Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Where Are We Going With AP Classes?

In an article in The New York Times today, writer Jacques Steinberg examines teachers’ complaints about the rapid growth of Advanced Placement classes.

“More than half [of teachers surveyed] are concerned that the program’s effectiveness is being threatened as districts loosen restrictions on who can take such rigorous courses,” Steinberg writes. These same teachers are concerned that students take AP classes to pad their resumes not because they want the greater academic challenge.

Steinberg quotes some statistics to validate his point. “The number of high school students who took at least one college-level AP course increased 45 percent, to 1.6 million from 1.1 million, from the school year ended 2004 to that ended 2008.” He goes on to say that “the number of AP exams those students took…increased by 50 percent, to 2.7 million.”

Principals, as Steinberg discovered, often add more AP courses, and more seats for students in AP classes, to “improve their school’s ranking and reputation in the community.”

I teach all the honors and AP courses offered at my school for grades nine through twelve in English. Granted, I work at a small private school with each grade level consisting of about sixty-five students. My class size for each honors or AP section is seventeen to twenty students. If the class of juniors consists of sixty students, and I have twenty of them in AP Language and Composition, that is one third of the grade level. In a small private school drawing from a small community, it is highly unlikely that one third are qualified students in AP English.

So why are so many students in my class? My school administration and the College Board who owns and regulates AP classes and exams, support the philosophy that if a student wants the greater challenge, and can demonstrate a modest capability in the subject, she should be allowed a seat in the class. We allow students five weeks to decide whether or not they wish to remain in the course. After five weeks, if they continue enrollment, they are in the class for the year, sink or swim.

We offer two AP courses in English—AP Language and Composition for grade eleven students, and AP Literature and Composition for twelfth grade students. Over the last eight years, seventy-five percent of my students pass each of the exams on average. Considering that almost all of my students are English-as-a-second-language students, I feel this is an accomplishment we all can be proud of, but the road to passing is a difficult one.

The problems I have observed at my school are validated in Steinberg’s piece. Students want to take AP courses because their friends are in the class. Parents push their children into AP courses for a variety of reasons: competition with other parents and their children; desire for their children to have a better education, even though there are excellent teachers in the college preparatory courses; and some even over-estimate their child’s ability, thereby putting the student in a class where he may find his skills insufficient to compete at the AP level. Administrators want as many students in AP as possible because those statistics and good passing rates make the school look good. The problem is that such advocacy without fully considering capability leads to poor grades and poor results on the exams in May. If we push students who are not capable into a challenging academic course, it is a failure of logic to bemoan the results when they do not score well on the exam.

I also question what I must teach in AP English. I cannot avoid spending a considerable amount of time preparing students for the test. However, I refuse to make my class just about test preparation.

In college, in the real world, students need a greater variety of skills and knowledge than is represented on the AP exam. No real writer goes into a room and in two hours, emerges with three complete, final draft, quality essays. Journalists come close, but they work from notes and outlines and often hours or days of research and interviewing. We are asking fledgling writers to do on the AP exam what professional writers do not do. All writing books used to instruct students advocate writing as a process—notes to outline to first or rough draft to revision to proofreading to final draft. Writers write, polish, rewrite, think, reconsider, revise, and finally, publish.

A student on the AP exam must read a piece of literature, evaluate the author’s intent and ideas, and analyze how he uses stylistic elements like diction, syntax, and imagery to convey his intent and purpose. Then the student composes a coherent, final draft, polished essay where she presents her analysis using passages for support. Questions vary across the two exams, but that is a basic summary. AP work is, and should always be, challenging. If we are pushing kids into these programs to simply polish their resumes or make a school look good, we may be setting them up for failure.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Changing the Idea of the University

Amid all the breaking news today regarding the Swine flu, there was an interesting op-ed piece in The New York Times.

Mark Taylor, chair of the religion department at Columbia writes that the current model of the American university is as outdated as anything coming out of General Motors, Ford, or Chrysler these days. He advocates changing the entire system, and his argument has merit.

Taylor bemoans the fact that many courses at the university are taught by graduate students who are hired as cheap labor, often being paid “as little as $5000 a course—with no benefits.” This is less expensive than hiring a full time professor and giving her tenure.

Universities are producing doctoral candidates with little hope of finding a permanent position. Most will be doomed to pick up classes here and there at a number of colleges and schools in order to make ends meet.

“If American higher education is to thrive in the 21st century,” Taylor writes, “colleges and universities, like Wall Street and Detroit, must be rigorously regulated and completely restructured.”

He advocates replacing the isolated departments and curricula with one “structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.”

I find that many of my most successful lessons over the years have been ones where I integrate several disciplines into literature and writing. Students must make connections among current events, literature, art and culture. Therefore, I stress the interconnectedness of their studies throughout my curriculum. I want them to make these connections and continually discuss them in my class notes and lecture/discussions.

Taylor believes that stressing the inter-disciplinary approach will bring students into true creative and analytical thinking about real world problems. “It would be far more effective to bring together people working on questions of religion, politics, history, economics, anthropology, sociology, literature, art, religion, and philosophy to engage in comparative analysis of common problems.”

He thinks that university curricula should not be organized by departments, but that schools should “create problem-focused programs” with a shelf life. These new kinds of departments could be modified or discontinued after reaching conclusions. They would evolve naturally. “It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized,” Taylor says. Some of these zones would include “Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life, and Water.”

The one area I disagree with Taylor is in the writing of papers and dissertations. He wants to transform the traditional dissertation into other formats that may not include writing at all. He asks students to “develop analytic treatments in formats from hypertext and Web sites to films and video games.” We live in an age where students are urged to read less and less. Newspapers and traditional publishing models are mutating. I recognize this fact, but the idea of the university embodies wide reading. Writing is a primary method of communication. Maybe the traditional dissertation “with more footnotes than text” is a thing of the past, but we should continue to have students write and read in depth. I would think such an inter-connected curriculum as Taylor proposes would demand such reading and writing from students.

Finally, Taylor supports the need to impose mandatory retirement and the canceling of tenure. He believes tenure, although enacted to protect teachers and allow them academic freedom, has become a shield to protect teachers’ jobs and allow them to be “impervious to change.” Taylor writes that “once tenure has been granted, there is no leverage to encourage a professor to continue to develop professionally or to require him or her to assume responsibilities like administration and student advising.”

Years ago, I attended a workshop where middle school teachers took some of the same approaches Taylor advocates in their classrooms. We observed these teachers and students in action for a week. The faculty planned lessons by themes or ideas with each department contributing some aspect of the selected theme. The process worked very well and led to a richer experience for the students.

If education is to move forward into the twenty-first century, we must examine and revise our models and methodologies. We cannot retreat into theories and education school methods that do not address real life problems and experiences. Our future depends on continual evaluation and striving to improve how children and adults learn.

Monday, April 20, 2009


ColumbineBy Dave Cullen
Twelve Hachette Book Group, $26.99 cloth
ISBN 978-0-446-54693-5

“Every Night & every Morn
Some to Misery are Born.
Every Morn & every Night
Some are Born to sweet delight.
Some are Born to sweet delight,
Some are Born to Endless Night.”
William Blake
"Auguries of Innocence"

“The Secret Service studied every targeted attack at schools from December 1974 to May 2000,” Dave Cullen writes in his exhaustively researched book on the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, April 20, 1999. “There had been forty-one attackers in thirty-seven incidents.”

To most Americans, school shootings around the globe have become a disturbing trend. Cullen presents evidence to the contrary. The Centers for Disease Control “data pegged a child’s chances of dying at school at one in a million,” he writes. “And holding. The ‘trend’ was actually steady to downward, depending on how far back you looked.”

School shootings generate fear, terror, and press coverage, a dangerous mixture for deranged or mentally ill gunmen seeking worldwide attention. I use the term “gunmen,” because almost all of the cases have been males, although Cullen notes there have been a few female perpetrators.

Cullen’s book is riveting and disturbing, especially if you are a teacher. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold fit the typical profile of a high school student on the surface. There were warning signs, but they were most visible after the incident. Further, Harris was a psychopath, someone who thrives on the “ruthless disregard for others,” a person who will “defraud, maim, or kill for the most trivial personal gain.” Harris studied the emotional states of others and could mimic them at will, fooling most people who spoke and interacted with him, including trained psychological professionals. “Psychopaths feel nothing deep, complex, or sustained,” Cullen writes, and Harris fits the bill.

So how does one identify and treat a person who reacts “to pain or tragedy by assessing how they can use the situation to manipulate others?” Identification is difficult if a teacher does not have all the pieces to the puzzle. The warning signs were present—school assignments revealing the planned violence, Harris’ need to control, Klebold’s suicidal obsessions, thousands of pages of diagrams, checklists and journals. There was video evidence as well, made by the killers themselves, and displaying the weaponry and firepower they would eventually employ.

But the ability to pull all of this evidence together and realize the extreme threat only became possible after the massacre. Harris also did not target a specific group, as news reports and scores of journalists initially reported. He wanted to kill everyone. The bombs the boys planted around the school should have brought the building down, killing 500 or more of the 2000 students. Harris failed to build them properly and nothing detonated as it was designed to do. The boys resorted to firing on students from a vantage point on campus and then hunting through the building for more victims, killing the largest number of students hiding in the school library. The boys’ cars, parked in the school parking lot, were rigged to explode as well.

Cullen takes us into the minds of the victims and their families as well. Dave Sanders’ story is heartbreaking, as all of them are. He is the career teacher who bled to death in the science classroom while waiting for rescue. The scene Cullen describes, with Eagle Scout students trying to staunch the flow of blood from Sanders’ critical injuries, is devastating.

One needs a strong disposition to make it through this book, and I can imagine the strain on Cullen to live with this story for ten years. He was there when it happened and reported for several news outlets, and continued to write and study the reports, events and investigations long after most journalists had called it a day. This must have been an hellacious journey, but he should be credited with sticking to the story. He debunks myths and falsehoods reported about the tragedy. He pursues the psychology and motivation of the two boys, and renders in plain prose the science of the violence and the mystery of the diseased minds of the perpetrators. He tells the story—killers, victims and law enforcement personnel—with a blunt, hard-hitting intensity.

In the end, the most disturbing thing about the massacre at Columbine is that those of us who work in the high school classroom see minor snippets of such behavior every day. True, statistically, an act of such intense violence as that of a school shooting rarely happens. But schools are supposed to be safe havens, like hospitals and libraries. We now know, here in the twenty-first century, that nowhere is safe, and even our children must live with fear. We are all at the mercy of the human animal. And that is not a comfortable thought at all.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


Goners: The Final Hours of the Notable and Notorious
By Gordon Kerr
Abrams Image, $18.95 cloth
ISBN 978-0810-98364-9

So there I was, buried in student papers last weekend, grades due Monday, and I needed a book to distract me in the few moments I would allow myself some time off. This is how I came to read Gordon Kerr’s book, Goners: The Final Hours of the Notable and Notorious.

“What?” you might ask. “Did Moby Dick fall behind the book case?”

I was looking for the literary equivalent of junk food, and Kerr’s book did not disappoint. In fact, I gave it rather more attention than such a tabloidesque piece of entertainment nonfiction deserves.

In short, Kerr’s book details the final hours of a number of famous people as diverse as Sylvia Plath, Tupac Shakur, Beach Boy Dennis Wilson*, and film star Natalie Wood. He takes us through the death scene, the post mortem, the conspiracy theories, the place of final repose.

Right from the get go, I need to say that this is a book badly in need of a line editor. Grammar errors abound. In addition, no sources are listed, and some of the information is a stretch of the truth, but this is entertainment first, and journalism twenty-fifth, if you know what I mean. And as a teacher I once worked with wrote on a senior English paper, “It’s bullshit, but it is entertaining bullshit!”

Take the death of young actor River Phoenix. Did you know that he was working on a film called Dark Blood where he played “a hermit living on a nuclear testing site, waiting for the end of the world” when he died one night at the Sunset Boulevard club the Viper Room? Or that he went to the club to see some friends who were playing there that night, including “Flea, bass player of the Red Hot Chili Peppers; Al Jourgenson from Ministry; and Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers?” The piece de resistance? Actress Christina Applegate was at the club that night and witnessed the seizures Phoenix had before he expired on the sidewalk outside the club from a massive overdose of cocaine and morphine. She later reenacted the grand mal moment as “an anti-drug dance piece.”

Need I go on? I think not. Suffice to say, that this is reading for the rabid and morbid. It served my purposes quite well: I finished my grading for Monday’s deadline, and had something to do with my tired brain while wolfing down a turkey sandwich between exegeses on the right to think as portrayed in the drama, Inherit the Wind. Next to student papers like that, this book was infinitely superior and gripping. (Insert insane laughter and organ music here.)

Now if someone would just tell me who are the Butthole Surfers.

*As Lauren pointed out in the comments, Brian Wilson is very much alive. Dennis Wilson has departed for the big beach in the sky. My mistake and now it is fixed. Thanks, Lauren.