High School 2 College

November 28, 2009

First Rant: What’s the Matter with Kids Today

Usually, I write carefully worded advice for high school and occasionally middle school or college kids on some topic having to do with succeeding in high school or college.  When I work with kids each week, I am usually the model of patience and optimism.

Inside, I am often seething.

Kids can’t write.  Kids can’t read.  Kids have no idea how to construct a sentence and often aren’t quite sure what a complete sentence consists of.  Kids have an alarmingly truncated vocabulary.  (Yeah, like they would even know what “truncated” means.) When I talk to kids, I modify my speech so I don’t appear threatening by using big words.  And these are kids who have grown up with educated parents in a middle-to-upper-middle-class suburb with a highly-regarded school system who are headed for college and professional careers.

I’ve been tutoring high school kids in my town for about 22 years now. I’ve decided it’s not all the kids’ fault.

Sure, they could read more than the two books assigned for summer reading in their spare time. Of course they could read the whole assigned book rather than read Spark Notes for the chapter summaries. But if the teachers are going to gauge student compliance with the reading assignments by giving quizzes which ask the kids to regurgitate those summaries, the students would be foolish not to give up reading and go to the Spark Notes when time is tight.  I’ve asked nearly every student I’ve had over the past five years or so why their teachers are assigning literature to read, and not one of them has been able to articulate a reason.

So my first rant is about English teachers. Not all English teachers, mind you, deserve censure. Some are good (I like to think I’m pretty good).  Some are GREAT (thank you, Mrs. Joyce Garvin of River Dell Regional High School, the best English teacher in the world, as far as I’m concerned).

But I know an English teacher whose assignments so regularly contained grammar errors that my students had a find-the-error competition going on.  I know an English teacher who was surprised to hear me say that most Elizabethans didn’t speak in iambic pentameter.  I know an English teacher who told a student that “between you and I” was correct.

I’ve never heard of an English teacher who said, “Everyone should clear his desk.”  Or “Did each student bring his assignment pad?”  It only sounds odd because you’re not used to hearing it.

Even worse, most of the students I know can’t imagine reading for pleasure because they’ve never been given anything pleasurable to read.  Reading comes with chapter quizzes, outlines, skits, posters, but not with a purpose.  Books like A Tale of Two Cities and The Good Earth were taken out of the curriculum, I suppose because the teachers weren’t able to help the students understand them.  Instead, they were replaced by books written in the first person.  Even good books written in the first person, like Catcher in the Rye or To Kill A Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby don’t have complex vocabulary or sentence structure because they are trying to use colloquial speech to sound natural and realistic.

Where I’m from, English teachers generally don’t assign plays unless they were written by Shakespeare or Arthur Miller.  English teachers don’t assign novels or short stories written by authors from any country other than America or England. English teachers (with one notable exception in a nearby town) don’t assign essays or speeches. And English teachers never, ever assign anything humorous.

I know kids who’ve gone through high school taking Regents English classes who NEVER had a take-home essay to do. Well, I shouldn’t say never.  Perhaps they had one in four years, but they couldn’t remember it.  That’s shameful.  All the essays are in-class so the students can practice for the Regents exam.

My son got to college and had to take a freshman writing class.  After his first assignment, on which he got a less than stellar grade, he called me to say that he couldn’t imagine why his college writing teacher hadn’t asked them to do a poster or a presentation or a skit since he had become so proficient at them in high school.  Why, he even learned how to write in bubble letters and how to use a glitter pen!

So maybe the problem isn’t with kids after all.

I’m sure I’ll have to duck some harsh criticism about this rant, reminding me how television and computers have made it all but impossible for English teachers to teach reading and writing to kids today, but I can’t hold it in any longer.

What can parents and school districts and English teachers do to improve the situation?  Here’s what I’d love to see:

  • Introduce students to works of literature from different periods of time and from different cultures.  How about a Russian short story or a play from the 1920’s?
  • Offer students reading that’s slightly above their comfort level.  That’s how they’ll grow.  A juicy Agatha Christie is fun and challenging for most students.
  • Try humor.  Have you ever read P.G. Wodehouse or James Thurber and kept a straight face?  How about Dave Barry or Ephraim Kishon?
  • Tell students about why the work is considered worthwhile before you read it, not afterward. Maybe then they’ll start the book with a sense of purpose.
  • Read for pleasure.  Have your kids read for pleasure.  No tests, no papers, no essays, no posters, no bubble letters.  Just pleasure.  Have “reading time” in school just like they do in second grade. Let the kids sit on the floor and eat a snack while they read.
  • Don’t be afraid of a little controversy.  Read and discuss TIME or Newsweek’s back page essays with kids.  Read the letters to the editor of those magazines, too, and figure out why the writer is really writing.
  • Ask kids to share their favorite authors with each other.  Some kids do read because they want to, and other kids should see that.

There.  I feel better now.

Do you have something to rant about when it comes to education and kids?

Wendy Segal


November 25, 2009

I Need Help with the SATs: More Questions and Answers

If you search back in the previous posts to this blog, you’ll find the answers to most of your SAT, ACT, and college application questions.

But I’ve been collecting questions that have come up from students and parents since that blog, and I think it’s time to do another HELP question and answer.  Here goes:

Question: I’m a high school junior.  I know my PSAT scores will be available by around Christmas break.  But when should I take the SATs?

Answer: I recommend that most of my students take the March and May SATs in their junior year. Most but not all?  If you have a commitment when the March or May test is scheduled (March 13, 2010 and May 1, 2010), you can take the January test (1/23/2010) or June test (6/5/2010), but the January test is often difficult and is too soon after the PSATs come back for you to use that info to prepare for the next test.  And the June test conflicts with finals and SATIIs.  So for most kids, March and May SATs are just right.

Question: What about SATIIs?  When do I take them?

Answer: SATIIs, or SAT Subject Tests, are one-hour multiple choice tests that are given in a variety of subjects, like math, science, foreign language and history.  The most selective schools require two or more SAT Subject tests.  The fairly selective schools like to see two or more.  The less selective schools don’t much care.  You can take up to three in a day, but DON’T!  Don’t take more than two in a day.  You’ll be wiped out. Most kids take those either in June of junior year (6/5/2010) or October or November of senior year. They’re given the same day as SATs (except no SATIIs are given in March), so you can’t take both SATs and SAT Subject tests on the same day.

Question: I’ve heard about the ACTs.  Do I have to take those, too?

Answer: The ACTs used to be popular only for kids attending school in the mid-west.  Now nearly 100% of my students take the ACTs.  Some kids do substantially better on the ACTs, some do better on the SATs, and some score pretty much the same on both.  The ACTs are shorter and less stressful, and that’s reason enough for some kids to take them. Bonus: If you take the ACTs and score well, you don’t have to take SATIIs — and if you score really well, you don’t even have to take the SATs.  I’d recommend juniors take the ACTs in April (4/10/2010).  They also give the ACTs in June, but why not take them in April?  That way, you’ll have your scores back in time to decide whether you have to take June SATIIs.

Question: I’m not even in my junior year yet, but I want to get started early.  What should I do to prepare for the SATs?

Answer: One thing NOT to do is take the 10th grade PSATs.  What a waste of time and money!  There’s no value in taking that test, and it might do you harm, because if you don’t do well, you won’t be able to take the 11th grade PSATs with confidence.  Another thing NOT to do is take practice tests given by testing organizations.  I’ve found the difficulty of the tests is unreliable. Either the tests are too easy to build your confidence, or they’re too hard so the testing organization can get you to sign up for a course of prep sessions.  Don’t do it. The best thing you can do to prepare early is pay attention in math class, asking for extra help if there are concepts you don’t understand, and read.  Read.  READ.  It’s especially useful to read TIME magazine or Newsweek, especially the letters to the editor (“inbox” in TIME) and the back page essay.  The more you read essays, the better you’ll be at reading essays. Makes sense.  If you think your vocabulary is particularly weak, try SAT Vocabulary for Dummies.  I hate the name of that book, but it’s very useful.

Question: Do I really have to take the SATs more than once?  How many times can I/ should I take them?

Answer: Don’t stop at once, even with score choice, unless you get something spectacular the first time, like above 730 on each section.  This isn’t a good time to be lazy.  And don’t take them more than three times.  After three times, your score isn’t likely to improve so significantly that it would be worth the extra time and effort.  So, take the SATs twice or three times, usually twice in junior year and once in senior year.

Question: Should I send my scores to schools when I sign up for the SATs to take advantage of the four free score reports?

Answer: I used to insist that my students send their scores to different schools each time they took the test, but now that they’ve instituted score choice (you can hide entire seatings of SATs if you want), there’s not enough benefit to sending scores now.  Wait until ALL of your tests are done, which means the fall of senior year for most students, then decide which SATs, which SAT Subject tests, and/or which ACTs to send.  Don’t send anything anywhere until then.

Do you have more questions? Please do ask by posting a comment to this blog.  And feel free to tell your friends and guidance counselors about my blog.  It’s the teacher in me — I just like answering questions!

Wendy Segal

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