Tag Archives: Discipline with Dignity

Information As Power: Digital Control of Learning in an Era of Superstudents. Or, Tale of Two Eras: Two Stories, Two Generations and Zero Change

1987:  There’s no doubt the learning game is changing, K-16. And the teaching game, in this digital age, is running ten steps behind, as usual. Even 30 years ago, Ivory towers attracted the brightest students. Unknown-1Even in that era students’ acumen threatened a well-established tradition of academia, and professors scurried to ensure their students paid a reasonable price for learning. In 1988 while teaching at a top-ranked university, I designed a scope and sequence of an introductory required Spanish Literature course. After all, I was a curriculum specialist! The course incorporated everything I had learned in my post-graduate work in Education. I wanted to motivate, prepare, teach for retention (in hopes that some students would continue on toward a minor or major). Since these students comprised the top 5% of college-age students, I thought it in their best interest to show them everything I expected of them, including the midterm, the final, the quizzes, an explanation and example of the kinds of papers I would require, rubrics for assignments and criteria for each grade they would like to achieve, the opportunity to submit any work early for my feedback, and much more. Although the course was “transparent,” according to the folder of required submissions of syllabi for every course, mine was more demanding than any other professor’s in the department:  more papers, more difficult criteria for grading, more quizzes and tests, more readings, a “literary theory” portion that is not even included in the course description itself, and more. The students struggled to understand the transparency at first, but as soon as they understood the challenge, most rose to the occasion, and some even submitted their written work to and were published by student publications across academia. As a result, I gave many A’s, and the department immediately chastised me and encouraged me to give less. UnknownSo… I raised the criteria required to complete for an A, B, C, etc., and the students met those expectations as eagerly as the year before. It happened a third year, and my students began to major and minor in Spanish. Unknown-2As they populated the Spanish National Honor Society, they began their own student publication in Spanish. The department, however, never ceased communicating to me their disapproval of my methods and how I am “inflating the grades” and not keeping students in their place by giving lower grades. It was the worst of times!


2017:  Several of my former high school clients approached me with matching issues. They spent time in high school learning to compensate for their dyslexia and dysgraphia and ADD/ADHD, relying on accommodations but learning to take full responsibility for their work. Every client had gotten into top-rated universities and they embraced the challenges they would be facing their Freshman year. They knew that, given their issues, they must orchestrate their time and resources when asked to read and write. But, all of them at their respective (and respectful? institutions) were struggling with at least one of their courses for the simple reason that the professor placed only the next class period’s readings and assignments on-line, with NO access to the reading material until their PROFESSORS released it. In short, they were finishing their classes, doing regular “college stuff,” and would not receive the next assignment to do until the next day or night before the assignment is due in class. And to make matters worse, they could not start on that assignment until they finished other classes for THAT day. 512718467-anxious-picturesThey had on the average 12-18 hours to read large passages and write large response essays. All of my former clients now lamented poor grades and frustration at not being able to budget their time and practice their compensation strategies that got them into the universities in the first place. It was the worst of times!


In the 1980’s, my colleagues believed that withholding information about how they assess their students and what content they will address keeps students guessing and “motivated” to earn that grade, with little consideration as to whether they are actually teaching well or their students are learning well. This information became the power to control every student who expressed any desire to earn a good grade. Unknown-3Almost in a childish or evil way, these colleagues seemed to throw out a vengeful assignment or pop quiz or grade papers very harshly, again withholding the proper feedback as to how the assessment was made. After all, these professors a generation ago had experienced the same hazing treatment in their own academic pursuits.

Yet, nowadays, little has changed. In my work with students who struggle with particular learning differences, I have seen the same harsh, unprofessional treatment in the digital age. I am speaking of the practice of PIECEMEAL online placement of content and assignments- such as Haiku, Bright Space, etc. Professors more and more are placing only the NEXT day’s readings and assignments online, leaving students completely unable to work ahead or work slowly and in their own time. Unknown-4While the digital tool is AMAZING, and truly streamlines many logistical solutions to academic needs, teachers use them as a “digital control” of student study habits, as a source of power over how much a student brings to each class. In my personal and professional opinion, professors who do this struggle with the insecurity that their students’ “learning something” too quickly might ruin that perfect teachable moment they had planned. Unknown-5Or, even more cynical, teachers fear being upstaged or exposed for not knowing something. In a world of Google searches, students can fact-check a professor any time. To illustrate, teachers might only post a reading passage and written response essay prompt one or two days before the class period it is due. With such shallow intentions, teachers like this at the very least deny students the opportunity to learn independently and in multiple modes. But, in addition and especially for those who need such accommodations, this “strategy” strips away the ability for students to budget their time appropriately and process things deeply. student-3176407__480And whether we like it or not, whether it is good or bad, the digital age has allowed our students to do more, have access to more information, etc. When students struggling with dyslexia and/or dysgraphia, for example, receive a 20-page article to read and a two-page response to write the day before it is due, they cannot apply the compensation strategies needed to produce quality work with such short notice. Over and over again in my work, my client says, “I’ve got to read this 25-page article for tomorrow and answer these short essay questions, but I just got the article last night. My professor just posted the questions (“prompt”) this afternoon.” And yet, for the last two years these high school clients and I have been emphasizing “working ahead” to make sure their work has depth and quality.

With such limited time and learning issues, my clients don’t know how to ask me for help now that they are in college. I try not to show my Unknown-7attitude and ask them the obvious WTF questions. Instead I focus on what each client can do and needs to do. I might read the article aloud or do a pre-reading focus session to make sure they reconstruct the meaning of the passage in a way that both facilitates retention AND answers the questions efficiently. Sometime, as painful as it is, I ask them to read the passage aloud to ME after I make myself quite familiar with the questions. Then, as they read, I stop them at each juncture that addresses a question. We brainstorm a response on a digital document, and then they keep reading. In short, I maximize the short time they are given to process large chunks of information. Except for those verbally gifted (and usually female) students who can process quickly, this treatment is academic cruelty.

What are those WTF questions?                      Unknown-8

-Why aren’t all the reading passages for the course available from the beginning? Students (busy or with learning differences) can surely budget when they will have time to read.

-Why aren’t the response questions/prompts available at the beginning of the course? That way, students can create efficient ways to reconstruct the passages they attempt and attack them with quality. If a student can (and needs to) budget her time to do work, why can’t she do it with this course?

-Do professors really believe quality reflection can come in writing that is being assigned only days before? It seems pedagogically counter-intuitive.

-Do the professors really believe that doing the work on a limited distribution timeline will make learning “better.” What about the NON-linear learners or the ones that must see the WHOLE elephant before biting off one bite at a time?

-Do the professors believe their students might sabotage the class if too many of them already know what they might be addressing in class that day merely because they have done their reading and understood it profoundly? Does this mean professors are insecure or perhaps ignorant of how to utilize student input while they teach?

-Do the professors really mistrust the students to “dig deep” and therefore make sure students do some sort of busywork to prove they have been inspired by the reading material?

Online placement of content and assignments is an efficient communication tool, and students really do benefit from doing “prep” work before coming to class.

Especially in a college environment where some of the distractions are part of the total experience and classes do not meet daily, students need the autonomy and flexibility to decide how they must study taking into account all they value:  Unknown-9social interaction, learning differences, course load, obligations and other deadlines, distractibility, interest, quality of their work, anticipated grade, and so much more. But here again, just as I have seen in many high school educators, the constant, daily work load with surprise content and even more unanticipated assignments related to that content, discourages students to gage how they should spend their time. When those students (especially those with learning challenges) underestimate the work and time assigned to them, they end up turning in poor quality work or no work at all. Teachers, then, can assess that work with poor grades and blame everything on the students. Surprising students with online assessments, reading materials and assignments strips them of any joy of learning. And, in my professional opinion, the only kinds of students who “succeed” in this scenario are those that boast superb executive functioning skills or who have been groomed to do academic work to the exclusion of everything else (nerds). I encounter so many twice exceptional students every day whoseUnknown-10 intellect shines like the sun. But, the clouds of haphazard assignments over which they have no control to organize block the rays, producing discouragement in very capable students. In addition, outwardly, professors can simply absolve Unknown-16Unknown-15themselves of any professional responsibility by merely labeling such students and their behavior “disorganized” or “lazy.”

The big picture here is that in this current era, educators are using digital information to hold students hostage instead of assessing how students learnUnknown-11 in a digital age. Just like a generation ago, the issue is control. Did controlling students by haphazard grading and assignments, along with the threat of being “graded down,” help students learn best? And, today, does releasing content and homework assignments hours before the assignment is due help students to learn best? If these control strategies continue to be “best practices” at the university and high school levels, Unknown-12they will deflect the Unknown-13professors’ responsibility and place it on the students, allowing that ever UNcollaborative chasm between the ivory tower and student learning.


The digital age, along with the elearning platforms available, hold amazing potential for all kinds of students. But, these are still the worst of times! Zero changes have occurred between 1987 and 2017. The onus of learning lies on the student only. Professors seem immune to reflection about the effectiveness of their teaching. And, to make matters worse, the current environment merely attracts a population of students more and more homogeneous in the way they learn, slowly matching the information dump, hostage-taking strategies of current age higher education models. While the academic world relishes diversity, they subversively weed out all kinds of learners by their very adherence to a pedagogy of insecurity and pressure. The hyper-organized students and the unidimensional-thinking professor will survive in the current system, but they will both miss out on the beauty and diversity of thought from other kinds of learners. These students have the ability to learn and communicate and contribute ideas to academia, ideas that have passion, compassion, insight, depth, debate, inquiry and more. The “best of times” would embrace both the diversity of student learner and the diversity of instructional strategies. Digitally efficient does not make a teaching strategy effective. Providing all students the time, opportunity and dignity to learn and communicate that learning is possible, even in a digital world.



Ship or boat? That is the question! Or, “Tactics to crush a girl’s spirit”


From my earliest memories of raising my daughter, it was quite clear she was a writer. In her elementary grades, she made lists, kept a diary and wrote stories. In the middle grades, she continued with fervor and published a poem called “If I had stayed” in an anthology of young writers. In her High School years, she wrote a “novel” and a children’s book about Math! And, yes, even today in college, she writes a blog that combines her love of Brené Brown’s research, her attempt to remain true to her namesake, Hope, and her desire to connect people together… it is entitled wordsofhopeblog.com.  One of the many reasons I take pride in promoting her blog on mine is this: in the 7th grade, her English experience all but crushed her joy and ability to write and learn joyfully; and it has taken a village to bring her confidence level back to “brave.” Here are three vignettes that demonstrate how her fire was all but extinguished.

My daughter’s 7th grade teacher used notes from her Graduate School education to teach the children Greek Mythology. My daughter, the most obsequious student dream any teacher would want to have, was stressing about having to read so much, not knowing how she was going to be graded or tested. I, in my infinite training and wisdom, simply helped in two ways. First, I stayed clear of criticizing her teacher for NOT providing clear objectives or purposes for the reading, admitting that not all teachers have the same high standards of lesson planning as I have for myself and the teachers I supervise. Second, I gave her a strategy to attempt to reconstruct as much of the material as possible in a way that made sense to her so she could vomit the material any way she was asked. I asked her, “What about these mythology stories grabs you the most?” She immediately replied how stupid it was that gods would even interfere with and make mortals’ lives so petty and difficult. So, I simply gave her a RUBRIC that I thought her teacher may be assuming she would need to reconstruct appropriate information about each god/story. AND, I gave her a STRATEGY to understand and synthesize those stories in a meaningful, personal way.

It worked! After reading a mythology story, she was able to quote me the plot, the values within the story, the relationship of the main characters to other gods, goddesses and important mortals. With the new strategy, she would then with specific information comment on the “stupidity” of the gods- that one metacognitive step of personalizing the information in order to remember details (just in case the teacher would spring an “application” question or a long essay or something)! When the time for the test came around, my daughter truly had, in my parental but professional opinion, “mastered the material.” On the test, she confused a few of the gods, but for the most part, her “studying” had paid off… except for one detail.  On a fill-in-the-blank question, my daughter answered, “Charon, the ferryman of the dead takes the dead to the underworld in a BOAT on the river Styx.” The teacher marked it wrong, saying the correct answer is “SHIP.” This brought my daughter’s grade from an “A” to a “B” for the test. Really?  “Boat” versus “ship!” The teacher ever so pleasantly showed my daughter the page from the text from which the question was derived and in which the word “ship” was mentioned. My daughter, again, obsequious to a fault, came home sobbing, showing me old-ship                                         unknownher “B” and angry that another page in the same materials mentioned “boat” for the ferryman. She couldn’t understand why a teacher would ask a question like that and not expect multiple correct answers. My response? I simply told my daughter that the teacher was a literalist who practiced a traditional testing/teaching practice called, “Guess what the teacher’s thinking.” I told my daughter I knew in my heart she knew the material, and that is all that matters, not to worry about silly test questions like that. Yes, I was RAGING inside! But I did not let that show.


On another occasion, this same teacher inconvenienced me to come to get my daughter after school because she was being punished with a “self-select.” You see, my daughter, who was the most compliant and studious student in the class, had not completed the back of a homework sheet! Now, here is where we see why my daughter’s enthusiasm was squelched. She got 100% of the questions correct on the front side and had merely overlooked the back of the sheet. Others in the class had neglected to do the work at home, so at the last moment, they quickly wrote bogus answers on a few of the questions on the front and back and turned it in. They got a 100% for completing the assignment, and my daughter got a “self-select.” The teacher actually approached me as if she was rehabilitating my daughter’s poor performance, when, indeed, I was laughing in my heart of hearts! Had she not seen the 70 days of class when my daughter was over prepared? Had unknown-2she not realized that for this little girl, shaming was the last thing she needed to be encouraged to be responsible and learn the information? Had she not calculated and formulated the ACTUAL message she was sending to my daughter, to me and to the rest of her students? It was going to be a long 110 more days with this teacher. I was embarrassed for this teacher, to say the least.

Finally, one last vignette to show how the sun set on a seventh grade little girl’s dream of a safe, encouraging environment to learn! The first WORDS out of my daughter’s mouth, be they latent or not at 20 months old, were, “Daddy, would you turn up the Mickey songs? I can’t hear them?” This verbal, happy child was given the gift of exploring the English language and literature in a great school. But, with 7th grade hormones and developmental issues, she could not have been more self-conscious. This same teacher would give quick quizzes in class and have students exchange papers to grade them. Then, as if she had not wasted enough of their time, she would have all the students tell her their grade aloud, as she called each name, one by one, so she could record the grade in her grade book. Of course, my daughter’s name happened to be first on the list alphabetically. After the first few times of doing this, my daughter began to feel embarrassed when she did so well in unknown-3comparison to her friends. The students would jeer, “Of course Hope got a 100!  And yet, she heard an embarrassing public gasp when she did NOT score a 100! She literally considered purposely doing poorly on a consistent basis so people would stop listening and reacting so vehemently. I suggested a different tactic. I told her simply to approach the teacher’s desk when her name was called and point to the score silently. I said that if the teacher insisted she say the grade aloud, my daughter should politely refuse and tell the teacher to call ME! I kiddingly told her that what I wanted her to do was to tell the teacher she would announce the grade if the teacher would announce to the class her weight! It seemed to make the experience a bit lighter for a girl who felt pressured by her teacher and her peers. After a few times of my daughter approaching the desk silently, the rest of the class followed suit, lining up to show the teacher their grade. It seems they, too, were uncomfortable announcing their grade publicly. The teacher, however, did not get the hint that perhaps entering grades in a grade book is best done NOT on the students’ learning time (or her “teaching” time). It did solve the public humiliation of an entire class who joined together to boycott such primitive, shaming techniques (and invasion of privacy?).


-Discreet point testing:  There is a place and time for discreet point testing, as long as the assessment fits into the grander scheme of overall objectives such as those involving literacy skills like reading comprehension, literary analysis, higher-order thinking skills, etc. But, “ship” versus “boat!” Please! Students assume to the point of futility that the information about which they are being tested will gel into something meaningful or more sophisticated, more “educated.” It is deflating for students to be told they have minimally mastered information at a literal level and even more devastating when they actually studied (and in many cases self-taught!) the information on an academically higher level and get a “B” because they did not read the teacher’s mind. To say that “boat” is wrong because page 31 says “ship” is like taking that same ship and ripping off the sails. Enough said!

-In-class assessments:  Assessments of any form serve two purposes, both of which have devolved into tools for self-serving teachers. The first purpose of assessment is to provide students with proper feedback about their learning. Having other students “grade” their peers’ work during class time is a way for teachers to “save themselves time.” The amount of thinking and learning that goes into marking a quiz item “right” or “wrong” does not help the grader or the graded. Students do not benefit from the “feedback” of a student-graded assignment. Second, assessments are for teachers to determine if they have, indeed, taught the material effectively to all the students. In-class grading and recording of those grades absolves the teacher of any responsibility to check whether s/he is teaching effectively as well as to help students master the higher-order processing of the information being tested. In addition, it almost guarantees the tests never achieve or encourage the higher-level thinking since creating better lessons and tests is a much messier and time-consuming process and the students themselves are just developing the capacities to think on such levels, ergo the appropriate reason for the teacher’s assessing them in the first place.

-Public shaming:  Come on! Are we in pioneer days in a one-room classroom? Is this Hogwarts with Professor Snape? There are so many research-based, tested ways to discipline with dignity, to teach responsibility without lording a grade over someone’s head and shaming them into a conformity that isn’t even learning. Do students really get motivated to hear publicly that Suzie or Sam Suckup keeps getting A’s in a teacher’s class? Do students learn by peer grading, especially middle grades students? Is it too hard to evaluate every situation individually? For example, what would it have taken for the teacher to say, “Oh, I see you didn’t fill out the back of the worksheet, but you did very well on the front. I’ll give you 6 minutes to do the rest now.” I promise you, it took my daughter TWO minutes to fill out the worksheet in her “detention,” but she had to endure public humiliation with her peers (5 of her friends told me in carpool that she was in trouble and I had to go get her from detention), a threat of parental anger (the teacher continually drove home to my daughter that I would be disappointed), the shaming message that she was “irresponsible,” and much more! She “owed” 45 minutes of “self-select.”

This, alone, transformed my daughter from a language-loving reader/writer to an excuse-driven rebel who hated every other minute in English class.  In order to begin undoing the damage, I stopped her tears at thinking I was disappointed in her for the detention, secretly whispered in her ear I thought it was hilarious, and told her to finish the rest of her homework in detention so we could go get a smoothie when I come back to pick her up!


Call it my style, my personality or call it personal offense, but I find it hard to mention positives in these sorts of stories. My daughter has encouraged me to “tell a few positive stories in this blog so that I can be more upbeat in my writing. (This will come later in this series.) But, for now, here’s my best shot at positives. Please reply if you can think of others. I’m trying, but I can’t escape the teary-eyed image of my daughter completely paralyzed by fear that she had disappointed me.

1) While I have no mercy for this teacher given her small class sizes and small number of classes, I DO understand that “writing intensive” classes sometimes can place undue demand on teachers. This may encourage them to resort to desperate measures such as in-class quiz/assessments and public announcement of private grades.

2) I really do believe that literacy objectives (and higher-order thinking objectives) such as analysis, interpretation, compare/contrast, essay writing, etc. cannot be taught and practiced without content. Therefore, there is a need for discreet point assessment of content before one is asked to do anything with the information.

3) The concept of “self-select” seems to be a “kinder, gentler” form of detention that is more holistic. In concept, it appears to be a tool where a teacher can intervene meaningfully in a student’s path, helping the student in a personal way.

Yes, I’m biting my tongue to stop me from adding a “but……”


  • I wish I had seen more “writing intensive” ANYTHING in this class! My daughter was hungry for that! The supervision of such a teacher seems to be nebulous. How does a teacher practice such NON-best practices and not have it come to the attention of the admin? Simple professional development, mentoring or coaching would help this teacher blossom into an effective, inspiring member of an amazingly synergistic team.
  • Differentiated instruction includes differentiated assessment. Academic freedom means the teacher may determine how s/he teaches and if the students have learned. But, as in every discipline, discreet point mastery does not mean students are communicative, literate or even deep thinkers/processors of that information. It is an issue of proper instructional planning. My daughter could have told the teacher the stories being assessed with an attitude of confidence and humor, including all the information the teacher was assessing and more. But, instead, my daughter got a “B” because she did not remember what was on page 31! Is this fair? No! Is it common? Oh, yes! Too many assumptions accompany classroom instruction dominated by discreet point testing, all of which hold unfair standards to the students that are being assessed in this manner.
  • Who monitors the efficacy of “programs” such as “self-select?” Yes, there was an opportunity to encourage my daughter in a positive direction. The detention afforded the time and opportunity to do so. But, time for shaming is not on the agenda! This teacher did not know my daughter’s heart! Dare I blame her? That is a difficult question. Good teachers teach! GREAT teachers inspire and free the hearts of the ones they touch! This teacher had 70 days to learn my daughter’s heart but had failed to do so. She had 110 days to make up for the fact that SHE missed the boat (pun intended). But she did not change! When I work with teachers, one of the most important traits or skills I attempt to instill in them is the ability to be self-reflective. Can they see when they have messed up? Can they ask for help then they can’t fix it? Will they take a messy risk even though the culture in which they are working does not encourage failure or risk-taking? This teacher, in her attempt to be “safe” and “expedient,” completely squelched the enthusiasm of a beautiful, young writer-to-be.


As I ponder how personal these stories are, I cannot help but wonder what it’s like to experience this type of affront without the knowledge and expertise from the Education world that I have. Would typical parents have reacted with such suppressed rage while attempting to supplement the instruction just enough to keep the subject matter interesting for their child? Would they be in a denying bliss? I barely had the restraint, but I certainly had the expertise to help my daughter internalize the content without becoming completely jaded by the instructional process. Typical parents may show more restraint than I, but they would not be able to equip their child with strategies to “stay in the game” after such oppression. Other parents might operate in an ignorant fog believing that the teacher is actually doing their child “good.” How many students have given up hope that instruction will soon be relevant to them? I grieve when I ask these questions knowing there are resources of research and professional expertise available to teachers, administrators and parents. Do I have a higher standard than other parents for “excellence” in education? Yes! Observe, however, that, even though I did not challenge this “excellence,” it went unnoticed and unaddressed by an admin promoting such “excellence.” Shouldn’t input from parents and students be part of the process of delivering “excellence” in education?