Thursday, December 12, 2013

True Confessions

Today's topic over at the Atlantic is cheating. Why students cheat, and how teachers can prevent it according to a new book Cheating Lessons, by James Lang. You can access the article here.

A couple of hours after the article at the Atlantic went live, the following email landed in my inbox. I was overwhelmed by this student's honesty and asked him if I could reprint his letter here as long as I remove any identifying details. And yes, I did my due diligence. He is who he says he is, and he did the things and was given the honors he claims in the letter. So here goes; I'm curious what other educators think about his confessions and his thought process.

Ms. Lahey,

My name is [name withheld] and I am a freshman at [name withheld], and I read your article in the Atlantic, "A Classroom Where No One Cheats." This article caught my attention because too rarely do I see liberated educators brave enough to internalize the malady of academic dishonesty as a product of their classroom, rather than a social pathogen threatening them. I'm majoring in sociology and communications with a minor in education, and I've been involved in student advocacy and education policy since my sophomore year of high school, but that's not why I've decided to contact you. 

I'm contacting you because I cheated all throughout high school. Not only that, but I graduated as a valedictorian, National AP Scholar, Editor-in-Chief of the school newspaper, and I was accepted into the honors program at [name withheld]. To most educators, my true story is a disgrace to the system; I'm the one who got away. Now, I was talented enough in my cheating to be mostly hailed as one of the smartest and most ambitious students in my graduating class. But the one time I was caught cast a chilling shadow over my school, a shadow that briefly illuminated the overwhelming extent of cheating in my school, a shadow that no educator was then willing to confront. I have thought about that episode literally every day since it happened, and from those thoughts I have come to terms with my philosophy on cheating and how that fits into my greater perspective on education. 

It boils down to this: we are told that cheating is wrong because we are attempting to earn a grade that we do not deserve. A grade earned by cheating is not a grade reflective of our true achievement. But my contention uses identical reasoning. I cheated because the grade I would have otherwise been given was not reflective of my true learning. I never cheated in a subject that I did not learn on my own terms. That is supported by my performance in AP testing. I took 9 AP tests in high school, scoring 5s on all of them except the one I self-studied for, on which I earned a 4. Never did I cheat on any of those tests, because I felt that they were fair representations of my learning. But in AP Biology, I cheated on literally every in-class test. The curriculum and test techniques of my absolutely atrocious AP Biology class were not fair representations of my knowledge. I felt cheated of the education I deserved, and thus to earn the grade I knew I deserved, I had to cheat the system. This is only one example. I also cheated throughout physics, introduction to statistics, Spanish, chemistry, and so on. But never did I cheat a subject that I did not learn on my own terms. 

While most of my fellow cheaters, with whom I often colluded, may not have philosophized their cheating as deeply as I have, they intuitively followed the same reasoning. They knew that the classes they were attending were largely not adequately teaching them. And most of them went on to attend prestigious universities, majoring in the very fields they shamelessly cheated through in high school. 

This message is largely for my own good, to finally externalize these thoughts for another human being. But if you would like to investigate further this idea of principled cheating, as I call it, I would love to assist you with your journalism.

Thank you for reading. 

Update: After I posted this, James Lang, author of Cheating Lessons, posted something about the student's letter on his own blog, which you can read here. The comments are piling up on my Facebook page, and I will tuck those down at the bottom of this post.

The debate over on my Facebook page:

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Farm Aid

While I (im)patiently wait for my concussion to heal (yep, we are on week seven now), I've relied on audiobooks and podcasts to keep me sane. As my time looking at screens and the mucking about with the printed word is still restricted to a couple of hours a day, my mind needs alternative fodder to keep it fertile. In order to soothe my heart and soul, I have been listening to some old favorites (On Writing by Stephen King and Dry by Augusten Burroughs), and some new friends. I've found just the balm for my broken brain in the farming podcasts of Andy and Kelli, farmers at Chicken Thistle Farm in Walworth, NY.

I had to blow off much of my usual gardening and food storage this year in favor of work on the book, but thanks to Andy and Kelli's podcast, fantasies of next year's crops and projects are alive and well. I have even pulled the pork fat out of the freezer and will build an outdoor fire later on today to render my leaf lard. So thank you, Andi and Kelli, for sharing your farm and stories with me and for lending this frustrated writer some sanity as I head into the deep midwinter. As you have sent me your healing farm aid on the interwebs, I wanted to send some chicken aid right back to you.

Finn's friend Eli and a sick Buff Orpington (no, chickens don't usually let you hold them like that).

Chicken Aid

The hatchet is not, in fact, an easy tool to use on a chicken. Their necks are very short, and I wasn’t sure how I’d keep a struggling chicken still on the chopping block. I set her down on the stump, raised the hatchet, then stood back up. I put her in place again, raised the hatchet…then lowered it again. I’ve had this same feeling when I’ve stood at the base of a tree, chainsaw in hand, realizing that a job was more impressive than my skill level.

I stood there, with a hen in one hand and a hatchet in the other, looking around the backyard, as if a solution might appear out of the sky. If I held the hatchet with my right hand, I held her head with my left, my hand and her neck would be in dangerous proximity. I’d sharpened the hatchet to a gleaming edge, and while I am pretty good at splitting kindling, I tend to take my hand out of range at the last second, even on the largest logs. But if I take my hand off of a  chicken at the last second, she would move, and I could injure rather than kill her. I really wanted to make this as quick as possible.

The chickens had made it through a long cold spell - Alberta Clipper - that kept nighttime temperatures at around twenty degrees below zero. I’d added extra bedding and installed a heat lamp in the coop, and they spent their days huddled under the red glow. Even with the addition of warm mash breakfasts, egg production had dipped with the mercury.

After a couple of weeks of this cold, one of the Buff Orpington hens began to act strangely. She’d been nesting with her head tucked pitifully in the corner of the coop, looking more like a feathered football than a chicken. I talked to her and nudged her with my foot to make sure she was alive, but she’d barely lifted her head in response.

Tim was in the mudroom roasting coffee when I came in from the morning chicken chores.

“I think we have a chicken down,” I told him. “Tomorrow morning, I bet she’s stretched out with those horrible dead chicken eyes. I hate touching dead chickens in the morning.”

Besides, nothing throws the ladies off their routine like a dead colleague splayed out in rigor mortis beside the laying box.

The sun came out the next day, and I prepared the chicken run so they could get out of the coop and enjoy the fresh air. After the last big storm, I had cleared a large run in the snow and, because chickens hate the feel of snow under their feet, I spread a layer of straw on the ground. I shoveled the new snow off the straw, spread some compost and cracked corn on the ground, and called out the food alarm.

“Heeeeeeeeere chick-chick-chick-chick! Heeeeeeeeeeere chick-chick-chick!”

When the chickens did not come running at the sound of my voice, I went into the coop to shoo them outside physically. I plucked the hens off the roost and placed them down on the ground one by one. As soon as the lethargic Buff Orpington touched the ground, the other chickens –led by Dewey – rushed her, squawking and pecking wildly. She dove out the door and took refuge in the outdoor nesting box as the other chickens did their best let her know she was a chickana non grata.

They stood around her as she cowered and protected her face. They looked like an elementary school bully-huddle. Their sounds and posturing made it clear that she had been excommunicated. Permanently.

They wandered back into the coop once they were confident she would not try to return home. She remained, motionless, in the outdoor nesting box for over an hour, and even when I pulled her out, she ducked back inside as soon as my hands left her sides. I left her out there with a small bowl of the choice bits from the kitchen scrap bucket and went back inside to talk to Tim.
“I have to kill a chicken today. You wanna help?”

He looked at my face in order to assess how much I needed his help. He returned to reading his book without a word. I guess not.

I picked up the phone. But how do I call Chantal, who I have not called in three months, without making it obvious that the purpose of my call was not social, but poultry? I would have called her eventually to check in on her girls and the farm, but my real agenda would be painfully obvious when I started asking chicken questions. She knows me too well. Trusting in her pragmatic nature, I dialed her number anyway.

“Hey Chantal, it’s Jess. Yeah – how are you? Good, good. And Mackenzie? Oh….hockey, yeah. So cute…yeah…hey, while I have you on the phone, I have a question. If you had a lethargic chicken, with diarrhea sticking to her butt, looking all raggedy and limp, and the rest of the chickens were pecking at her, what would you do? Would you kill her to protect the rest of the flock from whatever it is she’s got, or would you wait and see?”

See what I did there? Subtle.

True to form, Chantal was understanding of my indelicate approach. She gets it. One illness can wipe out the whole flock if a sick bird is not quarantined.

“If it were me, I’d give her a shot of electrolytes and see how she does for a day. Maybe the cold just has her off-balance.”

A shot of electrolytes.

While Chantal went on to talk about viruses, diarrhea, eggs, and some other stuff I did not hear, I was contemplating how to acquire a chicken-sized hypodermic needle. Where do you even give chickens a shot? If it were Finn, I’d do it in the thigh, but…

“Oh, a fox? Really? Did you shoot it?” I dipped back into the conversation.

Maybe Tim could pick up a spare needle at his clinic…or maybe Tom, the vet down the road could….

“Ummmm…so yeah. I’ll just give her that shot – hey, question - if I don’t have the stuff to give a shot, can I just put some Gatorade-type drink in her water?” I asked, casually.

There was silence on Chantal’s end of the line.

“That’s what I meant. What did you think I meant?”


I dug around in the pantry until I found a cellophane-wrapped package of various electrolyte powders. I found three envelopes – a pre-race mix, a workout mix, and a post-race mix.

They all claim to contain distinct blends of electrolytes, protein, carbohydrates and other magical high-tech ingredients. The lemon-lime pre-race blend claims to intensify the workout, enhance performance, and delay the onset of muscle fatigue. The workout blend has all sorts of -ose words – glucose, fructose, mentos - that promise muscular endurance and energy. Finally, the post-race blend claims to speed muscle recovery and replenish glycogen stores.

But how to choose? I want to sustain her energy levels, but what if she needs protein and glycogen replenishment? I don’t know if she has muscle aches, but all that fleeing from her coop mates must have her feeling fatigued. In the end, I went for the post-race mix, in case she needs the antioxidants, carbohydrates, and protein. It was more of a crap-shoot than any sort of educated decision. I dissolved the tang-orange contents into her water and took it into the coop. She was perched on the roost next to the other chickens, something I chose to interpret as a good sign.

The next day, the sick hen was still up on the roost with her flock mates, in the coveted spot under the heat lamp. Maybe the electrolytes were just what she needed to feel like her old self again. I was rather proud of myself, truth be told. As I stood there gazing at my feathered wards in a haze of self-congratulation, she let loose with a dribble of diarrhea and I noticed when it pooled under the roost that it had blood in it. I put on some latex gloves from the first aid kit, plucked her off of her roost and put her down near the water so at least she’d have a chance to drink the tangy, healing elixir. I had to give it a shot, anyway.

The second I let go of her, the other chickens set upon her and pecked her until she ran out the open door and into the outdoor laying box in an exact re-enactment of the previous day’s events. I looked at her cowering form with my most objective eye, and I had to admit that she looked pretty bad – her feathers had lost their luster and were rumpled, all cattywompus and hectic, tufted up and stuck to each other. Her movements were weak, and her eyes were dull.

I sighed and went back into the garage to retrieve the hatchet from its nail on the wall. I put the hatchet in my pocket, tucked the hen under my arm, and walked out toward the wood-splitting stump. I cleared the snow off of the stump with my free hand so the hen could lie on her side without having to put her head in the snow. I placed her down on the stump in order to get my hatchet out of my pocket. She sat, very still, and utterly silent. Chickens tend to keep up a stream, of little clucks and sighs, but I had not heard her make a sound in days.

I lay her down on her side, stretched out her neck, and held my hand over her head.

No matter how many times I composed myself and committed to the act, something felt wrong. I’d prepare, lay her on her side, raise the hatchet, then stand up again. Straighten her body out, put my hand over her head, raise the hatchet…and stand up. But then, after two attempts, I looked down at her. She looked halfway dead as it was, still lying on her side where I’d placed her, one eye staring up at the sky. I took a breath, put my hand back over her head, and took a mighty whack with the hatchet. I severed the spinal cord on the first blow, but I hacked away twice more, just to make sure she was no longer suffering.

Normal, healthy chickens flap freakishly and messily after decapitation, spraying blood and feathers everywhere. This chicken barely twitched. I just don’t think there was much fight left in her, and as I stood there waiting for the death twitches to cease, I was sure I’d done the right thing.

It’s unwise – nay, insane – to eat meat from an animal that’s been ill, so I threw her limp body deep into the woods. It sank into the fluffy, deep snow. Days later, there were dozens of little footsteps in the snow around the crater her body had created as it had cooled.

Back in the coop, the five remaining ladies have resumed laying, and I have been planning for future generations of my flock. It’s been precisely one year since this flock arrived via the U.S. Postal Service, and as much as I love my heritage breed hens, I won’t be ordering chicks by mail this year. I like the looks and health of Dewey and my five remaining hens, so I will be hatching some of our fertile eggs to see what emerges. Dewey is half Spangled Sussex, and I think he will mix nicely with my Buff Orpington, Silver-Laced Wyandottes, and Black Australorps.

Twenty-one days from now, I hope to watch the future of the flock hatch from our own eggs. Last year, the chickens came first, but this year, it all begins with the eggs.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Speak Softly, and Carry a Big Baculum

As I write these words, I am watching Emily Graslie dissect a wolf penis. While she had me at "penis bone," I was truly titillated when she dropped this pearl: the scientific name for a penis bone is baculum. Whoa. In Latin, baculum means "stick" or "staff," and it's the origin of the word "bachelor." Today, a bachelor is an unmarried man with a smelly apartment, but before the word traveled on over to English, an Old French bacheler was a squire, or a young man in training to become a knight. Until that young bacheler earned sufficient skills and medieval chivalric cred to warrant a real sword, he had to practice with a wooden training staff, or - yes, you guessed it - a baculum.

Isn't that just lovely? I mean come on. Anatomy, history, and etymology, all in one glorious melange.

I'll get back to the amazing Emily Graslie in a minute, but first, some background on why her lovely visage and linguistic know-how graces my blog this evening.

This has been one amazing, bizarre, kick-ass, dreamy year. For those of you new to my little ol' corner of the blogosphere, here's a quick recap: in the past twelve months, I was the subject of a New York Times piece, published my own New York Times piece, placed my first piece at the Atlantic, watched that article go viral, scored my agent, who then crafted my book deal with HarperCollins for The Gift of Failure. While I was teaching middle school full-time. And parenting two boys.

All of that amazing stuff happened so fast, I hardly had time to appreciate each new milestone along the way. Each one of those items was a big-deal, bucket-list, life-capper item, so my head has only recently stopped spinning.

Well, it didn't as much stop spinning as I traded the metaphorical, euphoric spinning for the much less enjoyable literal, nausea-inducing spinning of post-concussion syndrome.

Concussions stink. Seriously. Wear a helmet when doing dangerous things that take place more than a foot off the ground.

Because my brain needed a rest from activities involving the printed word or any kind of screen, I had a lot of time to think about all things I want to accomplish in the coming year, once my work on the book is done. The one thing I really wanted to learn how to do this year was podcasting, but that goal got lost in the many other to-do items that dominated my time.

I have been dying to do an audio or video podcast. I've even planned episodes in my head. I have guests, I have topics, and I know how and where I want to do the recording.

At a recent speaking engagement at The McDonogh School, someone even asked during the Q&A session if I make my talks available on the web or in the form of a podcast.

If only. So I'm back to my speculative scheming.

I have role models in mind, accomplished teachers whose style, smarts, and wit I hope to capture when I launch my own show. One of the very best of the lot is Emily Graslie. Her YouTube show, The Brain Scoop, embodies just about everything I admire in a webcast, and I hope to emulate just a small bit of what she accomplishes in her little corner of the educational world.

That said, there's one aspect of this whole YouTube channel/podcasting enterprise that gives me pause. As I've mentioned in the past, commenters are a bane and a boon, and I'm constantly wrestling with their weight and significance in my work as a writer and teacher. While I've been incredibly fortunate in that the comments I receive are generally intelligent and productive, the odd negative and insensitive feedback still leaves me a little untethered. So naturally, opening myself up to more of that kind of weirdness gives me pause.

But then I watched Emily Graslie respond to her commenters with grace and charm in the episode of The Brain Scoop embedded below. In this episode, she addresses the internet bullies who feel free to comment on her clothes, body, glasses, geek-cred, and facial features as if that has any bearing on the fact that she delivers some of the best STEM content on the web.

So heck, if Emily can carry on teaching with panache as she rises above the freaky-ass contents of her inbox, so can I.

Thank you, Emily, for your content and your class. Fear not, your ladies are out here, watching and listening.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Gym Class

This piece appeared in the Valley News a few years ago, on the first day of school. It remains one of my favorites, because even though Finn's love for Ellie has faded over the years, the memory of this moment embodies everything I love about our tiny community.

Gym Class

We attended a wonderful set of performances at the Elementary School last night. Benjamin stood on stage, dutifully singing holiday songs in the pink-cheeked, deadpan, third-grade style. Meanwhile, down on the gymnasium floor, Finnegan was manically twirling with tongue lolling and arms akimbo, all in pursuit of a glance, a smile, a flicker of interest, from his beloved gold-haired Ellie.

I’d like to say I enjoyed both performances equally (wouldn’t a good mother say as much?) but poor Benjamin’s holiday songs were all but ignored by the audience members within twenty feet of Finnegan’s preschool mating ritual. There were elaborate pauses, dramatic exhalations, jazz hands, and then, mercifully, Ellie giggled, and Finn was invited to sit with her on her mother’s lap to watch the remainder of the concert.

Nothing, not even the memorable rendition of “Wipe Out” as interpreted by the middle school band’s percussion section, could beat that moment.

Concerts, dances and the annual mud season town meetings all take place in this gymnasium. Finn will play dodge ball, dance his first slow dance, argue and vote in this room. However, my favorite event to grace this room, the moment I most look forward to each year, is the first day assembly.

Students, tanned and shining from a summer spent outdoors, race about in front of the school sporting new shoes and backpacks while their parents clutch coffee, visibly relieved by the arrival of new the school year. At exactly 8:10, our Principal ceremoniously rings the school’s bronze bell. Then, beginning with the kindergarten, each class processes into the school individually. Save for a couple of teary five-year-olds, it’s a moment full of happiness and pride.

The procession moves to the gym, where the Principal introduces the teachers, offers up words of inspiration to the students, and orchestrates the moment we have all been waiting for. Eighth graders line up at the front of the gym alongside the kindergarteners, still sniffling and clutching stuffed animals. The oldest students, who just moments ago seemed so little, so young and vulnerable, now appear as giants when matched up with the kindergarteners.

Then, solemnly and sincerely, each eighth grader pledges to mentor and guide the kindergartners as they make their way through their first school year. This exchange has taken place for so many years that the parents of the oldest children can remember when their giants were the sniffling babies. What’s most striking is the seriousness with which this pledge is undertaken by the teenagers. It’s tempting to think of this moment as playacting, a sentimental drama cooked up by the school for the benefit of the parents, but it’s not. It’s a real moment. The big kids really do look out for the little ones, and it shapes the day-to-day workings of the school.

As I watch Finnegan dance, tripping over his own feet in an attempt to find some vestige of a rhythm in the third grader's off-key rendition of “Any Dream Will Do,” I am grateful that this place, these people, will be witness to his soft landings.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Day in the Life

Reading through The Education of a Flatlander has been so much fun, because it's a chronicle of raising my children, and it's as vivid as any photo album. As my boys move through their gangly and reticent teen years, and I'm left without any cuddly, pudgy babies, I've particularly loved reading these reminders of what our days used to look like. Much of it is about chickens and gardening and root cellars, but this one has just the sparkle I needed on this gray day.

Have a great holiday, everyone. 

A Day in the Life

With all due respect to the Beatles, my day hardly ever starts with a comb across my head, but I do have to worry about getting my fifth grader Benjamin out to the bus in seconds flat.

The low winter light has Ben convinced I’m waking him in the middle of the night just for chuckles. As I pull clothes out of his dresser and kick a path through the debris on the floor of his bedroom, I stress that I have no ulterior motive, no reason to lie, especially when his reluctant awakenings are so often paired with a foul mood. He insists on seeking out a second opinion on the hour at the Official U.S. Time web site. We then go through our daily ritual. He stomps back upstairs after I inform him that the clothing he’s worn for two days straight will not do for a third, and I admit that yes, I am the meanest mother in the world for forcing him to wear clean clothes.

“Ben, nine minutes until you have to be outside.”

Nothing. Six-year-old Finnegan helpfully offers that he does not think Ben heard me and that maybe I should speak “more louder.”

More louder it is.


Two minutes later, peanut butter sandwich in hand, Ben wiggles into his snowsuit, balaclava, hat, gloves, and boots, while I toss lunch into his backpack. As the bus rolls down the hill, I push him out the mudroom door with a “Have a good day! I love you! RUN!”

The neighbor waves the bus down for Ben and he makes it with a second to spare.

Turning back toward the kitchen and my waiting coffee, Finnegan runs in from the playroom holding two empty vials of glitter.

“Mommy! Come see this! You won’t BELIEVE it!”

He proudly leads me out of the kitchen by the hand. The playroom looks like Studio 54 on a Sunday morning. The whole room sparkles under a finely distributed layer of gold, silver and green glitter. The television, with its crackling static charge, appears swathed in gold lamé. The dogs twinkle like disco balls as they roam about in the bright sunlight.

I open my mouth to complain, but Finnegan proclaims, “Our house is so sparkly and pretty!”

And I have to admit, it is sort of pretty.

Time for a field trip.

Finn and I drive up to Robie Farms in Piermont for milk, cream, cheese, eggs, cider and Betty Sue Robie’s fresh cinnamon donuts. On the way home, we stop by Veracka’s Auto Repair for a new windshield wiper, and hit the Lyme Country Store for tonight’s pizza supplies. A local farmer who is working to create Lyme’s first organic dairy is at the store, so I get to hang out and talk farming for a while. Last stop, Recordridge Farm for some venison loin and steaks, paid for with cash tucked under the scale next to the cooler.

The glitter has not been cleaned up by the housecleaning fairies by the time we return, so I spend about an hour sucking up as much of it as I can with the vacuum cleaner.

Upon returning home, Ben looks around and asked,

“Why is it so sparkly in here?”

When I told him what Finn had done that morning, he says he thinks we should keep the playroom that way, that he likes it.

“It’s pretty,” Ben proclaimed.

From my perspective, it’s all upside – the remaining glitter can be deemed deliberate decorating strategy rather than a byproduct of negligent housekeeping.

I still have not written a word all day, so I allow the kids to watch a DVD while I get some Mommy time. As usual, Ben slams the playroom doors before selecting a movie. He is militant about this playroom door issue. They must be closed if a movie is in progress because he likes total silence. If I open them, even for an instant, he hits pause with the remote. This is the same kid who can read a book while simultaneously listening to a completely different audio book.

The dogs head out to romp in the snow with the new puppy next door, and I warm up the coffee I forgot to drink an hour before. The paper sits on the counter, but I have to return it to the Clarks paper box according to our finely tuned subscription-sharing arrangement. So, sadly, I never did read the news today. Oh boy.