“Stop Grabbing the Electric Cupcake”

A valuable life lesson

A valuable life lesson

An analogy I came up with last week to help enlighten my students, far too many of whom have tried to slide by, giving the minimal amount of effort they could and still pass the class, and who (shockingly!) failed my class for the last grading period:

There’s a classic episode of The Simpsons where Lisa is doing a science experiment at home.  She puts a food pellet in a hamster cage, but attaches it to a little wire that’s hooked up to a battery.  The hamster nibbles at the pellet, gets a bit of a shock, and quickly gets as far away from it as he can.

Lisa notes in her journal that the hamster has learned a lesson.

Then she puts a cupcake in the kitchen, and likewise puts an electrified wire in the back.  Bart comes by and grabs for the cupcake.  It zaps him but, unlike the hamster, Bart does not learn his lesson.  He keeps grabbing the cupcake, and keeps getting zapped.  He’s immediately addicted to a pointless cycle of self-destruction.

Here’s the application:

Bart is like too many students who, seeing how delicious that cupcake is, keep letting their hunger for it overcome their common sense.

The cupcake is the elusive goal of getting by in a class without having to work very hard.

The wire and battery represent the inevitable failure that follows this course of action.

After all, as Einstein said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result.  How many kids must be thinking, “THIS time my plan to goof off and somehow be just good enough will surely work like a charm!”

Now, when I see students slacking off, or otherwise doing things that will hurt their chances for success, I tell them, “Stop grabbing the electric cupcake.”  They’re already sick of it.

If only I could get them to strive for the huge chocolate cake of well-earned achievement!

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Great Letter From A Teacher

Today, the Las Vegas Review-Journal ran a letter from a teacher about standards and testing.  It was both touching and practical.  Her story ends like this:

Let’s get back to studying science, teaching cursive writing, the stock market, great literature and history, and a remarkable thing will happen: Teachers will love to teach again and students will be a bit uncomfortable. They will stretch, be nervous and learn determination. Then, ten years later, they will still remember the requirements of an assignment that changed their lives and share it with their aging teacher.

I sent her an email thanking her for this letter.  Wise words as we start a new school year.

 

The Biggest Way In Which We Fail Students

As an elementary school student, a teacher once told me, very politely and apologetically, that I couldn’t have something reasonable that I wanted in class because that would mean that other students would be entitled to the same thing, which would be bad for the class.  I’ve long since forgotten exactly what the situation was, but I remember the lesson–sometimes, things which might be justified must be denied because of the precedent that would be set. 

In high school, a science teacher once scheduled an activity important to the class at the same time that another important activity was scheduled for a popular student club.  Students couldn’t do both, yet both activities were good and valuable, and many students went into a tizzy, asking the teacher to change the day and time of his activity.  He declined, explaining that the real world does not rearrange itself so that people can get to do every worthwhile thing they want to do–priorities must be set, and sacrifices must be made. 

He was absolutely right.  That was a crucial life lesson. 

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Let’s Not Tell Students the Sky Is Falling

Two Saturdays ago the following letter of mine appeared in the Las Vegas Review-Journal.  In the ongoing budget kerfuffle, I worry that the rhetoric of some of my teacher colleagues has crossed the line into irresponsible territory.  Frankly, even the insinuation that money is the biggest factor in student achievement is bothersome.  Yes, there are things we need funding for, but why haven’t we gotten this fired up over the epidemic of failure in our schools? 

Astute readers will recognize that this letter canibalizes part of a post I put up here about a month ago. 

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As a fellow English teacher, I appreciated Elizabeth Strehl’s Wednesday letter in defense of education spending, but I can’t condone her statement that, “If the proposed budget cuts to education happen, our schools and therefore our children may never recover.”

Perhaps such education advocates are exaggerating to emphasize their point, but can’t these academic Chicken Littles see the danger of their hyperbole? If these budget cuts do pass, what message have we now sent to our students? Might young people pick up on the idea that their fate has been sealed and that further work is pointless? Might the economic situation be used by some as an excuse for failure?

Lobbying for schools is noble, but I hope the fatalism so prominent in this conversation won’t turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

To all students out there: The ultimate force in your academic achievement isn’t the money coming from politicians, it’s the effort that comes from you. Don’t take our concern over the budget the wrong way. No matter what happens, we believe in you. Your future will always be yours to control.