Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Students Can Buy Taylor-Made Essays Online

RE-PRINT, Mazenglish, 2012

In the ongoing battle for academic honesty against a rising tide of easy-to-access plagiarism opportunities, the arguments for a considerable amount of in-class writing just keep going up.  As a teacher of AP Language and Composition, I assign mostly in-class writing to prep my students for the exam.  In the course of roughly thirty in-class essays a year, I have a pretty thorough understanding of my students' styles and abilities.  Thus, if they turned in an out-of-class essay that didn't "sound like them," I would be pretty comfortable calling them out for academic dishonesty.  And, that is the issue in a fascinating feature in the Atlantic Monthly.  Richard Gunderman - in his article Write My Essay, Please - exposes a new addition to the essay-writing assistance that many teachers thought they had prevented with the arrival of

Now, students can purchase assignment-specific non-plagiarized essays which can be accessed in a very short time period.  Apparently, quite a few online sources are offering essays written-to-order for very reasonable prices.  And since they are crafted upon request, they are not plagiarized and will not be caught by the standard plagiarism sites.  While Gunderman approaches the situation philosophically, wondering what it says about students and our world that they would simply pay someone to do their work, I am looking at it more practically in terms of how I can continue to guarantee academic integrity.  In essence, the only way to do so is to assign a fair amount of in-class writing.  While some teachers are more hesitant to do so, it is really the only way to verify a student's skills.  Even longer research projects can be handled in class with a practice of a writing journal and incremental grades for drafts.  One of my colleagues assigns out of class research papers, but tracks students' progress via their journals.

Regardless, English teachers need to be aware of these new essay writing services.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Colorado Law Allows Medical Marijuana at School

So, now there's this:

"Colorado School Districts Dealing with New Law Allowing Students to Use Medical Marijuana at School"

Colorado school districts this year are wrestling with a new law that allows students with a valid prescription to get medical marijuana treatments on school property with or without help from a school nurse. “Jack’s Law” offers two alternatives for the state’s 179 school districts. They can write policies limiting where on campus the treatments can take place or what forms of nonsmokable cannabis can be administered. If the district doesn’t create a policy, parents or a designated private caregiver would have no limitations on where they could administer the treatment. “It’s an either/or for the school districts,” said Rep. Jonathan Singer, a Longmont Democrat who was the bill’s sponsor. He wanted to give parents the right to administer cannabis medicine while also allowing school districts a way to police its use. “Ultimately, the school districts can figure it out,” Singer said, “or the state will figure it out for you.”

Monday, August 22, 2016

Time Film Critic Stephanie Zacharek's Voice and Eye

Criticism is a seemingly easy task that belies the hard work and talent that goes into it. Obviously, criticizing a film or book or meal is a natural tendency for all of us. However, to do so with an air of authority that doesn't seem pretentious and to do so with an eye that is as insightful as it is accessible requires quite a bit of sophistication and maturity. That standard is why I am such a fan of well-written criticism, and that's why the recent work of Time Magazine's Stephanie Zacharek has caught my eye. In perusing my most recent issue of Time, I was so impressed with the writing of one article - a review of Jeff Bridges Hell or High Water - that I took specific notice of the writer.

The performances here are uniformly and quietly terrific. Pine is particularly striking–his gait may appear laid-back and cool, but he lets us see the tension in every muscle. And then there’s Bridges’ Marcus, shaggy and worn but not yet played out. Marcus is on the cusp of retirement and unsure, as we are, how his constant stream of muttering and complaining will translate to life in the rocking chair. This is a man who wears his flaws boldly. He’s borderline racist–actually, he probably goes right over the border–in the way he ribs his long-suffering half-Comanche partner, Alberto (Gil Birmingham). But when one of the brother-robbers’ victims, a shy young clerk, apologizes for not knowing the make of their getaway car, Marcus teases helpful information out of her with a kind of craggy tenderness. And when the movie hits a tense turning point–one that’s likely to shake you even if you thought you saw it coming–Marcus responds with a strangled, anguished cry that seems to emerge less from his gut than from the earth itself. For Bridges, the old-coot handbook is old hat. He’d rather write new pages, dashing them off one by one with a grunt, a scowl and a flourish.

As I continued leafing through the magazine, I was struck by another story - a profile of documentary filmmaker and "poet-scientist" Werner Herzog. Once again, I noticed the byline of Stephanie Zacharek. She has the true eye of an artist and the pen of a poet, and her reviews of great works are almost as enjoyable as the works themselves. At the very least, she compels me to investigate the works and the people about which she writes. And that's about the best any critic can do.

Only a poet-scientist would care about how a piece of vintage computer equipment smells, and that’s the kind of detail Herzog, a true wack-bird genius, is so good at teasing out. Always off-camera but still intensely present, Herzog seeks out scientists and technicians who are busy perfecting driverless cars, pondering who will take the blame, humans or machines, when the inevitable accidents occur. He visits a group of people so sensitive to wireless signals that for their health and sanity, they’ve exiled themselves on a patch of land in West Virginia where wireless transmissions are restricted. He drops in on a grief-stricken family who became the victims of a cruel Internet prank, and learns about robots that could be programmed to counter nuclear disasters. Everywhere he goes, Herzog asks questions–smart ones, out-there ones–and the result is part celebration, part cautionary yellow light: Even Kleinrock, near the end of the film, laments that “computers and in some sense the Internet are the worst enemy of deep critical thinking.” And this is one of the guys who set the ball rolling.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

I Met a Trump Supporter and ...

So, I met a Trump supporter on my front porch today. She was a very sweet woman who was "taking a poll" in the neighborhood about voters' positions. She apologized for "being kind of new to this" as she brought up the poll questions on her smartphone and prepared to enter our responses. Of course, this exchange was inevitably going to evole into a back-and-forth as we expounded upon our positions, and I have to admire this woman for her willingness to be philosophically barraged on our front porch as she maintained a positive demeanor and tried to articulate just why she is supporting an incredibly unqualified and "dangerous" candidate for the highest office in the land. 

I guess the scariest part was the naivety, ignorance, and unfounded fear that this seemingly well- educated and reasonably well-off woman displayed. For example, when she asked if I wanted "a change in the direction of the country," and the policies of the current administration, and I said no, she seemed genuinely shocked, as if it were a basic fact that the country is in bad shape. So, I explained: "Look at us: two middle class suburban white people in a community with great homes and rising property values, almost no crime, and one of the top schools in the country. The stock market is booming, gas is $2.00/gal, unemployment is way down, jobs are growing, and my health care premiums are increasing at their slowest rate since 2000. What's wrong with that?" Her blank stare was the only answer she had. 

It was ... somewhat pathetic. And, as we proceded to discuss the "issues" that had her so concerned about the "state of the nation," it became glaringly obvious that she had almost no reasons, facts, or justifications for why she felt as she did. Those details are probably worth discussing in a later post. But, suffice it to say, she wasn't thrilled by my positions, nor swayed by my evidence. And, sadly, I couldn't convince her to consider supporting Gary Johnson. Oh, well. So goes the country.

Develop Voice in Student Writing

RE-PRINT - Mazenglish, 2011

We all want our students' writing to sing. Creating voice where there is little to none, however, is a challenge. As my AP Language students progress in their writing and ability to argue and deconstruct style, I reach a point where top students wonder if they will ever write a 9, and good students wonder how to make a 6 into a 7. The key to higher scores is often sophistication of language. It's diction, syntax, tone, style, voice, mood, attitude, and command of language. Top papers just sound better. And it's the way they command the language that makes the difference.

To that end, I use an assignment writing op-ed commentary as a way to model effective style/voice, and as a way to help them find their own. We analyze numerous pieces of commentary during the year, as they are great pieces for style and opinion/argumentation. In crafting their own, students are challenged with finding some topic on which they have something interesting to say. To begin, we do a few short journal entries entitled "Angry Talk," Happy Talk," and "Interesting Talk." They often share their ideas - and even a few choice sentences - as a way of generating ideas and discussion.

Often, this assignment produces some of the best writing I see from them all year. In fact, it works as well with my College Prep kids, too, despite being reluctant readers and writers. So, op-ed commentary just may be a nice addition to your composition components.

Oh, and by the way, the term "op-ed" does not mean opinion-editorial. It actually stands for "opposite the editorial page."

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Music Friday - not Cookie Friday

RE-PRINT - Mazenglish, 2012

In an era of increasing concerns about health and wellness among young people, I am not a proponent of snacks and treats in the classroom.  At the elementary level, they seem to have cookie and doughnut parties on a weekly basis, followed by thirty birthday celebrations, and a class party for every holiday - or pseudo-holiday.  The worst example in my high school is the preponderance of "celebrations" like Cookie Friday.  Some kids have cookies or snacks in numerous classes, to the point they are practically nauseated by the end of the day.  However, everything doesn't have to be about food.

In my classes, I celebrate Music Friday, playing songs in between passing period.  It began last year [several years ago] when I first heard of the song "Friday" by Rebekah Black.  Friday is a song everyone loves to hate - but it's amazing how infectious it can be.  And it actually created kind of a festive atmosphere.  The next week I branched out with Miley Cyrus' "Party in the USA," and it quickly became a tradition.  Students would pause while passing my class, quizzical looks on their faces.  But soon it was obvious they wanted to be in the class.  And, it's not like I changed any plans or the music interfered with the class.  At the bell, the music goes off and we get down to business.  But it's just enough of release that everyone is a little more energized.

Now, Music Friday is a standard, and many kids tell me that just walking past to hear which song is playing is a favorite part of their day.  It's amazing what a difference can be made with a little music.  Some days I even make it a Music-Video Friday, and I project the video from YouTube on the classroom screen. And it's all calorie-free.

Here are examples of Music Friday faves:

"Friday" - Rebekah Black

"Party in the USA" - Miley Cyrus

"It's the End of the World" - REM

"Dyn-omite" - Taio Cruz

"Barbie Girl" - Aqua

"Empire State of Mind" - Jay-Z

"Dream" - Nelly

"Where The Hell is Matt" - YouTube Video

"Call Me, Maybe" - Carly Rae (US Olympic Team video)

"Walking on Sunshine" - Katrina and the Waves

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

No Extra Credit for Kleenex - Seriously

It's the same rant every year. We're in class in the first week or so, and a kid asks if I "have any tissues?" Hopefully we've started the year with a classroom box, but that depends. I casually recommend to the class that they may want to bring in a box of tissues because "at some point this year, we are all going to be snotty." By "snotty" I mean we will "all have mucus in our nose that we would like to expel onto a disposable tissue." So, knowing that, I try to bring in a couple boxes at the start of the year. And then the inevitable question comes:

"Can we get extra credit?"

Uh, .... NOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!

In my class, you may not "purchase grades." Not at all. Not through direct cash payments and not through the donation of consumer goods. Not a hundred points for a project and not two or five points for a box of tissues. Grades are a reflection of a student's academic record and course work. They represent his abilities in math, science, English, etc. Colleges will expect that the A- on the transcript was earned with high quality work. They don't expect that a B+ student can bump his grade up a level simply because he can buy and donate tissues.

I know, I know. There are plenty of justifications. "It's just a few points. It doesn't really affect their grades. It's an incentive. It's no big deal." But it is a big deal. It is at the very least an equity issue. How about the student who can't afford a box of tissues - much less five or six to donate to all his teachers. Granted, "they're only a couple bucks." But that is the perspective of a clueless middle-class individual who fails to understand that "a couple bucks" is still a big deal - and out of reach for some students.

Stop giving extra credit for tissues. Encourage kids to bring in a box out of the simple expectation that at some point during the year, they "will be snotty."

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

HILARIOUS - Gary Gulman Explains State Abbreviations

Gary Gulman, stand-up comedian, offered a brilliant explanation of the origin of two-letter state abbreviations. The brilliance of this piece is vast with its intricate use of language and its whimsical narrative tone. I don't know how I have avoided hearing about this guy over the last ten years, but I will most definitely be checking out his show the next time he comes through Denver's Comedy works. Give this piece 30 seconds, and I guarantee you will be looking up more Gary Gulman clips on YouTube.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Seinfeldia - "Not that there's anything wrong with that"

It was the "show about nothing" that was really the show about everything. Few shows have defined an era like Jerry Seinfeld's semi-autobiographical sitcom of the 90s. The brilliantly astute comedian Seinfeld and his sardonic writing partner Larry David held up a mirror to a whole host of "first world problems" and middle-class American neuroses, and we laughed at ourselves through the foibles of Jerry, George, Elaine, Kramer, and the madcap list of nutcases they interacted with. Even with all the brilliant television being produced today, we may never see a phenomena like the show that gave us "... yada, yada, yada." But if you're feeling a bit nostalgic for the sort of watercooler discussions that regularly followed a random Thursday night in the 90s, then you've got a treasure trove in a fresh look at some old friends.

Seinfeldia is the bizarro world of Kenny Kramer, who profits off his status as the actual former neighbor of “Seinfeld” co-creator Larry David and the inspiration for that hipster doofus, Cosmo Kramer. Seinfeldia features J. Peterman, whose real-life catalog company went bankrupt after it expanded too quickly on his bet, so full of innocence and mayhem at once, that the faux Peterman on “Seinfeld” would lure new customers. Seinfeldia is the realm of writers who desperately mine their daily lives for sitcom storylines, whether they’re dating a woman with man hands or sharing a real family’s fake holiday with the rest of us. And Seinfeldia is the home of Twitter accounts like @SeinfeldToday — frankly, a little hacky — that imagine plot lines for the show’s continued existence.

Pop culture writer Jennifer Keishan Armstrong, who has covered Seinfeld and other TV culture for Entertainment Weekly, has developed a thesis-worth of commentary on the big themes and historical significance of Seinfeld. Armstrong, a self-professed "pop culture nerd," has plenty of experience and insight regarding TV culture and the world of Seinfeld. Is a "television show about nothing" really so signficant that it deserves scholarly and cultural analysis? Well, that's the question that critics ask themselves continually. You can be the judge after you read Seinfeldia - and even if you decided it's not, you'll probably have a few chuckles reliving the zaniness of these "Masters of their domain."

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Colorado GOP must come clean about Trump support

I love many, many varied aspects of Colorado, from its status as a healthy outdoor-oriented state to its innovative spirit and its leadership in the artisan craft beer and spirit revolution. Colorado's fierce independent and libertarian streak creates for some interesting politics, and that is a positive when it comes to some legislation, but it's certainly a drag when we get to education funding. That said, Colorado is also a hotbed for education innovation, and I am truly impressed with the private sector support of groups committed to excellence and opportunity for all students. And, of course, Colorado has solidified its status as a true Purple State when it comes to the major political parties. As a moderate independent - with the standard mantra of "fiscally conservative, but socially conscious" - I am pleased to live in a place where people comfortably split their ballot between the two parties, and where the Gary Johnson/Bill Weld Libertarian ticket could actually make a big splash. 

However, a line in the sand has been drawn for Colorado Republicans, and it is squarely focused on their connection to Donald Trump. The GOP Presidential nominee is a breaking point for millions of voters nationwide, both Republicans and independents, and they will place judgment on the words and actions of statewide candidates. Basically, it goes like this:  Donald Trump is a crass, unsophisticated, bigoted, misogynistic, egotistical, rash, unpredicatible, ignorant, and inexperienced individual who is historically and uniquely unqualified to serve in the world's most powerful position. Opposing him and his candidacy should not require a second thought. This decision has nothing to do with his opponent, and it should not be made via caveats about party or the Supreme Court or really anything else. As Dave Perrry of the Aurora Sentinel so astutely notes, history will judge Colorado candidates on where they placed allegiance.

The moment of truth, and I do mean truth, for Colorado Republican elected officials is now as they must either unequivocally denounce the catastrophic candidacy of Donald Trump or suffer the inevitable consequences. In the minds of rational, thinking Americans, conservative and liberal, Democrat and Republican and none of the above, Trump is an unparalleled political abomination in the history of the United States. As his critics from the left, center and the right have pointed out, and as anybody in their right mind can plainly see, Trump is uninformed, unintelligent, unprincipled, unpredictable, unrepentant and unable to exert even a modicum of self control over his anger or his ego.
Simply put, we cannot and should not have any respect or support for a candidate who will not disavow Donald Trump and pledge to not support his candidacy. Rep. Mike Coffman and Sen. Cory Gardner and all other candidates must publicly take a position that they do not support or desire Donald Trump to occupy the Oval Office and inherit the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan. If these candidates will not refuse to vote for or endorse Trump, then they are explicity stating that they endorse him and want him to be the President of the United States. It's not about the lesser of two evils. It's not about partisan platforms. It's not about his opponent. It's about whether these leaders feel that Donald Trump should be President.

If they do, they will inherit and deserve all the shame associated with Trump.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Who's Teaching America's Students to Write

As school begins, and I engage in the long, arduous project of teaching students "how to write," I thought it be a good time to re-post this Mazenglish piece from 2012.

Is it possible that nearly half of high school students in this country write less than a paragraph a month in classes?  If true, that would explain the abysmal writing skills - and scores - of American students on tests such as the NAEP, or in college classes whose professors are baffled by their incompetence.  As the Common Core focus on literacy redefines how we teach and measure reading scores, some schools have awoken to the equally significant task of teaching students how to write.  This "writing renaissance" documented in much education news is both refreshing news and a depressing commentary on the state of American classrooms.

Teachers may be focusing on the teaching of writing like few have done before - or in a while - but still a majority of teachers claim their education and training did little to teach them how to teach writing.  And, of course, this skill must be developed across all curricula.  For, if it has left up to the English teacher, as it far too often has been, writing skills will continue to stagnate.  The connection between reading and writing should be obvious, and students need to be regularly challenged to synthesize information they read and offer their analysis in written form.

Building arguments and analyses from their existing knowledge, as well as new texts, is foundational for critical thinking.  And, students need to be writing much more.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Buy Newspapers - a free society depends on them

I've always been a newspaper reader. My mother was a newspaper reporter, feature writer, and editor - and I've always understood the value of print news organizations. For me, the morning paper on the driveway is an integral image of America, and my morning coffee and the newspaper is a ritual. Sadly, far too many people have failed to appreciate the fundamental role that newspapers play in our republic. This week on Last Week Tonight, John Oliver dedicated a twenty-minute segment to the value and importance of print journalism. No one explains it better:

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