11/5/10

Classroom Notes - 'Teach: Tony Danza' - Season 1: Episode 6, "To Cheat or Not To Cheat""

     Cheating -- or as one might more accurately call the matter, academic integrity -- is a major issue in almost all schools in the United States.  Since the 1960s, the percentage of students in high school who admit to cheating has risen, to the point where some 75 percent or more of students will admit to cheating in some manner on one school assignment or another.  I've been teaching for 20 years, and nothing I've seen in public or private schools would contradict these long term trends.
     I do think it's useful to distinguish among many different kinds of cheating.  Some students copy homework, but, in some cases, I don't blame them if there's too much "busy work" given out by unimaginative or inefficient teachers.  Some students sneak answers from a neighbor during a quiz or test, but, again, teachers should be mindful about monitoring classroom spaces and making up multiple versions of assessments. Smart phones can be a problem, but those are easily collected on test days. Some students will acquire teacher's editions of textbooks, will steal tests and quizzes off desks and from drawers, and will hack into computers to steal data as well; that's outright theft, but actually quite rare.  Still others will plagiarize research and writing from the internet and attempt to pass it off as their own -- this, for me, is the biggest tactical problem, so to speak.  There are simply too many ways to get around actual reading and writing when quick summaries of classic texts are a search engine away and essays on any subject can be cut-and-pasted in seconds.
     The root of the problem, however, is that students do not see the true value of doing their own work.  Many of them are, in a phrase, alienated from their own learning.  Doing well in school, essentially, is no longer about acquiring skills and knowledge -- it's about getting good grades.  And when it comes to grades as the only end that matters, those grades must be gotten by any means necessary.  Making matters worse -- especially in the more competitive school environments -- are the growing ranks of status-obsessed, narcissistic parents with boundary issues and conditional-love in relation to their own children.  Two books I would highly recommend that address these matters are Doing School by Denise Clark Pope and The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine.  In short, students and their families become so cynical about the value of learning for its own sake that they are willing to sacrifice academic integrity.
     In big public schools, a similar sense of cynicism fuels the cheating ethos.  So the thinking goes: "I'm not learning any skills and knowledge of real value in the real world, so I'm just going to get through this however I can."  Schools don't often do a good job of demonstrating the practical value of advanced algebra, of reading novels, or of writing essays to young people -- it's about cognitive development and skills, everyone -- so why should students care.  Schools don't usually make it easy for teachers to have the resources or freedom to prevent cheating in the classroom, so why should teachers care.  If the grades are good, why should the parents really care.  The growing number of cases of systematic cheating in connection to the Standardized Testing Boondoggle of the past decade demonstrates that some school officials are just as cynical about academic integrity as the rest of us.  All that matters is results, character and ethics be damned.
     Episode 6 opens with the surprisingly common complexities of friends, boyfriends, and girlfriends -- the social lives of young people, which are painful and raw and all those more dramatic in the claustrophobic rooms and hallways of high school. Mr. Danza's good heart serves him in talking with students on these matters, as most of the time, young people just need someone to listen to them and suggest nothing more than how to open up some more effective lines of communication.
     The two students in Danza's class who are suspected of cheating by texting answers between phones is a case of sloppiness on the teacher's part.  Most teachers would take the route of making up another assessment, and afterward Danza says it himself, "Times have changed."  Absolutely.  And one simply has to be smarter about all the new channels of communication among students.  When Danza's mentor says that in the real world, with no cameras, there is no proof of cheating -- students' phones are private property - Danza  says that he's going to get the cheaters to admit what they did.  Although they deny cheating to Mr. Danza, the fact that they agree to give a presentation to the rest of the class about academic integrity says enough about what really happened, and its a matter of moments before the two boys talk about what they actually did -- CHEATERS! -- in the hallway.  Danza handled it well.
     On the other hand, at the bottom of the hour, in one of those occasionally tough "let's settle down" moments with his class, Danza, tired and frustrated, just gives up and walks into the hallway.  He leaves the room.  Oh dear.  Been there, didn't necessarily do that. "I can't fight this battle any more," and it's off for a little cry in the hallway. Between you and me, I do my crying at home.  Not that I cry.  Cause I don't.  But, in the end, it's Danza's good heart and his efforts to connect with the students that saves him -- as some of his kids rally around him and get him a card expressing their gratitude and thanks.
     A fun coda to this episode came in the task Danza had as a chaperone for the Homecoming Dance
     "You hungry?  Want a sandwich?"
     I LOL'ed.  





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1 comment:

mmorgenstern said...

Hmmm....I don't think Danza handled the cheating situation well at all. That was the point of the story; he was duped not once (via texting answers) but twice as he let the offenders off the hook. This is what I love about the show; all the mistakes new teachers make are right there in front of you. He is trying so hard to be everything to every student, that he seems to be failing at his primary task of getting the students to learn. I know this would be too dull for reality TV, but I would love to see Danza teach a class from start to finish.