Kids These Days

Today I ran into a few of my colleagues having a “kids these days” conversation in the copy room.  I am really lucky not to encounter too many of these at work.  Complaining about students is like tequila shots or Girl Scout cookies–appealing in the moment, but afterwards you feel sick. Lots of teacher-training activities actually have a “no complaining” rule built in, because, like tequila and Girl Scout cookies, once you start it’s hard to stop.

These particular complaining teachers are all nice people and good teachers and love their students, and they probably just have stronger stomachs than I do. And some of what they said was right. According to them, kids these days:

  • Can’t stop staring at their phones
  • Use text-message shorthands in their formal writing
  • Have illegible handwriting
  • Write in pencil when they should use ink
  • Can’t write a complete, grammatical sentence.

I have to admit, it’s all true. In the fifteen years or so I’ve been teaching English, students have gotten worse in all these areas. (Except they always had bad grammar and I don’t care if they write in pencil). But I don’t believe things just decline, especially not massive, undefined, complex things like “kids these days.” I was pretty sure the kids must be spending all that time when they’re not practicing their handwriting and spelling out the word “Y-O-U” doing something productive. And yeah, I can think of a bunch of things kids these days (“kids” being my students) are doing better than they did when I started teaching:

  • Typing
  • Using the internet to create and promote their own art, music, films and writing
  • Judging a credible website from a sketchy one
  • Teaching me how to use updated versions of Word and Powerpoint
  • Treating students who are different with compassion and respect
  • Caring about racism and wanting to discuss news stories about racism
  • Not saying “ew” when the word “gay” is mentioned
  • Feeling safe enough to come out, and supporting their friends who have come out
  • Reading for fun (thanks to Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, etc.)
  • Wearing clothing that covers their butt-cracks.

There! Ten things! My students are way better at all these things than they were a decade ago. And in my opinion, if I have to trade these things for never capitalizing the word “I” or not being able to put down their (fucking) phones, I’ll take it.

Stop Calling Students “Unprepared”!

me and Michelle at the 2015 ALP Conference
conference selfie

I might have mentioned before that I sometimes don’t like conferences. I might have also mentioned that conferences about teaching are usually pretty good (mostly because I love talking to teachers).

The conference I just got back from was fucking incredible.

It was the conference of the Accelerated Learning Project, or ALP. Accelerated learning can mean a lot of things, but for the ALP, it means (usually) reducing the time it takes for community college students to get into college level courses.

More than half of community college students are placed into English and math courses that are below college level. We call these students “unprepared,” shake our heads at why students have such low skills, chastise the high schools that give students such bad preparation. But the truth is, most of the students placed into these courses are not incapable of doing college-level work.

In fact, the methods we use to determine who is ready for college courses are horribly flawed. Most colleges use multiple choice tests. Studies have shown that these tests are not valid predictors of student ability. One of the most common tests, Compass, was just discontinued this month because its creator, ACT, determined that the test didn’t predict how students would do in college.

My colleagues and I have taken the placement test given at our college. When the counselors asked us which questions students should get right in order to be prepared for college English, we couldn’t tell them. The questions seemed to have no connection to anything we actually teach. One section in particular baffled me. The directions said, “For the following questions, we will ask you to rewrite sentences in your head.”

So I knew the placement system was bad. In particular, I knew it was bad for the following reasons:

  • It prolongs the time the student will spend in college.
  • It costs the students more money.
  • It discourages students, many of whom drop out rather than face multiple levels needed just to join an actual college course.
  • It sends a message of inadequacy and unwelcome to students.
  • It underestimates the abilities of many or possibly most students.
  • It sets low expectations.
  • It disproportionately places minority, poor, and female students into below-college-level courses.

Another problem with having multiple levels of below-college-level courses is what is called the pipeline effect. As the course sequence to get to college-level classes becomes longer and longer, more and more students leak out of the pipe and never make it through. Every added level that a student needs to take exponentially reduces their chance of reaching a college level course. For example, consider 100 students placed two levels below college-level English. Imagine that 80% of students pass their course and advance to the next course each semester.

100 students enroll in 2 levels below Freshman Comp.
80 students enroll in 1-level below Freshman Comp.
64 students enroll in Freshman Comp.

Only 64% of students get a chance to take the college courses that they had in mind when they enrolled for college.  And these are the best possible circumstances. Eighty percent success is much higher than average in these courses (typical success might be more like 40-60%). Also, not every student who passes the course will enroll in the subsequent course. So the actual numbers of students who never make it through the system are much worse. Of course, some do repeat the course and eventually move forward, but many do not, discouraged by the seemingly endless road ahead of them. Many schools have more than two levels below college-level; four or five levels is not uncommon. 

These numbers are particularly disturbing when you consider that many or most of these students were placed incorrectly by their placement tests. And under-placed students are at great risk of dropping out because of boredom and frustration.

I already knew all this before the conference. That’s why I went: to learn how we can change our system to not place students in lower-than-necessary courses. But the conference made me realize how dire this problem is, and how many students might be wasting their time and money, getting discouraged, and/or dropping out of school because they have been incorrectly placed by a standardized test.

When more students are allowed into college-level English right away, success rates for college English go up, not down.  The following graph shows how many students pass freshman English (the first college-level course) at Butte College. Butte changed from one standardized placement test to another a few years ago. When they gave the new test, they found it placed about twice as many students into college-level English as the previous test had. The college decided to let these placements stand, to see what happened. You might expect that a smaller percent of students would be able to pass college English, since more “unprepared” students were allowed in. But in fact, the opposite happened.

graph of college English completion rates at Butte College
From “Let Icarus Fly: The Four Cornerstones of Gateway Course Completion and the “Re-imagination” of Student Capacity” by John J. Hetts. His research is incredible. Presentation here:

When students were placed higher, many more students were able to pass college English within two years of taking their first English class. This means that most of the so-called unprepared students were actually able to pass college English and did not need the extra, preparation classes. (The chart breaks the students down by race because the lower placement of non-white students is a particular area of concern). 

For students who do need extra help, colleges can offer a tutoring or support class that takes place the same semester as college English, rather than before it. That way, students get support for their schoolwork, but aren’t prevented from taking college classes.

The best thing about going to a conference about a topic like this is I got to meet lots of amazing teachers who really care about students, about treating them with respect as adults, about not making unfair judgments about them, about making sure they have access to education and that they are truly learning when they are in our classes. It’s amazing to see how many people believe in this model of education, and even more amazing to see the organizers of the conference, who are willing to travel the country fighting for equal educational opportunity for all students. 


My literary and professional life-partner, Michelle Gonzales, and I are getting ready for a conference in LA later this week. 

Here is what we might wear when we give our presentation: 

me and michelle in 80s outfits me and michelle in sixties outfits

Or I don’t know; I probably have some halfway professional clothes in the bottom of my drawer somewhere.

I don’t like going to conferences. To begin with, I don’t like going anywhere. I really, really like where I am on a regular basis, and I am a little stubborn about not wanting to go other places. Also, I have conference trauma, based on my experiences in graduate school. Granted, I only went to a few conferences, but they were generally like the one I went to on Surrealism: five panels going on simultaneously, one big name at each time slot so everyone attends that panel, all other panels attended by a sparse group of people who a) have some very vague interest in your topic, b) know you personally and feel sorry for you, or c) have a personal vendetta against the famous person on the well-attended panel. 

The panels themselves consisted of  four or five presenters reading pre-written papers that the audience had to listen to without any visual aid or reference. The papers were always about texts that almost no one had read–that’s the nature of English studies–so the audience nodded along and listened for points they could remember long enough to agree or disagree. During the discussion portion of the panel, the audience members would ask questions about their own area of study and how it related to the topic of the presentation, like “Wouldn’t Freud’s idea of the ‘death drive’ undermine the thesis of your paper?” 

Basically what I’m trying to say is that I never learned anything at a conference. Not while I was in graduate school, anyway.

During my final year of grad school, during my annual meeting with the department chair, she sternly told me that my CV needed more conference papers, and that I should aim to speak at two or three conferences that year. “Okay, I’ll do that,” I nodded, straight-up lying to her face. I had my own plans for that year, and one of them was no conferences. 

Since then, I’ve been to a few great conferences. The Future of Minority Studies group put on brilliant, collaborative conferences. They would have everyone read the same several books in preparation, and keep the conference size small so everyone could be at every discussion and presentation, rather than simultaneous panels. I learned a ton at those conferences, because they were structured as a change for real collaborative learning, rather than a chance for people to show off and build their resumes. 

The conference we’re attending this week will be a big conference with multiple simultaneous panels. Our presentation is up against a big name; in fact, we’re up against the group that organized the conference. So I’m not getting my hopes up for a big audience. I’d just like for there to be more audience members than presenters. 

But the good thing is that we’re presenting on a great topic: acceleration for basic skills students. Over 50% of community college students place into courses below college level (often because the placement test is poorly designed). Acceleration is the philosophy and practice of getting these students into college level courses as quickly as possible, rather than making them take multiple semesters of remedial classes. It’s a really important topic (my friend Sara just recommended this great book to me if you want to know more about it).  

The other good news is that this conference is about teaching, and teaching conferences are pretty much always good. No one is at a teaching conference just to show off during their own presentation and scoff at other people’s presentation. Everyone is there to get good, practical ideas that they can bring back to their own colleges. 

Michelle and I taught an accelerated course at our college, so we’ll be presenting on our hard work and the work of our colleagues in designing and implementing this course. It’s a great topic, and I think we created a pretty sweet presentation about it (get this…it has 38 slides) (some with graphs and charts and shit).  

So onward, step on the gas, take us to the conference. I just really hope I learn something. I am pretty sure I will…and I bet I will learn it fast. 

some fancy data in a chart
Some fancy data in a chart. This is in our presentation, bitches!!!


Sara and me Today I had lunch and a long walk with my best friend from graduate school, after twelve years of not being in touch.

I met Sara when I visited Michigan for the first time. The University of Michigan English department offered an expenses-paid welcome week for students who had been accepted into the PhD program. It was a long way to travel during the middle of the semester (I was a senior at Berkeley), but my roommates and I were in a giant, blowout fight and I was looking for any reason to get out of the apartment. So I went. It was good I did, because that trip convinced me to go to Michigan.

One thing that happened on the trip was I met Sara, and we hit it off instantly. We were were in very different areas of study (she was in early modern, i.e. Renaissance, while I was in twentieth century and literary theory), but we had so much in common. Both of us were nerds who hung out with partiers, the kind of students who might go out drinking all night with their friends on Friday but skip the next night, because we had to finish all our reading for Monday. We were both sweet, good-girl types who also had some pretty serious authority issues. 

We used to get together and study after our classes. I remember she was such a fast reader, while I read slowly; it used to make me crazy jealous. We would drink pots of coffee and she would smoke cigarettes and we would complain about the system. The system of graduate school. It was a hierarchy, a patriarchal hierarchy, and they couldn’t even see it, man.  How could they be so oblivious to the irony, all this critique of convention and arbitrary systems of value, and yet, look around. Didn’t they notice that if you wanted to write about James Joyce, you had to hang out with that one young, hip professor who was the Joycean, and that you also had to be young, hip, male? Didn’t they hear how dismissive they sounded when they talked about undergraduates? How could these Marxists not notice the way they told you not to write about what interested you, but what was the most marketable? Wasn’t their hypocrisy so, so, so obvious? 

We both ended up dropping out in different ways. She left with her Master’s and got a teaching degree, ending up as a high-school principal.  I finished my PhD but then got into community college teaching (which the layperson might not realize is not an acceptable job for someone with a PhD from a research university). Once she left my department, our schedules became really different, and it was hard to get together as much, and then we both moved away. We haven’t really been in touch until a few months ago. 

Today we met up in San Francisco, where she was visiting for her job. We had tea and lunch, took a long walk down Market Street to the water, talked about our lives and our jobs and education. She told me how she is spearheading a new, more creative curriculum for her school, and I told her about the conference I’ll be presenting at next week on how my department accelerated our low-placing students into a higher-level class. She told me about a book that supports my presentation. 

I always love talking to educators. That’s one reason I became a teacher (and why I call myself a teacher or instructor rather than a professor): because I love teachers, and I wanted to really like the people I worked with. And I do. I currently teach in a department that is more like a family than a workplace, with colleagues who are pretty much geniuses at instructing and inspiring budding writers. They never act like we are above our students, a few notches higher in a hierarchal system. All they care about is giving those students the best possible learning experience, so they can become our doctors and accountants and firefighters and car mechanics some day. 

I think Sara and I both know we were spoiled to get a free education, funded by fellowships and teaching positions, and to have access to the brilliant scholars who were our professors. But we also both knew, when we left, that there was no point sticking around research universities being annoyed and talking shit. Still, we did do a little shit-talking today, just a little, about how glad we are to be out of a profession that, for us, just didn’t get it, and into a profession that really, really does. 

Back to School

nice art in our office

Next week I go back to school. The transitions from break to semester and semester to break are always hard for me. I’m very routine-oriented (if you know me, you might have noticed this just a tiny bit), and I like things to just stay the same. Getting a new semester started is hard and stressful, with all the planning, scheduling, meeting new students. And getting your brain readjusted to multitasking and keeping track of a billion assignments and appointments and duties, in contrast to vacation which is simple: write, work out, see friends and family.

 But changes in my schedule are good for me. They are good practice in not turning into a robot. And there are tons of good things about going back to work: my old students, my new students, my exceptionally awesome coworkers, getting paid to read books and discuss them with people, getting paid to read about other people’s thoughts and ideas and lives. Also I have a very nice office which my office-mate and I vacated of unnecessary furniture and filled with art and couches and tea.

 Sometimes bitter, jealous people will begrudge teachers our vacations: It must be nice to have summers off, they say. Which it is, and that is why our teaching programs are overflowing with America’s most promising young people, eager to get in on some of that sweet, sweet vacation time. I think all jobs should have three months off. Imagine all the awesome gardening and traveling and knitting and exercising and art all those people would do. Imagine how relaxed everyone would be.