Monday, November 27, 2017

Lessons for Teachers #7: Five Cheating Anecdotes

To close out the topic of cheating in this series, here are a few cheating-related anecdotes from my years teaching Latin.

1. in flagrante delicto

One of the most memorable incidents occurred early in my teaching career when a student tried to cheat using his cell phone. When I walked toward him he proceeded, hilariously frantic, to pull the phone out from its hidden position, rip off its cover, and pluck out the battery. Even he chuckled when he realized what he had done. I wish I had taken the opportunity to teach the phrase in flagrante delicto.

2. A Pair of Nickers

I once taught two juniors who were thick as thieves and, as I look back, alarmingly devious. When I contemplate their antics, today I would cross the street to avoid them. The catch is that one had a grade of A and the other was failing, with the former abetting the other. As a neophyte teacher I fell prey to some clever gimmicks. The funniest was when the failing student completed a test so sloppily that it was illegible and who, when questioned, replied that he completed the test with a monstrously broken pencil, which he produced in all its mangled glory. The worst scam was when that same student didn't hand in a test and alleged I had lost it. Both I and an administrator were taken aback at his temerity.

Eventually I had them figured out, but in the end they got the better of me when they conspired to cheat during the final exam, correctly surmising that they could pull the wool over the eyes of the proctor. The failing student hadn't passed many tests that year, but he did manage to score 100% on the final!

3. New Leaves

The same year I taught the above juniors I caught two freshman cheating a few weeks before the end of the year. My clever ruse, of which I was very proud, was that, having spied their cheating off of paper on their seats, I would ask them to get up and open a window. They were, in fact, good kids who had made a bad choice to cheat but they were not deceitful by nature, so when I deployed my scheme they complied and let the chips fall. They were mortified and apologized repeatedly and profusely, but they grew up to be gentleman and scholars I'm proud to have taught.

4. Lost Keys

I handed out the key with the test not once, but twice. The first time it was promptly returned to me by a first rate student who was holding it at a distance, averting his eyes. His integrity impressed the whole class. He also was, I think, one of the best students and young men who walked through the doors of that school in my years there.

Now for the cheating. The second time I handed out the key I had to retrieve it, but also from an A+ student. He was otherwise a good kid, but he had that key tucked under his test and blushed when I came to get it. Still disappoints me.

5. Quintus Cicero's Guide to Engineering

At the very beginning of one student's freshman year, I accidentally left review material projected on the board as I handed out the quiz. It was the frantic attempt of this student greedily copying down answers that alerted me to my error.

Later, in his junior year, I returned a guided reading assignment on Cicero. All the student had to do was fill in the blanks of a summary of an article on Cicero. The article included a comment on Quintus Cicero, the brother of the famous orator, and the pamphlet Quintus had written about how to get elected, aka the process of electioneering.

I had known something odd was going on with the take-home assignments, but I could not pin down exactly what it was until I graded the project of this particular student, who had filled in one particular blank, "Cicero's brother Quintus wrote a guide to engineering for his brother..."

Upon reading that I realized that the odd answers I had been noticing on the projects were the results of students copying the work of others, but misreading their sloppy handwriting and thus writing down answers that read as nonsense in the context.

If there is an upside to cheating it is that the results are usually futile and quite funny.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Quote: The Carthaginian Who Said No to War

from Livy's Ab Urbe Condita. Book 21.

Translation by Bruce J. Butterfield

21.3 ... The soldiers led the way by bringing the young Hannibal forthwith to the palace and proclaiming him their commander-in-chief amidst universal applause. Their action was followed by the plebs. Whilst little more than a boy, Hasdrubal had written to invite Hannibal to come to him in Spain, and the matter had actually been discussed in the senate. The Barcines wanted Hannibal to become familiar with military service; Hanno, the leader of the opposite party, resisted this. "Hasdrubal's request," he said, "appears a reasonable one, and yet I do not think we ought to grant it" This paradoxical utterance aroused the attention of the whole senate. 

He continued: "The youthful beauty which Hasdrubal surrendered to Hannibal's father he considers he has a fair claim to ask for in return from the son. It ill becomes us, however, to habituate our youths to the lust of our commanders, by way of military training. Are we afraid that it will be too long before Hamilcar's son surveys the extravagant power and the pageant of royalty which his father assumed, and that there will be undue delay in our becoming the slaves of the despot to whose son-in-law our armies have been bequeathed as though they were his patrimony? I, for my part, consider that this youth ought to be kept at home and taught to live in obedience to the laws and the magistrates on an equality with his fellow-citizens; if not, this small fire will some day or other kindle a vast conflagration." 

21.4 Hanno's proposal received but slight support, though almost all the best men in the council were with him, but as usual, numbers carried the day against reason. 

21.10 The result was that, beyond being received and heard by the Carthaginian senate, the embassy found its mission a failure. Hanno alone, against the whole senate, spoke in favour of observing the treaty, and his speech was listened to in silence out of respect to his personal authority, not because his hearers approved of his sentiments. He appealed to them in the name of the gods, who are the witnesses and arbiters of treaties, not to provoke a war with Rome in addition to the one with Saguntum. "I urged you," he said, "and warned you not to send Hamilcar's son to the army. That man's spirit, that man's offspring cannot rest; as long as any single representative of the blood and name of Barca survives our treaty with Rome will never remain unimperilled.

You have sent to the army, as though supplying fuel to the fire, a young man who is consumed with a passion for sovereign power, and who recognises that the only way to it lies in passing his life surrounded by armed legions and perpetually stirring up fresh wars. It is you, therefore, who have fed this fire which is now scorching you. 

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Advice to Myself: Spare Yourself

Spare yourself concern for the comings and goings of inferiors. To follow them and resent their unwise but carefree wanderings is a dark path. So is resenting them the praise that other fools lavish upon them. What do you want with the praise of fools? Spare yourself this madness.

Yet driven as we all are by desire for praise, seek neither to court the favor of great men. You will grow to resent a life you do not understand and which is complete without you.

Instead, seek out those who are good and alike to you in virtue. In them, or in that one, you will have nothing sweeter. Wherever you turn, it will be present for you. So supported you will raise each other's spirits.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Quote: Vox Populi, Vox Dei

from Our Culture, What's Left of It, by Theodore Dalrymple

The crudity of which I complain results form the poisonous combination of an ideologically inspired (and therefore insincere) admiration for all that is demotic, on the one hand, and intellectual snobbery, on the other. In a democratic age, vox populi, vox dei: the multitude can do no wrong; and to suggest that there is or ought to be cultural activity from which large numbers of people might be excluded by virtue of their lack of mental cultivation is deemed elitist and, by definition, reprehensible. Coarseness is the tribute that intellectuals pay, if not to the proletariat, exactly, then to their own schematic, inaccurate, and condescending idea of the proletariat. Intellectuals prove the purity of their political sentiment by the foulness of their productions.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Six Frames from Stranger Things 2: Episode 6


I was skeptical of this thread thread introduced in the pilot, but it fit fairly well with Eleven's search for a family. The urban environment is cliché, yes, but the director made clever use of the background text, mostly graffiti, to comment on the scenes.

1. Spiritual Isor

As we see the vengeful anger of Eleven's "sister."

2. Pawn

As we see Eleven about to be used for her powers.

3. Wicked

4. Mek

That is, meek: with great power but choosing not to exercise it, after Eleven does just that.

5. O' Bedlam

Bedlam, that is, an insane asylum, from the popular name for the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem in London.

6.  Multidirectional Arrow

This image recurs and reflects Eleven being pulled in different directions, one of which is deformed.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Lessons for Teachers #6: Why Cheat?

Now that we have discussed why it is necessary to prevent cheating in the classroom we ought to address the next important matter on the subject: why does a student cheat?  One factor chiefly figures in determining whether a student will cheat, namely, whether it is easier than the alternatives.

Yes, before you ask, many kids find cheating abhorrent. They have been well raised and I have been honored to teach many such students. Of those who will cheat, some are devious and immoral and others simply succumb to despair and temptation. The former will always consider cheating a possible option and the latter will weigh with greater care to see if it is a viable alternative.

The first and most infamous of those alternatives is failing and needing to attend summer school. Don't underestimate how many summer school programs know this and make short and easy, and thus popular, summer courses. Those courses make failing a class a serious option for kids whose parents can afford it. For many though, the embarrassment and inconvenience of summer school is a deterrent.

The next alternative is the penalty for cheating. If either the amount of effort it would take to get away with cheating or the penalty for getting caught, which includes becoming known as a cheater, are too high, many students will reconsider trying to cheat. I say many and not most because cheaters are notorious for spending such amounts of time on ludicrous methods of cheating that it would have been easier simply to learn the material. Yet they may be tempted if left the opportunity.

If you are known not to care or if the administration is known to not support teachers' policies, cheaters have the opportunity. If you are known to police cheating but they think they can get away with it when, say, someone else proctors your midterm, cheaters have the opportunity. If you give a lot of work to be completed at home, that's their opportunity. If you don't evaluate assignments in detail, that's their opportunity. If you park yourself at your desk and browse the internet when you give tests, which is sadly very common, that's their opportunity.

The final alternative is learning the material. Because some classes and teachers are so bad it is necessary to say one thing bluntly: don't make your class such a mess that the students are bewildered and, having no idea what's going on, grow desperate to pass and turn to cheating. If I hadn't seen it, I wouldn't say it.

Worse is that many of those bad teachers know their classes are disasters and instead of making improvements, simply make the classes so easy that no one can fail. Administrators often know this too but don't care because they don't get complaints from parents, and they don't get complaints because parents rarely complain about anything besides failures. It is easy to see a kid caught in a dilemma between parents and teachers who should know better.

Most students who cheat, however, simply find themselves in hot water and then see cheating as a way out. Such is why students tend to cheat a few weeks before the end of a marking period or before some kind of evaluation is sent home to parents, that is, they cheat when they realize they are doing poorly but there is not enough time to learn the material. At that time, kids get desperate; so tell them often how they are doing. Teachers are notorious for not posting grades, not giving work back, and not being clear and objective about how students are doing. What's a kid supposed to do? So tell them, either verbally, with evaluations, or with progress reports, but tell them. It's part of the job: help them learn and help them know that they are learning.

In conclusion, make that learning the most attractive option. There are enough natural barriers to learning such as the difficulty of the material, student ability, and the vicissitudes of life, so as obvious as it sounds: do everything you can to facilitate learning. Have such quantity, quality, and variety in your teaching and evaluating that cheating becomes unnecessary. Be so persuasive and enthusiastic that cheating becomes unattractive.

The more attention you give to teaching, the less you will have to give to the problem of cheating. The situation is as with lawns: the best defense against weeds is healthy turf. You'll never be able to drive cheating out completely, but you can create an atmosphere in which it cannot thrive.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Lessons for Teachers #5: Policing Cheating

When it comes to dealing with cheating, teachers fall into three categories. The first consists of those who refuse to do anything about the problem. Sometimes these teachers say that they are taking the high road, that to police cheating is to detract from teaching. Other times such teachers frankly admit the task is beneath them because it is unrelated to teaching. We should ask, then, whether it is necessary to police cheating.

I propose it is necessary for a number of reasons. First, you might not like giving grades, but you are responsible for making them accurately represent student competence. That's a tall order and you need to fill it a variety of ways, one of which is policing cheating. Second, students prospering by cheating is an injustice against good students. Additionally, if you make good students look like fools for trying hard, you'll tempt them either to cheat or to give up. Third, you don't want to deal with dishonest people in life in general. Can you really have a good conversation in class, or even look at a student, whom you permit to cheat with impunity?

Fourth, students prospering by cheating will check out of class and damage class discipline. Fifth, you may be contractually obligated to police cheating. Sixth, you'll develop a reputation for not caring that will spread and be hard to erase. Seventh, you skew the student's statistics such that parents, guidance counselors, administration, and other teachers wonder why a student is doing well in your class and failing others. The answer is, "Because you let him cheat!" Eighth, you poison the student's expectations because he becomes resentful of the other teachers on whose tests he cannot cheat.

Ninth, you consign yourself to permitting cheating into the future, not only because you'll lack the credibility to start policing, but also because if you start, then parents, administration, etc. will wonder why students suddenly started failing your class. Tenth, you damage the credibility of the whole school and its graduates when the school is known to send students out into the world with a diploma which you have made, in part, a lie.

Advice to Myself: Eager Martyrs

When choosing a course of action, do not choose a path simply because it forces you to relinquish something significant: this purpose flatters your vanity. You will probably become resentful because in your eagerness to sacrifice you overestimate what your sacrifice means to others.

Sometimes we act to prove we are martyrs regardless of what good is actually accomplished. Choose your path in accordance with reason, aiming at virtue, and for virtue risk what you judge to be beneath its value.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Quote: A Roman Military Blunder

Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Ayrault Dodge (1842-1909), military historian and United States Army officer of the Union during the American Civil War, describes in his 1889 study of Hannibal Barca the first major engagement between the Romans and the Carthaginians under Hannibal in the Second Punic War at the Battle of the Trebia River, December 218 BC:

The day was raw; snow was falling; the [Roman] troops had not yet eaten their morning meal; yet, though they had been under arms for several hours, [Roman General Tiberius Sempronius Longus] pushed them across the fords of the Trebia, with the water breast-high and icy-cold. Arrived on the farther side, the Roman soldiers were so chilled that they could scarcely hold their weapons. 
Hannibal was ready to receive them. His men had eaten, rubbed themselves with oil before their camp-fires, and prepared their weapons. He might have attacked the Roman army when half of it was across, with even greater chances of success. But when he saw his ruse succeeding, he bethought him that he could produce a vastly greater moral effect on the new Gallic allies, as well as win a more decisive victory, by engaging the whole army on his own terms.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Lessons for Teachers #4: One Chance

One of the great delights of teaching is growing old with the craft. Every year you get wiser, you know the material in greater depth and with greater subtlety, and you perfect your style. Most of all, you learn to teach a greater variety of students. While not a given, some improvement is probable for even the weakest teachers. The flip-side to this rich opportunity is the temptation, in your ability to improve next year, to put off improving until next year. Or the year after, or the year after. Especially if you are making a career of teaching, you may feel that you have all the time in the world. So why work now? Yet as the horizon continues to recede, you will find yourself stale and listless. Old but not matured.

Worse is the crime against your students who, unlike you, do not have years and years to improve. In fact, they may only study the subject of your course once in their lives. You may be their only hope and opportunity of gaining this knowledge!

As a Latin teacher, I always that knew few if any of my students knew much about Latin coming into my class and few if any would ever read Latin again. Whatever I did with them was all they would know, and I wanted it to be good. My responsibility was twofold.

First, I resolved never to waste their time. Mainly this means two things: always show up and never show up unprepared. Regarding the first point, it's sad how many teachers are eager for any interruption to class time. Snow, sports, assemblies, late buses, some teachers welcome any intrusion. The pinnacle of this malaise is the jaded teacher--and who hasn't known a few--who is already counting down the days until June when it's only October.

Regarding the second point, once everyone is in class, make it count. Don't waste time–and teachers are notorious for this–by being inefficient when you do things like give back tests, hand out materials, put problems on the board, and so on.

This requires a great deal of organization and planning, but it doesn't mean you should be a task master. Neither you nor the students should be frantic trying to get too much done, but all should know what they need to do and be working on it at a pace appropriate to the class, material, calendar, and common sense adjustments to life. In the words of Marcus Aurelius, know when to ease up and when to push on. A good test of your success is whether you and they are proud of the day's work.

Second, don't disrespect the material. I appreciated the potential and history of the Latin language, the genius of its finest authors, and the importance of their writings, far to much ever to risk letting my students see them in a negative light. So no fumbles. Never let your work look shoddy or cheap. Don't cut corners or let things be out of date.

Don't ever give the impression that you don't care, because that impression will spread like poison through your class and even, possibly, through your career. Of course you must understand that students have many hardships and obligations, as do you, but during the class the material has to feel as if it were the most important thing in the world. Never give the impression–and disgruntled employees in all jobs are notorious for this–that you would rather be doing something else. If you would rather be somewhere else, they will too.

Some days will go bad, but you can make up for mistakes. Don't be obsessive and oppressed by the weight of your goals, rather let them urge you.

They only have one chance. Don't screw it up.