This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Students Gaming the Classroom

Game the systemRecently, I have been feeling the frustration that bubbles up every once in a while when I find students trying to subvert their own education through trickery.  Sure, teachers will always battle the homework copiers, cheat sheet creators, plagiarizers, and last minute project workers, but the students that really get to me are the ones who spend so much time finding ways to trick the system when they could spend the same amount of time studying and legitimately learn! I try really, really hard to inspire students to care about their own education over and above a pursuit of the almighty grade.  Sometimes I fail miserably.  Here are a couple of struggles I’ve faced lately and what I am trying to do about them.  I’d love to hear how you handle students when they try to game your systems.

1. The  serial, strategic absentee: I’ve had a few of these over the years.  They are almost always absent on the day of a test or when a paper is due.  They ask their friends about the questions and prepare accordingly; they take the extra weekend to write their papers. They always come back to class with an excused re-admit so I can never be 100% sure.  This has bothered me so much that I have actually spent countless hours creating alternative, but equitable assessments.  I’m ashamed that I’ve let this get under my skin and take time away from  creating meaningful content for all of my students, but I hope that it has taught a valuable lesson to the few.  I have also enacted a strict rule about emailing me papers on the due date regardless of the reason for absence.  The policy is posted on my syllabus and on every essay prompt I hand out.

2. The tech-saavy: I usually have students put their phones in a basket or in the front of the class during major assessments, but I recently caught a student cheating with a pebble watch that receives texts and other phone notifications.  He had somehow prescheduled to text his notes to himself that would show up on his watch during an in-class essay.  Technology moves so fast  that it is almost impossible to head off tech-savvy cheating at the pass, but we can always strive to be vigilant and work toward assessment that embraces technology instead of shunning it.

3. The advantage taker: My students use quizlet to study for weekly SAT/ACT vocabulary word quizzes (here is the post about how it works).  I give a couple extra credit points each week for the student who has the best score in space race and scatter.  I also use the data that quizlet collects on flashcard study time and practice test results when I conference with parents.  More importantly, I have seen an improvement in vocabulary scores for students who use quizlet regularly.  With all of the great results, you can understand why I was saddened to learn that a couple of students have found ways to cheat the games to get a high score for the extra credit without actually studying.  All I could manage to say to the students when I caught them was, “this is why we can’t have nice things.”  I’m not sure where I go from here with this one since I want to encourage use of the service still.

How do you deal with tricky students?  What do you face head on and what do you let go?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below!


How to Structure a Simple Classroom Debate

DebateOne of my teacher resolutions this year is to help students grapple with complexity.  I want them to read both fiction and informational texts with an eye to layers of meaning and multiple perspectives.  Discussion is one tool to accomplish this goal and I’ve told you how much I love Socratic Seminar and Literature Circles, but today I want to talk about using debate in the classroom.  DISCLAIMER: I am not trained in the classical form of debate, which has very particular goals, rules, and regulations. While I respect my colleagues who lead debate teams, I find that many English teachers I know do not know the traditional debate rules and many English students I know do not have the same kind of enthusiasm for every class period that many debate team members have for every debate.  So instead of adhering to the structure, I am just going to offer some advice for preparing a simple classroom debate.

1. Create a clear rubric. RubiStar has some really good and flexible debate rubrics.  Here are some categories to consider adding:

  • Clarity of information
  • Credibility of Sources
  • Rebuttal
  • Rhetorical Strategies
  • Presentation Style (eye contact, tone of voice, etc.)
  • Balance of Team Participation
  • Respect for other team

2. Pick Teams and Roles. Depending on how big the class is, you may need to split up into 2 debates.  I try to keep my teams to a 12 person maximum so that everyone on the team can reasonably participate within a class period.  It is also nice to assign a team captain or two who can help organize information and balance participation. You may also consider splitting a team into a main argument team and a rebuttal team, each with a captain.  This helps structure things without too much teacher intervention.

3. Allow time for research. If you rush the preparation, the debate can easily fizzle with simple heated opinions not supported in evidence. As English teachers, we need to focus on teaching the art of succinct and credible evidence to back up claims.  This is a perfect opportunity.  I usually require students to turn in debate prep so that I can see what they came up with even if they do not get to use it all in the debate.  I encourage them to use and cite a variety of credible sources.

4. Structure the time. In order to encourage participation, have some kind of a structure that students know in advance.  The structure can easily be adjusted to fit your schedule and needs, it is just there as an outline. Here is what I do:

  • Affirmative Constructive Argument: 12 minutes
  • Negative Constructive Argument: 12 minutes
  • Affirmative Rebuttal: 6 minutes
  • Negative Rebuttal: 6 minutes
  • Final Thoughts and cross talk: up to 6 minutes
  • Teacher feedback and wrap up: 5 minutes

5. Set up discussion norms.  Depending on the topic, debates can get heated and personal.  In order to help maintain a calm and professional debate, set up and enforce ground rules like:

  • Speak so that everyone can hear you clearly
  • Listen closely to all participants.
  • Use visual cues to jump into the conversation when appropriate. Don’t raise your hands.
  • Base all opinions on the text and refer to it frequently.
  • Address all comments to the group. Don’t look only at the teacher and refrain from side conversations.
  • Be respectful to each other. Use conversation techniques like:
    • “I agree with what you said and I would like to add…”
    • “I understand your perspective, but on the other hand…”
    • “I think it is also important to note…”
  • Try not to interrupt each other. If two people start talking at the same time, make eye contact and one person defer to the other.
  • Monitor your own participation. Be sure to speak up, but also avoid monopolizing the conversation.
  • Be passionate in your own critical thinking, but don’t be afraid to change your mind if your peers present compelling arguments.
  • Ask for clarification if and when you need it.


Do your students debate?  What questions or tips do you have for our teacher community?

Teacher Resolutions 2015

ResolutionsHappy New Year!  I am sitting here on my last day of winter break submitting lesson plans, inspecting my new rosters, and looking ahead to another spring semester in the 11th grade.  In many ways, I have come to a happy place in my classroom career.  I have a pretty firm grasp on my curriculum, good relationships with my colleagues (after giving up drama for last year’s resolution) and I genuinely enjoy many of my students, which is good since we are really packing them in these days!  That being said, we all know that both classrooms and teaching careers are dynamic animals and so I still have many resolutions I’d like to make this year.  Below are a few of my teacher new year’s resolutions.  I’d love to hear your goals in the comment section below!

In 2015, I resolve to:

1. Focus more on individuals. I’ve noticed over the last two years that I don’t know my students as individuals as well as I used to.  I think this is in part due to the fact that I have been concentrating so heavily on honing my curriculum and in part due to the fact that I have had a couple of major life stressors recently. Whatever the reason, I would like to concentrate this semester on being more attentive to individual situations, personalities, passions, and patterns.  Knowing students on an individual level goes so far toward assessing academic and behavioral needs.

2. Clean out my cabinets.  I’ll admit it.  I am a classroom hoarder.  I have spent a decade keeping every scrap of construction paper, bottle of old glue, stack of ancient magazines, and everything else that I MAY use one day.  While many of these things are useful, it is time to take inventory and begin to use up, give away, or throw away my stores.

3. Remember to say please and thank you. In teaching my 3 year old to say please and thank you, he has often pointed out my deficiency in using these magic words myself.  As at home, I find myself in the classroom asking a student to turn out the lights, close the door, pass back papers, a do other jobs without always remembering my pleases and my thank yous. It is time to be a better model of politeness.

4. Embrace complexity at all levels. I preach to my advanced classes about pushing past the rote and the formulaic responses in their discussions and writing prompts, but I often allow other classes to cling to the scaffold for far too long.  Rhetoric, writing, and American lit are complicated beasts, it is time to make sure that I give all students more opportunity to wrestle with the complexity.

What about you?  Do you have any resolutions for this year?  We’d love to hear them!

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