Last week I looked at an essay written by a prospective teacher. First I asked for comments about the essay – and there were lots of excellent ones – and then I offered my own analysis in “Please Grade the Following Essay, Part 2.” Part 3, the article that explains what the essay is from and why that matters, is on its way, barring more unnecessary delays by the New York State Department of Education.
For now I’d like to address a piece by Daniel at Key Words that parses my approach in Part 2. It is vital that education bloggers address criticism in full [when circumstances allow, of course]. That’s the real strength of the blogosphere and hearkens those who insist rightly that blogs are about conversations. The label “conversations,” though, doesn’t do the exchanges justice; if we’re committed to discussing issues for the advancement of knowledge about that topic, we need to address fully the concerns that rise in the debate out of an obligation to the discipline. And, as a side note, it’s only right to respond to someone who has taken the time to evaluate your work [again, when circumstances allow. Christopher Hitchens may not have the time to address all his critics].
I won’t give Daniel a grade, but I’ll respond to the criticism.
Daniel’s first issue with my critique is my decision to evaluate the essay by factors that weren’t part of the original grading instructions. He says:
The criteria for grading EXPLICITLY excluded writing ability beyond that necessary to communicate the writers ideas effectively. Mr. Tabor decided to start with the forbidden fruit:
Despite the instructions, Iâ€™m not going to pretend that writing doesnâ€™t matter. Writing is a reflection of thought; words make sentences, sentences make paragraphs and structure presents the argument. Poor writing matters so much because it shows poor thought processes. Commenters mentioned that there were illogical rambles, poor syntax and structure, all of which reflect parallel errors in the authorâ€™s thoughts. Writing really isnâ€™t about writing, itâ€™s about thinking.
He’s right – I spurned the instructions. I didn’t pretend that I followed the same guidelines elucidated in the exam instructions. That’s why I evaluated the essay on my own site and not in the official capacity as a grader of the exam. He continues:
He does a beautiful job of justifying it, but his justification doesn’t work for two reasons. First, because no matter how important writing is – and I do acknowledge that it is highly important – it wasn’t what this assignment was about. The writer was told up front to focus on content instead of style. This is BOUND to affect how he is going to approach the assignment. This is a TIMED assignment, so the writer is bound to make sacrifices in order to actually complete the assignment. Discarding the instructions the writer was going from is a flat out bait and switch.
I’m not sure exactly how to respond to this charge without reiterating what I’ve said here and in the original post. While the examinee was constrained by time and had little incentive to conform to standards of writing that deviate from stream-of-consciousness exposition, a competent teacher [and writer] shouldn’t have trouble writing a short essay that addresses the question and isn’t painful to read.
Key Words is right about the bait and switch. The focus of the essay analysis [that will be fleshed out further in Part 3] isn’t to berate the fictional writer, it’s meant to expose flaws and inadequacies in the examination – that isn’t done by using the given rubric. I chose to evaluate the essay by responsible measures I’d like to see in place rather than the shoddy, simplistic standards given. On to reason #2:
The second reason Mr. Tabor’s justification doesn’t work is because, well it’s just flat out wrong. He sums up his reasoning with the statement “Writing really isn’t about writing, it’s about thinking.” It’s not. It’s about outputting the results of one’s thoughts. Now, for many people, thoughts DO have a direct correlation to writing – these people are verbal thinkers. They are very common in society – I believe the statistic I last read was that about ninety percent of all people are primarily verbal thinkers – but they are NOT the whole story. Some of the strongest thinkers in the world are visual-spatial thinkers. They are the strongly right brained people among us and they only convert their thoughts to words as they become necessary for communication. Mr. Tabor’s reasoning completely ignores the visual-spatial thinkers.
If “outputting the results of one’s thoughts” isn’t thinking, how narrowly has “thinking” been defined? The visual-spatial, left-brain/right-brain, kinesthetic-versus-whatever-else-is-fashionable argument isn’t relevant here. This is an essay test for prospective educators, not a performance art exam. By no means is an essay test the ultimate measure of intellect, ability or knowledge – few would argue that it is. It isn’t the whole story and it isn’t meant to be.
While the expression of talent has many forms, basic writing skills aren’t relegated only to left-brain nerdboxes. I expect – and many tell me that I’m wrong and naive to expect this – that a college graduate should be able to write competently regardless of their major, future career or prized skillset. Remember, even students majoring in 17th Century Siberian Basketweaving Studies have a liberal arts component to their degree and have presumably completed high school.
And, for the love of God, even a pseudoscholar like Ward Churchill [whose graduate degree was in Graphic Design, not any element of Ethnic Studies or a related social science field] writes better than this essayist. I’d guess he’s a right-brain thinker, too. [b.n. for a daily discussion on neurological processes understandable by laymen like myself, check out www.mindhacks.com - they often discuss the validity of such claims about learning. It can only enhance your teaching.]
The last point is more than just nit picking on this assignment. It reflects a weakness with the mass education process in general. Most school based teaching caters to verbal thinkers. This is in part because it’s easier to teach verbally to large groups of children, but also because the teaching profession in general attracts more than its fair share of verbal thinkers.
Or we teach verbally because it’s the basis for the fundamental skills every student will need after high school.
The next issue Mr. Tabor tackles is more on target – the content of the essay. This is, however, in my opinion, where the assignment itself failed the writer.
I agree here – it’s a terrible assignment and even the sharpest thinker or most talented writer would struggle to generate truly valuable content from a question this rotten. It’s a variant on the famed, “garbage in, garbage out.”
First of all, the writer isn’t suggesting the teacher “pander” to the kids. He’s suggesting the teacher take some time to focus on career relevance – as the assignment requested. Also, I looked for where the author even suggested this approach was “novel” and never actually found it. I think Mr. Tabor is reading more into the essay than was written. He’s then grading on his ‘invisible’ portion of the essay, which I find troubling.
The writer suggests pandering by having them pool their whims and inclinations – which may or may not land on content relevant to career education, but I’d bet a kidney on “not” – instead of teaching them. “Pandering” wasn’t the best word choice, but it’s not far from the truth.
As for my suggestion that the author thought the approach was novel, I did indeed read into the essay. The author didn’t say it. However, it was an observation about the author’s possible thoughts and wasn’t factored into my evaluation. I didn’t consider it in the evaluation then and I wouldn’t now, though I thought it was worth mentioning in my write-up. The charming irony here is that Key Words reads more into my essay than was written and relates my comment about the “novel approach” to the grade I gave. It simply didn’t factor in.
Key Words then discusses my position that career education can be delivered through English rather than the other way around:
The first part is a valid criticism – Career focus day is NOT English and, although it would be easy to teach English while implementing this (e.g. written essays reviewing the merits of the presented careers and how they fulfill social needs/match the student’s goals), the writer failed to show how this would be done. The second part, however, is more a criticism based on Mr. Tabor’s opinion than the actual merits of the writer’s suggestion. Essentially, Mr. Tabor is saying English teachers should “develop career awareness and an understanding of the world of work” by teaching English. The writer’s suggestion to use a work based focus in teaching assignments is perfectly reasonable within the context of this assignment – it both teaches English AND (as the assignment requires) makes the students aware of career requirements and how the subject matter . Mr. Tabor’s “stick to the basics” obviously does the first part, but completely fails to even address the second.
There was no clear plan to teach English skills. Contending that the writer “failed to show how this would be done,” and then lauding them for a suggestion to “use a work based [sic] focus in teaching assignments” is illogical. Had the teacher described a lesson, even in general terms, that used an element of English curriculum to explore careers, I’d have reacted more positively.
Mr. Tabor follows up this criticism with an attack on the writer’s suggestion of student led activities. Mr. Tabor feels that the teacher – not the student – is best qualified to determine the skills necessary for success beyond school. Mr. Tabor also believes that the writer is using these methods to entertain the students.
This teacher is as equally unqualified to lead the activity as the students are, but that’s a detail. I don’t think that the writer uses these methods as entertainment nearly as much as I believe he/she relies on them because he/she isn’t capable of generating and delivering the content. That wasn’t stated explicitly in the essay – it’s just my read of the situation.
While the writer does acknowledge that he is engaging the motivation of the students, he is in no way suggesting that this it the prime goal as Mr. Tabor believes.
Correct – the writer would [or should?] be too ashamed to admit what I just wrote above.
Mr. Tabor is insisting on instructor led learning even though he does not say how this actually accomplishes the goal the assignment asks the writer to address. Mr. Tabor simply favors an instructor led approach (even though the instructor will NOT be there to “lead” the student in his actual career pursuits or work related duties – independence, self motivation and individual preference are simply left unaddressed). In essence, he is grading the writer down here because their opinions don’t match.
Unfortunately, I’m not an unwavering relativist. Though I don’t profess to be right always, there are good approaches and bad ones. The author suggests a bad one and I explained why. The education field would do well to rely less on opinion and diversity for diversity’s sake, especially when justifying methods of instruction that will have a profound impact on their students’ lives.
That the instructor won’t be there on the job floor is a puzzling, irrelevant point. Because instructors won’t stand beside students in future pursuits, an instructor-led approach is sub-optimal? After considering the logic of that, I look forward to an essay that decries instructor-led sex education and proposes either a student-centered, constructivist sex ed curriculum or – even better – advocates the instructor’s physical presence and guidance when the fruits of sex education bear out.
Now there is always an element of subjectivity in the grading of any essay, but a grader should at least TRY to base his grades on the standards set forth ahead of time in the assignment. Mr. Tabor does make some excellent points in general about the subject. He writes very effectively to justify his points (although for someone who is so adamant about the importance of writing and how it is a reflection of thinking, he would do better to try to keep his singular and plural cases consistent). However, he is NOT grading this assignment effectively or, to put it bluntly, honestly.
Again, I didn’t base my analysis on the grading standards given. I found little value in grading the answer to a bad question by equally bad standards.
As for the singular/plural cases, you’ve probably got me. I write content on this site once with seldom more than a 60-second edit and mistakes do creep in. Keeping number consistent will be in the back of my mind from now on.