Teacher Proves — Once Again — That Schools Are Averse To Free Thought

Copyfight‘s Donna Wentworth passed along this “sad and perverse story of a teenager who was given an “F” for writing a paper attempting to distinguish between piracy and stealing.” Copyfight quote’s BoingBoing‘s story:

Geluso, an “A” student, recently completed an in-class exit exam for his Language Arts class. The goal of the exit exam was to write a comparative essay on a topic of the student’s choice. Being a student who enjoys a challenge, he wrote an essay contrasting piracy with stealing.

His teacher failed him, saying there was no difference between the two and that he was “splitting hairs.” Other teachers who read his essay said that he did well from an organizational and technical standpoint, but because his teacher felt that there was no difference between piracy and stealing, she gave him an “F” because she disapproved of the content of his essay.

I wish I had pithy comments like Wentworth’s:

So in other words, this teacher is:
1.) an MPAA/RIAA lobbyist deep undercover on a Kindergarten Cop-style reconnaissance mission;
2.) suffered head trauma, lost a few brain cells, then read and swallowed whole What’s the Diff?; or simply…
3.) profoundly anti-education.

Safe bet she didn’t encourage this young fellow to think about a future career as an intellectual property attorney — those guys “split hairs” like this for a living.

The original essay, including directions and grading rubric is online in scanned and text forms.

I asked Sandee, a middle school language arts teacher during the day, for her take. I don’t have any good quotes, but she did have some concerns about both the student’s paper and the rubric. The student didn’t cite any sources (though nothing in the directions required it), and the argument suffers from spots of incorrect grammar and poor word choice. On the other hand, Sandee thought the rubric was too vague and was somewhat surprised that the teacher would take such a dogmatic approach to the issue.

The student’s work and the teacher’s comments suggest that neither is an expert in the issues raised by the paper, which was apparently written as part of an English exam. So, what surprises me is that the teacher chose to address the argument of the essay in ethical terms rather than in terms of the student’s success in making the argument. School is, of course, a 12 year period of indoctrination enculturation, but shouldn’t some time be spent working with the kid to form a stronger essay? At least that’s an area where the teacher is expected to have some skill.

The whole issue reminds me of my Catholic school days where we were graded on our blind acceptance understanding of the Bible, along with other stuff that gave nuns all the cover they needed to fail troublesome students.

Aside: The teacher’s name appears to be “Ms. Crass” and the paper was evaluated by “B. Deatheradge.” Doesn’t that sound like the dynamic duo? Crass and Deathrage. Not.

The student, Steve, has his own weblog with lots of added detail. Most importantly, he names the players:

Mr. B. Deathridge – First teacher to read and fail my paper. Wrote the two comments on the front of the grading sheet regarding the definition of piracy and splitting hairs between reasoning.

Ms. Crass – My LA teacher. Agreed with initial decision to fail the paper.

Mr. Long – Head of the LA department. I argued my case against my paper with him first. Didn’t understand my logic.

Mr. J. Deathdige – Father of Mr. B. Deathridge. Wrote the front part of the note card in response to my argument against the teachers.

I was amused to find his blog well written and reasoned. Though this issue fills his recent posts, he seems to be an interesting kid. Moreover, he’s smart enough to take care of the dirty laundry early:

I will readily admit that my paper is not the best that I have ever written and that my reasoning is a bit short at times. What needs to be considered is that we were given 3 hours in class to write this. That includes prewriting, editing and copying the final draft. This paper is not perfect and I don’t believe that it could have been perfected within the alloted time.

Then he brings the hammer down:

…the exit exams are a testing tool that teachers use to see if their coworkers are doing a good job of teaching the material to their students. In this case the material is the ability to write a compare and contrast essay. Moving on to the teacher’s notes, the very first thing written is “Writer is capable of writing an essay – C/C.” All arguments aside, if the teachers sat down, read my paper and discussed it coming to the conclusion that I was indeed able to write a compare and contrast essay, why did I then not pass the exam? They said it right there, “Writer is capable of writing an essay – C/C.” That’s it. Ballgame. I proved that I could write a compare and contrast essay to the teachers and, by doing that, met the requirements of the exam. Did I not?

And where does the story go next?

Randy Bomer, president of The National Council of Teachers of English made a comment to professor John Lovas of De Anza College who had this to say:

Given the facsimile of the essay produced on the blog, including the grading sheet, this instance makes very public the scoring process for writing exams. Of course, the key in fair scoring is not just a clear rubric, but well-trained readers who consistently score to the rubric, not to their own preferences or ideologies. That’s where the readers seem to have gone wrong, since they don’t apply the features of the rubric in making the judgment about the paper.

If there’s any question of whether Steve can write acceptably, it should now be settled, since he’s proven himself a most formidable rhetorician, using Netpower to plead his case.

I’d leave it at that, but I want to point out another interesting post by Lovas: Criminalizing Writing. And finally, I want to point out how cool it is that De Anza provides blog hosting for its faculty.

3 thoughts on “Teacher Proves — Once Again — That Schools Are Averse To Free Thought

  1. I think the only mistake the student made was letting the essay meander a little too far into the realms of ethics & law. I think that precipitated the teachers’ knee-jerk reactions. If he just stuck to the Stealing = simple; Piracy = complex. Complex = more room for argument – he may have gotten away with it. Though maybe not, it could’ve been that it was a hot button issue itself that sparked the reaction.
    Seems to me, anyone not living in a vacuum of ideal, strict, moral rules would recognize the obvious valid and important differences between various words that all describe some form of “stealing”.
    The NYTimes ethicist once likened to stealing, bringing outside food & drinks into cinemas. He deemed it unethical and wrong. And cinemas ban outside food & drink. They have a legal right to do so, apparently. So that would mean bringing outside food or drink into a cinema is against the law.
    I’d like someone to go catch that teacher when he’s chewing a piece of gum out of his wife’s purse during a movie at the cinema. Then let’s hear him talk about ‘splitting hairs’. hehe.

  2. I was bored tonight and decided to google Ms. Crass’ name. You are the first of hundreds of sites that pops up. Although not all are as beautifully written as your own, they bring great joy to myself.

    It is cool to see all you people being a bit more open-minded than my teachers and trying let them see the light of day.

    It is still weird reading my own words on so many other sites. Seeing them other places just adds so much class to them.

    Thank you.

  3. Pingback: Education America « MaisonBisson.com

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