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Winter 2010

A to B: Why I Got into Education

Learning to Cheat

AtoB_cheat_illustration.jpgI bought my first science project on the school bus for five bucks when I was in 10th grade. I bought it from an 11th-grader after the school science fair ended. For five bucks I got a bottle of jam, a stick of rock candy, five pages of writing about the importance of pectin, and some diagrams on a poster. I crammed the whole rig into my closet and relished in the work I would not have to do a year later.

The slope was a slippery one and my cheating escalated: tiny scrolls of paper rolled up under the eraser of mechanical pencils, miniscule essays taped to the inside of my blazer's cuff, definitions penned in precise letters on the back of my tie. Bus rides and recess were spent on a black market I had not been privy to as a freshman. Steady streams of exams trickled down from the seniors to the sophomores. The multiple-choice questions hadn't changed in years; our teachers were recycling the tests. All one needed was a list of letters: D, B, E, B, C, A. ...

All this chicanery was propelled by one infuriating exam -- a 50-question, multiple-choice test on Dick Francis's Dead Cert. My 16-year-old angst finally had a machine to rage against -- 50 questions worth two points apiece about the various characters and plot twists in a murder mystery.

"What's the point of it all!" I fumed through my teeth after earning a 46 of 100. I had never done so poorly on an exam in my life. I was furious; English was my favorite class. Why was my time being wasted trying to memorize how a bunch of gambling horse enthusiasts killed a jockey? I wanted to learn about Shakespeare. I wanted to write something majestic.

The resentment consumed my days and nights as I kept a tally of the frustration: 25 logic problems the teacher didn't even collect, 40 definitions marked with a meaningless red check, a B+ on a poster full of facts about Morocco I copied from an encyclopedia. I started determining the worth of all my assignments and exams before picking up my pen. Nearly nothing warranted any effort. I wanted a challenge. At that point, buying science projects, kissing up to upperclassmen for old exams, and smuggling miniscule essays in my necktie was a truer test of my mettle.

I proudly recount my history of cheating with many of the educators I work with now. Most are appalled. "How would you feel if your students cheated in your class?" they ask. If my students are cheating, then I know I am not doing my job. I know I have not engaged, challenged, or presented my students with an assignment that demands legitimate effort and work. I tripped up several times as a young teacher with worksheets that asked for specific answers, or essay assignments with no room for interpretation. My instruction improved with The Tempest when I required groups of students to interpret the play in their own words. The country western, mobster, and Star Trek adaptations of the play left no doubt that each member of class wrestled with the meaning of every line. Groups clashed over Shakespeare's intentions and word choice; they argued for and against each other's interpretations. It was impossible to cheat on the following writing assignment: Explain the strengths and weaknesses of your group's interpretation of the play. How would Shakespeare respond to your interpretation? How do you know? What revisions would you make given the opportunity to perform again?

Day after day our students are being graded on simply completing an assignment that is never scrutinized by their teacher. Too many of our young people are mindlessly filling in blanks and summarizing books for an A+ that offers no real indication of a student's ability. Report cards are based simply on whether or not "work" is "done."

My foray into the academic underworld was more challenging and more rewarding than my schoolwork. Many of our students are lured away from boring classrooms by far more complicated and engaging work: joining gangs, stealing cars, dealing drugs, or earning honest paychecks. Despite the legality or wisdom of some of these decisions, one thing is certain -- they are more difficult and rewarding than anything that happens in the classroom. Our students are much brighter than our assignments give them credit for and unless we teachers step it up in the classroom, we are bound to lose what students we have left.

-- Tim O'Brien is a professional development specialist with Washington, D.C., public schools, where he is working with instructional coaches to help teachers craft rigorous and relevant work for students. Neither his mechanical pencil nor blazer cuff have been able to help him with this responsibility.

Illustration: Jeff Hopkins, Ed.M.'05