This week is semester exam week in my school district, which marks the halfway point of the year. As students work on their big tests, I’ve found a few nuggets of positivity or, failing that, laughter:
- While one class worked on their exams, I finished grading the book reports they turned in last week. The most common feature was most students’ response to a directive to write a paragraph about their favorite and least favorite things about their books, and what they would change. Nearly everybody said that they liked the parts that were happy, and that they would change the parts that were sad. Everybody said they’d make it so that Simon and Piggy don’t die in Lord of the Flies. Those who read The Lovely Bones said that they’d save Susie. And students who picked The Grapes of Wrath…well, they’d keep Route 66 and pretty much turn the rest into a college road trip, if they had their druthers. Luckily none of them read the Bible for their book report, or humanity might have been denied the Atonement altogether!
- In fact, one girl was quite emphatic in her assertion of editorial license: “I would most defiantly change the ending.” *ahem* Yes, I’m sure you would. I see several students every year who spell definitely that way.
- On a positive note, though, my students mostly read very difficult books this quarter and the majority of them turned in quality work–lucid, organized, and demonstrating a solid grasp of what they read. The honors students identified themes and tone with confident accuracy. The regular classes articulated their responses to their books with clarity and precision. I’m happy.
- Today, one young man came up to my desk half an hour after the test had started and asked to be sent to the dean because he couldn’t do his test. “Why can’t you do your test?” I asked. “Because no one around me has a pencil I can borrow.” Somehow, I was able to solve his crisis, and his test was soon under way.
- Here’s a great illustration of the importance of basic mathematical literacy, and the disastrous effects of its lack: more than one student this week asked me how good they’d have to do on the exam to pass my class. These always tend to be the highest honors achievers or the lowest-graded slackers, kids who desperately beg at the last minute for a miracle. I explain to them all, patiently, that my exams are 10% of their semester grade; most of the honors kids worried about what they need could blow off half the test entirely and still be guaranteed an A. That makes them happy. Their less assiduous brethren, however, are nonplussed when told that with their current total for over the last four months (usually about 20 or 30% for those who ask me about this), they could ace the test three or even four times over and still fail the class, the logical result of months of consistently lazy choices. No matter how simply I explain it, though, they seem unable to grasp how these numbers add up.
- Several honors students have come in at the end of the same day that they took their exams and were disappointed that I hadn’t graded them all and had their final semester grades ready yet. Actually, I find that innocent concern on their part quite refreshing.
- On the vocabulary part of one test, students were supposed to provide a word that they’d studied, “panacea,” for the definition they’d been exposed to: “a cure for everything.” One student, however, wrote in “Jesus.” I felt a little bad marking that one wrong.
- I told each of my classes that they could bring in a 3×5 note card with whatever notes they wanted to print on it to use on their tests. One enterprising young fellow came in with a dozen pages, shrunk down to size on a copier and stapled onto the note card like a book. This would have been clever had I not said that this was precisely the one thing that they could not do with their card. He sits in the front row, right in front of me. When he proudly displayed his card, everyone around him explained that he couldn’t use it on the test, even before I did. He was genuinely flummoxed by the whole affair.
- In the middle of one test, a young man asked me in front of the class what to do about a section of questions about something we’d read at the beginning of the year, reminding us that he hadn’t been enrolled here at that time. Annoyed at the disruption during the test, I quietly told him that this had been discussed all semester, that it had been on the study guide, and that he had to do the best he could now. What else did he want me to say? He still grumbled about it for a bit before resigning to his fate.
- That was hardly an isolated incident. Today, one student came up to me and pointed to a question that, first, asked students to list the names of any three short stories we’d read this semester. “What are three of the stories we read this year?” he asked me. I stared at him somewhat blankly for a minute, then replied that that was the point of a test, and that I couldn’t tell him the answer. He appeared genuinely offended, as if I were deliberately punishing him, and sullenly sulked back to his seat.
- As the semester ends, one thing I’ve tried to do this week to set up a better environment next semester is to help some of the most successful students who are clearly trapped and irritated by having been put into classes that happen to be filled with very low ability peers, and suggest that they transfer into higher level classes. I approached four students about this. One agreed and will be starting an honors class next week. One other is slightly worried about having harder work to do, but I explained that I think her average grades in an average class are due to her being surrounded by people who drag her down, and by work that is too easy; I said that she would get better grades in a harder class. She said she would think about it. The other two students both said no, saying that they prefer to be in an easy class.