a trace of humor on a car ride down the hill Sunday afternoon. I've almost got a joke to tell now. Well, I have the set-up and the punch line, but I need to fill in the rest. Here's what I have so far:

Here's the set-up: Four Korean kids in the back of a car.

It's a classic joke right from the start. Imagine four 16 year old Korean boys, crammed together, on top of each other, in the back of a small sedan, something like a Nissan Sentra. We were heading to Dehra Dun, one hour down the winding mountain, so that they could take the TOEFL exam, a four-hour test of their English competency. Being the chaperon, I sat in the front, trying to mark some essays.

OK, the middle part isn't quite done, but it goes something like this:

"Are you OK?"


"Do you need to stop?"

"No, I'm fine."

The punchline: And then he puked all over himself.

OK, OK, it's not really all that funny. My students, especially some Koreans, didn't think it was all that hilarious when I told it in class on Monday. But when you've lost your sense of humor, something is better than nothing.

We stopped the car. The other three kids woke up (there's another joke in there about Korean kids falling asleep whenever in a moving vehicle) and asked what was the matter. One realized he had vomit on his pants. The driver got on his cell phone and, even though I don't speak Hindi, I figured he was saying something like "why me" to his boss or girlfriend. He's the same guy who once had to deal with a vomiting dog, but that's another story.

We got back in the car and continued on our stinky way. Since it was a Sunday morning, we couldn't even find an open coffee shop, so we settled on McDonald's. While the sick kid was in the bathroom cleaning up, the rest of us had our McMaharaja chicken burger meals (no breakfast served here) and watched South Indian music videos on the restaurant's plasma TVs.

A commercial came on for some foot odor powder. "I wonder if it's effective on vomit odor," I said, and as the three kids laughed, I thought, hey, maybe this situation is funny.

Another commercial came on. Some guy standing in front of a fountain, talking about life insurance or something. "You know what that fountain reminds me of?" I asked the kids. "Projectile vomit." They laughed again, and I said, "Oh man, it's not like I can even make fun of the guy. He's not even in my class."

OK, before you get all high and mighty and start scolding me for laughing at a sick child, I should tell you that, on every trip down that damned hill that I've been on with students, someone has always gotten sick.
Many, many adults take Dramamine or something before the one-hour drive; it's that winding, that steep, that nauseating. Anyway, this was the first time I had a person actually puke in the car. So I thought it was funny.
At least it's a start.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


Kids at this school are fascinated by the English Department. There are three of us that occupy a dungeon of an office; all of our names begin with P; and each is sarcastic and mean in his own way. So the school newspaper staff sent us a questionnaire, just to figure out the "three P's in a pod."

I must be getting sappy in my old age, because these are my answers: (The editor thanked me for my responses, saying they had "mass appeal." Let's see.)

What do you think of the other two P’s and how do you feel about being part of this “clique”?
The book discussions at Powles’ place are great, but the poetry readings at Prakash’s are often more memorable. At least that’s what I’ve heard. I haven’t been invited yet.

What has been your most embarrassing moment [here] thus far?
Maybe this is a lame answer, but I don’t get embarrassed often, so I don’t know. I realize I say and do plenty of stupid things, but at the end of the day, those are the things that make life interesting and fun.

What is your favorite quote?
After I finished my undergrad, I decided to bum around the country for a few months. Mostly I hung out on a friend’s couch. Then, one day at a Chinese restaurant, the message in my fortune cookie was: “Your secret of success won’t work unless you do.” That quote rocked my world. The very next day I got a job at a gas station.

What is one thing you can never do?
Math beyond the four basic functions. At least I don’t want to. Or see the need to.

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?
Coffee. Black.

What would you do with a USD 1000000 if you absolutely had to spend it within a week? (safe deposits, CDs etc. do not count)
I’d buy two things: a big house in the hills of northern California and a big boat. I’d spend a few years sailing to as many countries as possible. Then, I’d open up some sort of small business or charity in that big house, maybe a bed and breakfast or a school of some sort for disadvantaged youth.

What did you want to be when you were little?
When I was young, everyone walked around saying, “I wanna be like Mike.” They meant Michael Jordan. I also said, “I wanna be like Mike,” but I meant Mike Royko, the hilarious opinion columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

What’s the best thing about [this school], according to you?
The talent show made me realize why I like this place: There are lots of talented students here. Then again, even those that aren’t all that great are willing to take a chance, to have fun, to possibly embarrass themselves in front of a large audience. In other schools where I’ve worked, teenagers are too self-conscious to get on stage like that.

If today were to be your last day on earth, what is one thing you would do?
After the obligatory phone calls to loved ones, I’d figure out a way to sell all my worldly possessions and cash in my stocks and bonds and savings accounts, and then I’d donate all my money to some cause or NGO. I don’t have a ton of money, but maybe it would be enough to make some positive change in the world.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Those who can, do

I want to write this quickly so that I don't forget, just to remind myself of a major breakthrough in this semi-charmed kinda life of mine.

Today I made an eleventh grade girl cry.

That's it, but here's how:

In the past couple of months, kids in my drama class have asked me, "Mr. Polka Andrew, why don't you show us how to act? Why don't you get up on stage and show us how it's done?"

This is a shocking question when I think about it. Not because they asked. But because no other students have ever asked similar questions. I've been teaching English for eight, nine years now. Teaching kids to write analytical essays, poems, news articles, and everything in between. And not once has a student asked me to prove that I can write. They want to see me act but not write. Why?

I brought this up with one of my classes today, and one student actually had a good reason: "We expect you to be a good judge of writing, but not necessarily be a writer yourself."

Still, aren't they curious? Every once in a while, I drop little hints. I used to be a journalist. I won a couple of writing awards. I have a blog. My hobbies are reading and writing.

But since they didn't ask, I decided to read something to them anyway. I've been trying to get them to toy with narratives to answer silly little questions like: is TV good? is pop culture making you smarter or dumber? how should one look at women?

Their life experiences are good; the way they write them, not so much.

So I picked one of my recent posts from here, the one about iPod shuffling through life. And then this morning I woke up at 3:30 and decided to add to it, to fill it in with examples of songs and associated memories. The whole thing turned into a massive 3,500-word monster. I read it to them (but not before first warning them that they better at least pretend to listen).

They clapped when I finished. Whatever, kids here clap for anything. People get up in front of morning assembly and talk about a dead puppy for ten minutes, and the kids clap. They're polite.

I asked some questions. What was my thesis? Did I sustain it? Did I stray? What worked? What didn't?

A girl raised her hand. "Actually, I thought it was really sad," she said. And then she started crying. Kept crying for the next three minutes until the bell rang. Walked out crying.

"That's one of the sweetest reactions anyone has ever had," I called after her.

"You should take it as a compliment," another student said.

"I do, even though, really," I said, "I didn't even write about any real depressing times from my life. It could have been a lot worse, but I didn't want to get all that personal."

So, I'm glad she cried. Glad she was touched. Then again, I'm not really sure why she cried. Was there anything really sad in my story? Or was she crying because the writing was so good? Or bad? I might never know.

But as another girl walked out, she said, "You really are an English teacher!" If good teaching is making someone cry, I've arrived.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Little things

In teaching, in life, in just about everything, it's the little things that count, right?

One of my students has really started standing out this semester by doing those little things, and something she did the other day was literally little. So much so that I'll now call her Little Paper Girl. Last semester, she was just another shy Asian girl, rarely volunteering answers, rarely speaking in class. She did good work, she tried hard on everything, but she was just ordinary. This semester, she's speaking out, often saying ridiculous things.

As I was collecting essays yesterday, she caught my attention and said, "I had a little problem with the printer." She held up her essay, neatly typed and stapled: It was on a quarter page. "It looked fine on the computer screen," she said, "but when I printed it, it came out like this." She said it with such sincerity, and the class laughter was so good-natured, that I had no choice but to accept it. Now I have to mark an essay that is in what amounts to 3-point Times New Roman font.

Little Paper Girl showed up after school to audition for the spring play. Though she claimed no acting experience, her performance stood out so much so that the student directors said afterwards: "She was the biggest surprise."

The German update

The German did not hand in an essay of any size. In fact, he wasn't in class. After school, I saw him, and he claimed to have been in the health center. Fair enough. But two hours later, I found out that he did end up going to rugby practice.

I planned all sorts of retaliation against him today. I wasn't going to let him into class if he didn't have the essay in hand. Even if he did, maybe I'd give him a zero. Or maybe one letter grade lower and a demerit. I ranted about him in the staff work room and at lunch.

And then he wasn't in class again. Turns out he's in the hospital. Stomach problems or something.

Bangladesh update

As punishment for saying some stupid insensitive thing about Bangladeshis, one of my students agreed to do a presentation about people from that country that counter the stereotype.

"I expect all of you to take this seriously," I warned the class before he began, not telling them what he was about to do. When he started, there were a couple of scattered snickers in the classroom. But then he did something amazing: he absolutely captivated his classmates.

There are a few scientists and a fairly well-known economist from Bangladesh. Everyone seemed to know that. But there was stunned silence when he told us about one of the co-founders of YouTube (he's worth something like $500 million now). And this story: a 17-year-old Bangladeshi student stepped in to defend a group of people on a New York subway from some bullies. The kid got beat up, but then was recognized by the mayor for being a hero.

"What I said in class the other day was stupid, based on stereotypes from the media and other people," the presenter said in conclusion, "and I just want to say that I'm really sorry."

Apology accepted. It was a little thing, I know. But maybe it counts for something.