Archive for May, 2010

The Close Enough Phenomenon

  • A student comes into class on a day a paper is due.  “I left it in my printer at home,” she says.  “My mom can bring it in.  It’s not late, is it?”  Yes, it is.
  • Another student hands in homework.  It’s barely legible and he gives one-word responses to questions that ask for much more.  I give him half credit.  “But I did it.  Why didn’t I get full credit?”
  • I’m grading quizzes.  One is riddled with basic spelling errors and the handwriting is atrocious.  I take off points.  “But why does spelling count?” I’m asked when handing it back the next day.
  • A student is reprimanded for talking on the phone in the hallway before the end of the school day.  She is confused.  “There’s only three minutes left before the bell.  What’s the big deal?”

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I like to call this the Close Enough Phenomenon–when students believe that intention deserves credit, proximity begets exceptions, and effort equals quality.

This “close enough” concept is constantly validated.  Make a mistake in Microsoft Word and more often than not, it will correct it–spelling, capitalization, usage, you name it.  Mistype something into Google and get a helpful “Did you mean Boston Red Sox?”  I like telling students about the school in New Zealand that began accepting “text speak”–gatsby luved daisy 2 much 4 his own good, lol–on final exams a few years back because it was a “form of communication.”

This leads to a belief that being vague or incomplete is somehow okay, as long as the receiving end gets the picture.  Well, IMHO, I don’t think it’s okay.  There’s something to be said for standards, for sticking to the letter of the law.  We lose something when we start letting machines make up for our shortcomings.  We do a disservice to ourselves when we don’t meet expectations, when we don’t strive to excel, when we try to squeak by with the minimum.  Or less.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love the flexibility and latitude technology offers, and I am by no means perfect.  But for me, “conscientiousness” will never be replaced with “close enough.”

Love the Ones You’re With

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Any teacher will tell you that working with kids is the best part of the job, but I’m lucky enough to have really awesome colleagues in addition to awesome students.  Not only are they smart, funny, and talented (we had two Bobby Flay-style throw-downs in the English department this year!), but they practice what they preach.  Reading, writing, and literacy are all part of the passions that fuel their lives outside the classroom. 

Case in point–my coworker Gary has a poem, “A Glossary of Chickens,” in this week’s The New Yorker.  How cool is that?

I love being surrounded by people that have passion for what they do.  Whether it’s social responsibility, linguistics, cooking, running, creative writing, painting, 17th century poetry, or what we all share–the art of teaching children–my colleagues’ energy inspires me every day to continue growing and learning both inside and outside the classroom.

Happy Mother’s Day

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It was not easy to submit my thesis.

My heart rate quickened yesterday when the guy at FedEx said I had to leave it overnight.  Will they treat it with care? I panicked.  What if they lose it?  Get the pages out of order?  Crumple a page?  Spill coffee on it?  I bit my lip in an effort not to ask too many insulting questions.  These are professionals, right?  Just let them do their job.

I picked it up today, happy to see it, gave it a secret little hug when nobody was looking.  It looked so professional in its vello binding, clear front cover and smart black back cover.  It was ready to take on the world. 


We got in the car and drove into New York.  As we crossed the GWB, I couldn’t help but give it a mental pep talk.  It’s a big city, but you’ll be just fine.  Of course you’ll make friends.  You’re ready for this next step, baby.

When I got to the writing office, I asked if it would be available at the thesis reading next week.  “Sorry,” the program director told me.  “One goes into archives and one stays in the writing office.  Just bring a printout of what you’re going to share at the reading.”

“So… you mean… I’ll never see it again?”

He gave me a sympathetic look.  “I know.  I felt the same way when I delivered the manuscript of my first book to Simon & Schuster.”

It wasn’t easy to leave the thesis behind.  Of course we had our differences (what writer and her work haven’t?), but we always made up in the end.  My hands felt light and my heart felt heavy as I left the writing office and rejoined the masses on the city sidewalks.  But in my heart, I knew the thesis had to go experience life on its own.  It had to see what it can do in the world. 

At least I got this picture before I left.  I think the thesis was a little embarrassed to take it in front of its new thesis friends, but I wasn’t going to let it go without something to remember it by.

thesis and me

Oh yeah… and then I went and printed out another copy to keep for myself.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Extreme Essays

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Between finishing my thesis, grading, and lesson planning this weekend, I didn’t have a ton of downtime–and when I finally did crash for a break every now and then, I found myself watching a cake-decorating competition marathon on the Food Network.

The challenge each cake artist faced was to decorate a three-foot cake in a limited amount of time.  Sometimes they got to prepare in advance; other times they had to plan and execute on the spot.  And we’re not talking ordinary cakes–these things were bona fide works of art.

When the time was up, no matter what, the decorating ended.  The judges were tough, unafraid to dole out the criticism along with the praise.  I never heard a judge say, “Well, you were limited on time, so we’ll let this imperfection slide.”  The challenge was clear:  how good are you?  Do you stand up to the challenge and emerge victorious?

It got me thinking about in-class writing:  complete essays students must compose from start to finish in 42 minutes.  It’s unfair, they tell me, because our essays would be better if we had more time to work on them at home.  On the one hand, yes, it’s true that good revision is an enormous part of being a writer.  But do you have the ability to produce, to analyze, to dig in depth in a limited amount of time?  Are you pushing yourself to succeed no matter what the circumstances?

And yes, occasionally there will be a dropped cake, a bombed or unfinished essay.  But you can always make another cake, enter another competition.  You can learn from your mistakes, develop techniques and strategies for managing your time and honing your skills, and do better the next time around. 

Bon appetit!