Thursday, December 11, 2008

Intelligence - what does it mean to you?

This is a super long post. Be prepared.

I recently gave my English composition students their final.

Here's how the final works for first year writing at the community college I teach at: The final is worth 5% of a students grade. All the students in all the classes are given the same prompt, and they have thirty to forty-five minutes to write a good essay. The essays are then graded by a different teacher than the one that teaches the class. The reasoning behind the switch is that that this will allow the students to be graded fairly.

In my opinion, this is an unfortunate system. First because perhaps the most important thing a student can learn in his or her composition class is that good writing entails planning and rewriting. Giving them such a short period to write a good essay doesn't allow them adequate time to do either and basically undermines the whole class. Plus, having a final worth only 5% of the grade is problematic as well. It's important because it's the final...but it's not important because it's only 5%....weird.

The second reason I don't like the system is the grading switch off. I will be the first to admit that it is easy to be biased when grading. It is hard to give a bad grade to a nice student who tries really hard (also, one time I had to grade a paper three times because I really couldn't stand the student and I kept taking it out on his paper). However, exchanging finals that are only worth 5% doesn't change that! All it does is, once again, send mixed messages. We should either exchange all our papers or none.

I could talk more about this, but since I have not arrived at what I want to talk about yet, I will move ahead.

To help my students prepare for their final I took a prompt that was used a few years ago and had them do a practice final. Here was the prompt:

Write an essay that defines what the word “intelligence” means to you.

Okay, so, not the greatest prompt. I think the powers that be selected this prompt because they wanted something open-ended that would elicit a lot of different responses.

Unfortunately it didn't work. About 80% of the essays were exactly the same. They even used the same two buzz phrases. Take a second to think to yourself what you would write about if you were a freshman comp student (Nathan you are a freshman comp student so you should tell me if you would have written something like this). When you are done thinking, scroll down.

Here is the typical thesis I received: "I personally believe that there are two intelligences; there are street smarts and book smarts."

Seriously, those two phrases "book smarts" and "street smarts" were in almost every essay.(And yes, there were also a lot of semicolons. I give many lectures on the semicolon. All my students use them like crazy. In my class, the semicolon is the new period.)

It is not uncommon for a group of students to be given a writing prompt that could be interpreted many different ways and still end up writing very similar papers. I give my students warm up prompts almost every class period and while there are always outliers there is usually a subject or train of thought that comes up over and over again. For example, once a prompt was "remember something burning" and the theme was fire crackers. Another time it was "write about someone leaving" and most wrote about a childhood friend who moved away. Sometimes these group-writes are predictable (my students are mostly eighteen year old boys---no surprise they wrote about fireworks) but sometimes they come out of left field. I remember sitting on the couch holding all these sad stories of fourth grade best friends who moved to Minnesota or Omaha and being totally baffled. I would have thought they would write about break ups or divorce. Who are these students?

But back to intelligence. I was still surprised by these essays. I would never have guessed they would be so similar--and part of that I think is due to the lameness of the prompt itself. Still, it's still weird. (Note: despite my slamming of the final, I actually have a lot of respect for the English Department here. There are a lot of weird governmental politics that attack this department and the administrators spend a lot of time keeping funding and freedom for the instructors.)

Some of the students continued their essays suggesting that true intelligence must include both street smarts and book smarts, but a greater portion of them stated something that I found alarming.

According to maybe half my class, you can either have book smarts or street smarts. Street smarts are better. Book smarts make teachers like you and get you good grades. However, book smart people (and this is out of my students’ essays) can’t take care of themselves. They get lost easily and are terrible drivers. I had one student go on for about three paragraphs about how book smart people are careless and dangerous on the road. The student said book smart people even know they are bad drivers (maybe they learned that from the books?) but they drive anyway. Book smart people have no social skills and rarely get married. No one likes people with book smarts and they are totally useless outside of school.

Street smart people don’t do so great in school, but they are good with their hands. They are funny, reliable, hardworking and good. My students usually slipped a line in their paper about how they are street smart guys and not book smart guys.



The craziest thing to me is that they look down on book smart people even though they are the ones in college. They ARE book smart people! I didn’t really know how to address it in class so I gave them a little speech on how maybe these things don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but I felt like they were thinking “Sure, of course that is what the book smart teacher would say. I bet her wedding ring is fake. Who says 'mutually exclusive' anyway?”

(Fair point. It was probably not the best situation to use the phrase 'mutually exclusive.')

Before you jump to conclusions about my students, it is true that they go to a community college. However, the work that these students turn is remarkably similar in quality to my BYU students' work. In fact, my community college students are much more likely to turn in their essays on time, and to have fully developed rough drafts. They are better at rewriting. They are less likely to skip class. These are smart kids. The big difference is that most of them are the first in their families to go to college. Perhaps that's the explanation right there.

Still, it threw me. In the end, I just found a way to work a whole episode of West Wing into a class period in the hopes that they will become addicted to it and that it will convert them to believing that it is okay to be academically brilliant, it may even be something they should be proud of.

Personal notes:

Becky - This post is dedicated to you in the hope that one day you will try to excel academically. Try going to the library sometime, sheesh.

Bridget - Did you ever watch West Wing? If not, you should. You would be addicted too.

Katie Q-Tip - That particular West Wing clip was for you.


Mrs. Haynie said...

1 - They are from rural areas, and if they are the first in their families to go to college, they are in a demographic that is more likely to be suspicious of academic learning. (But it's funny that they say "street smart" - they don't live in LA - why don't they say "farm smart"?)

2 - This is why they are in college - to be exposed to new ideas - which you, and the elderly lame-o English writing prompt are addressing. Thank you.
(Have you read Teaching Adolescent Writers by Kelly Gallagher? Our high school English department just finished reading it as a book study, and we liked it a lot. He has some really good timed-write prompts in the back. I'll email them to you.)

Lisa Lou said...

haha! Farm start. that would be funny.
Also, I guess the new rule is: I won't get married unless I'm more street smart. I think I will start working on that.

Bridget said...

I've never seen The West Wing. But I will take your recommendation to heart and see if I can track down some episodes somewhere.

Nathan said...

I have street smarts. I think that if you gave me $5 and a hunting knife, I could survive on the streets of D.C. for a week.

Sarah Louise said...

What episode of the West Wing?? Man, that's my favorite show of all time. All time. ALL TIME.

Also, you didn't dedicate this post to me. Or any post, really. It's okay, though, because I've got street smarts, so I'll be fine. We street smart kids, we don't get slighted. But we do get married?

Wait, I have something real to say. I just read a little line in a book called Taking Sex Differences Seriously--yeah, I'm really reading it--that said that educated people (or intelligent people? I can't remember) have more diverse and less fixed notions of gender than other people. I don't know why this is relevant. But it felt relevant. For a second. A very, very fleeting second.

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