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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Curious Incident of Censorship in the Day Time

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime has recently come under fire as being to controversial for a Big Read. The curious thing about it is that I agree. This is either and indicator of age, a right turn on the political spectrum, or wisdom. For obvious reasons I am going to pick wisdom. In the past fifteen years as a teacher, and as a concerned citizen prior to that, I have fought against censorship. So what is different this time? In order to better analyze this particular situation I should probably review my history with censorship.

I come from a household in which my mother was horribly offended by violence and my father turn violently red at the mention of sex. Needless to say I wasn't allowed to see any R-rated movies. I was, however, allowed to read just about anything. I still remember fondly the day I learned the word phallus from reading The Excorsist. My dad wasn't nearly as happy as I was, but he never even threatened to take the book away.

This freedom to read virtually anything molded me into a typical militant high school student. Farenheit 451 was the worst thing that could happen to a society. Anyone that wanted to ban books was some sort of cro-magnon fascist.

Luckily, as I entered my teaching career I managed to tone down just a little. My first job in a Muslim school was a challenge. The philosophy of the school was that writing was technical skill not an art. As a first year teacher who had to devise his own curriculum I still thought it was important to at least read some authors as examples of good writing. With a limited budget I decided to purchase $1 copies of Call of the Wild. I had the submit the book for review. Amazingly it came back with only one black mark on it. The imam had crossed out the word sex. I ranted about him being a cretin because the word was refering to gender not the act. I was desperate for a job and the absence of one word did not really affect the text. I had compromised. I eventually left the job, not because of this incident, but because the general tone and philosophy of the school did not match mine. An interesting side note, some of the members of this mosque were later arrested for funneling money to terrorist organizations.

The next time a book caused any stir in my classroom was when a veteran teacher gave me some copies of Gal because I once again had to develop my own curriculum. I was a third year teacher, but it was my first year at my districts alternative program. Gal was a high interest read for my students, but two of the black teachers in the school had a problem with yet another portrayal of a dishfunctional black protagonist. It was probably this characteristic that made the book so interesting to the students. Forgetting momentarily that I was white I decided to fight what I thought was blatant censorship, but as a third year teacher with a first year principal it just wan't going to happen. Looking back now I realized that I should have been more sensitive to their point of view.

The final milestone in our journey to The Curious Incident, again deals with fears of an attack from the left. There never really was a battle, mainly because I had prepared for it. One of my students had written a poem containing the N-word. The topic was racial profiling and the word was used as dialogue from the police officer. Before anyone could say no, I wrote a justification for the poem and had the student write one as well. We were prepared for battle. When I failed to get a response to an email I figured that it was on. I was wrong. The poem was approved, and all we had to do was write a warning and disclaimer on the inside of the CD cover.

Both of the last two incidents happened in the same district in which we are currently dealing with The Curious Incident episode. For the most part I feel that I work at a rather liberal district and don't fear censorship or totalitarian mandates. In the case of the book I always felt that we had the backing of the administration. So why don't I want to fight this? Since I eliminated age and facism we are left with wisdom. My experiences have led me to redefine censorship and this incident doesn't reach the standard. Though I am dealing with close-minded people they are not keeping me or anyone else from reading the book. They are excercising their right to not have to read the book. They are essentially changing the channel. If I were to force this book on them, then I would be doing the same as if they denied me access. Wisdom has begun to make the clear cut a little murky.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Ultimate Scoring Guide (The 3W in Action)

In order to streamline grading I have decided to resort to honesty. We often seem appalled when we hear of a teacher that just assigns a grade because they know what the work deserves. Rubrics and scoring guides while helpful in letting student know what should be done are basically worthless when it comes to assessment. Everytime we get a new scoring guide I try to find some way to turn it into some sort of quantifiable number. I always fail. How do I know that I fail? Well when I derive the numerical date it never comes out to the grade that my years of experience tell me the paper should have. All work falls into three categories that correspond to either and A, C, or F. Or more simply, "Wow what a great idea," "Well duh," and "What the heck." I call this scoring guide the 3W since we all know that all good ideas can be distilled into an acronym.

The first W is the Wow factor. To get an A the paper must go beyond your expectations of the assignment or of the student. The wow moment comes when you say to yourself, "I never thought of that." There is an issue of standards however. If your standards for an assignment or student are too low then you are likely to say wow at rather mundane work. Conversely, If your standards are too high then you are obviously going to have some trouble being impressed.

In fact with high standards you are much more likely to say, "duh." A "Well Duh" paper is basically a regurgitation of ideas and content mention in lectures, discussions, and the text. This is the level most people work on so the corresponding letter grade is a C indicating the utter mediocrity of the work. I contend that average is the worst thing to be. So in order to avoid a C a student should aim for the Wow A.

When aiming for this A a student will sometimes fail spectacularly. So much so that you are liable to say, "What the heck." At this point the student should get an F. Now many of you are screaming that that is not reasonable, and I agree. That is why a student should have an opportunity turn their paper into a "Wow" paper.

They will not be likely to change from "What the heck" to "Wow" in a single draft. They will work their way up the 3W continuum. Along they way they may have to stop at a D or a B. These two grades or noticably missing from the scoring guide and that is because they respond to secondary grades. If A, C, and F are the primary grades on the grading wheel, then D and B are combination of these. They are the green and orange of the spectrum.

Ideally we wouldn't have to give follow the rainbow of grades, but since it is required I will continue to do so. The 3W scoring guide however introduces a degree of honesty into this Skittle colored world of academics. What would be easier for a student to understand than "Wow," "Well duh," and "What the heck"?