Monday, July 4, 2016

How the System Failed My Son: Part Six -- Get with the System

[Just go back and read the other posts if you haven't done so already and you want to know what's going on.]

High school didn't get better. It almost did, but, then, it just didn't.

The first problem was that taking drama as a class was not like working on a production. Working on a production, while fun, had a purpose. There was a goal, something everyone was working toward and, while there were production aspects of drama class (they had to perform short one-acts at the end of the school year), mostly it was just playing games. So it was fun, but it had no purpose. It got boring.

Because he got into the arts program through drama, he was required to take two periods of it a day, and he couldn't drop it without dropping the whole program and leaving the school. Not that there were any thoughts of that, because we didn't know drama was an issue.

No, the thing that came up first was English. I got an email from his freshman English teacher telling me that they had had an in-class essay to write as part of a test and that Phillip had sat and stared at his blank paper through the whole class and not written anything. She went on to tell me that she should have contacted me sooner because Phillip had been having some issues for a while, mostly that he seemed disinterested in the class and, therefore, was not participating. He was not passing, especially with the blank essay. This was an honors class, and her suggestion was that we move him into the "academic" class because, obviously, he was not capable of performing in the honors class.

The problem here was that she also had never addressed the issue with my son. She had not ever once said to him, "Hey, what's up? I'm noticing that you're not turning in any work. Is there anything going on or anything I can help you with?" No, her first response, her belated response to the situation, was to contact me and tell me that my son was not cut out for her class. (More on that in a moment.)

Now, we already knew that Phillip was having an issue with timed writing assignments. That had been something that had started during 7th grade. It's just not the way he works. (It's also not the way I work, either, but, then, I never had to write any timed essays when I was in middle school. Or, for that matter, much in high school, either. Essay questions are one thing, but the idea of sitting down and writing an essay on a topic in 45 minutes is something else entirely.) I mentioned previously that he's a perfectionist, so he has to work out the whole paper in his head beforehand. I have literally watched him stare at blank paper for six hours then write the entire three-page assignment in less than 30 minutes. Asking him to sit down and write an essay RIGHT NOW is about the same as throwing him off of a building and telling him to fly. The same kind of panic takes over his mind and, rather than being to figure out what to write, he's consumed by the ground rushing at his face.

When this started happening in middle school, he had a teacher who cared about his success as a person, not about the success of her class; and she worked with him to find alternate solutions for timed essays.
[I want to point out here that the idea of timed essays as preparing you for life or your career is bullshit. There is no time in your life after you get out of school that you will be asked to sit down and write an essay, timed or not. Sure, there are some careers that require writing at a high level, but it's not essay writing. The essay is a very specific form of writing that is almost exclusively used within the boundaries of school. And, while there are deadlines for the things you may need to write, none of those are SIT DOWN AND WRITE THIS RIGHT NOW kind of things.]
His freshman English teacher was not interested in working with him to find any solution other than him sitting down and writing the in-class essay. "Get with the system."

We had a conference -- the teacher, my son, his counselor, my wife and I -- wherein we worked out some strategies, within the system, for my son to use to find some success in his English class. And in his Algebra 2 class, as it turned out, which wasn't going as poorly as his English class, but it wasn't going at the level of his ability, either (the math issue was completely around the issue of homework (have I mentioned how much I hate homework? (but you can't pass a class with As on all of your tests if you aren't turning in the homework (which is RIDICULOUS)))).

I learned some things about his teacher during that conference including why she had never spoken to my son about the fact that he wasn't participating in the class or turning in his work. During the conference, his English teacher never once looked at anyone, either when she spoke or when anyone else spoke. She kept her eyes focused off at the floor to her left. Every once in a while, she would flick her eyes up at the group, but she was completely unable to make actual eye contact with anyone. It was disconcerting, to say the least. And off putting. Her level of introversion made me wonder how she was able to teach at all, but, also, made it obvious as to why she had never spoken to my son one-on-one. She was incapable of it. In effect, he was being punished for her inability.

The other thing that became obvious was that his teacher still didn't believe he belonged in her class. She expressed some vague belief that he couldn't write and that he should be in a class, i.e., the "academic" class, where writing wasn't required. I told her that she only thought that because she hadn't read anything that he'd written. She, basically, blew me off when I said that. It wasn't quite a "yeah, whatever," but it was close enough.

However, the next unit they were doing was fiction writing, and they were required to write a short story for that. That's my son's area of expertise, so to speak. I got an email from his teacher after she read his story, read it during class while the students were doing something else, letting me know that she had burst out into laughter during class while reading it, something that never happens with her. She apologized to me and told me that I was correct in my assessment of my son and his abilities. Not so amazingly, the relationship between my son and his teacher got better after that.

I think, in the end, that that is what made the difference, her view of him. Once she offered him some amount of respect and appreciation, he was able to come around and perform in the class, and that affected all of his school life. Of course, he was also following all of the strategies he had been given, so I missed the importance of what happened with the teacher. I think we all did, including my son. We chalked it up to him doing the things he was supposed to be doing. Not only did he make it through his freshman year, but he made honor roll. We thought we had it all figured out...

That is until he started his sophomore year, the school year that is, as I write this, just now drawing to a close.

For an example of my son's writing, you can visit this post. He wrote the short story "Into the Trench" when he was 10, and it was that story that initially alerted me to his ability. At the end of this series, if my son is agreeable, I will post the story he wrote for his freshman English class.


  1. Wow, timed essays... that's really a thing? I was never a fan of my English classes, because they focused way more on essays than on fiction writing, but we never got anything like timed essays. It was more like take it home, take your time, write something worth reading, and it's due tomorrow.

    Besides, I know there are deadlines in the work places, but even while working in one of those most stressful, chaotic offices you could imagine, we never had situations where the boss said something like, "Alright guys, we have 30 minutes to write up a 2 page proposal that hinges on this $5 million contract. No pressure. Annnnnnd... GO!"

    1. ABftS: My English classes tended to focus on literature, but that may have been because I was in various types of advanced classes from about 5th grade on. We had to write about the things we read, but it was almost never in-class essays. I don't even remember any overnight assignments.

      We did almost no fiction writing, though, in the regular English classes. Poetry, sometimes. There was one creative writing class offered in my high school, which I took, but that was about it. College was the same. Fiction writing is, basically, a thing that isn't taught.

  2. I've had to take essay tests before, in the form of the dreaded five paragraph essay. It seems so easy now but ugh, did I hate it at the time. And it really was pointless because while I had to do them in college (another issue entirely), do I have to write surprise essays in forty five minutes now?

    Honestly, that teacher is awful. The whole school seems awful, what with him not being able to drop drama class without leaving. And people are just constantly making kids do more and more work and if they ever don't because it's pointless, they get railed on for not doing what they're told. There is no way for them to escape.

    1. Jeanne: I like the five-paragraph essay format, especially for kids and teens. It's clearly defined and gives a good framework to learn from.

      As far as high schools go, my son's was better than most. At least around here and in this time. We're not in that district, so the guidelines for being in the program are something you sign up for if you want to be in it. I can't really complain about that as such.

      As for the teacher... Well, I can only speak from my experience with her. I don't know how she was in class. All I know is that my son, despite everything, thought she was fine as a teacher, and she may have been for kids who fell in line.

  3. Seems like it's getting better? Reading this makes me mad on your and your son's behalf. He IS a good writer.

    While it's helpful for people to learn to work in a system that many people use (such as writing as you go rather than working it all out in your head) it's also not good to simply corral people into doing everything the same way. Schools need to be able to help people decide when to channel things and when to let them work their own way.

    What you say about essays, though, applies equally to how we test knowledge in almost every area in school. I once told a law clerk that if they really wanted to prep students for a law career, all exams would be 15-minute oral exams, or 30-day take home tests. That's how lawyers operate: we appear in court and argue with a judge for a bit, having to answer questions off the top of our heads, or we get a month to write a brief.

    Schools should look at how people operate in the real world. Looking up a fact to answer a question is fine; using notes to work out math problems, likewise fine. Nobody anywhere wants something important to be done BY MEMORY. I want my doctor double checking my medicine's dosage before writing out the prescription. And you're right that nobody ever has to just sit down and write an essay, or ANYTHING, for 45 minutes, to exist in society.

    Sheesh. Now I'm all worked up.

    1. Briane: With the Internet, now, everything needs to change. Information is constantly at our fingertips. The underlying reason for memorizing facts has been eroded. We should be teaching thinking skills and discernment and processes, not fact stuffing. At any rate, despite the way we supposedly prize individuality culturally, we spend almost all of our time trying to force everyone to be the same.