OK, let's talk about honesty again here for a minute.
To solve the problem of the low exam scores, I've been giving the students mounds of extra credit. This creates problems for me, in that I'm already drowning in papers to grade (so much so that I'm starting to get in trouble with the administration for not turning in final grades), but partially solves the problem of student motivation. And student motivation is so difficult to come by that I've opted to suck it up and do it this way, instead of simply curving the grades, despite the slowness (and sometimes apparent futility) of it.
But even this doesn't motivate the students all that well. Basically, to get the extra credit, all they have to do is turn in SOME paper with SOMETHING written on it that makes it look like they may have made some sort of minimal effort to actually do the work. And yet, some students are STILL finding ways to miserably fail. Some of them just aren't coming to school or turning in any kind of work whatsoever, and some are cheating in blatant and insulting ways (to be honest, the cheating is so rampant that I've stopped looking for it; I only address it if it's so obvious that it can't be ignored).
The worst was the one student who turned in a carbon copy of his friend's homework assignment, without even bothering to white out the name – he simply penned his own name over the top of his friend's (with the friend's name still clearly visible underneath). As if that wasn't obvious enough, he turned it in right on top of the paper that he had carbon copied, so that I came across the two identical papers right in a row as I was grading.
Obviously, I want all of my students to pass, but I'm not going to lie – failing that kid was a pleasure. I really hope he learned a lesson from the experience. I'm not optimistic that it taught him anything about the folly of cheating, but I do hope that at least he learned this: if you're going to cheat, at least do it in a way that isn't incredibly insulting to the teacher's intelligence.
But as frustrating as it is to be faced with evidence of the students' continued attempts to lie and cheat their way out of any kind of actual work, how can I really blame them for it? People keep reminding me that these kids are facing enormous difficulties; many of them have excellent reasons for their frequent absences. The average student here has to work about a thousand times harder than I ever had to work in school. Most of them – no exaggeration – are teen parents. Some are without their own parents. Many of them bring cookies or donuts or other small things to school to sell during the day, trying to make extra money for the family as they complete their studies. So how can I hound them about their schoolwork when I haven't the slightest appreciation for what they are going through?
On the other hand, just because they have to work much harder than I did doesn't mean that they can just not do the work. There are enormous obstacles facing these students, true – but the fact remains that if they don't make any effort in school, they are not going to be able to move forward in the world. It's my job to try to help them to learn as much as they can, and that requires that I push them to work hard and don't cut them slack when they cheat and cut corners.
Unfortunately, there is no good way to distinguish between those who have good excuses for not doing their work and those who do not. “I was sick that day!!” the students always tell me when I point out that their grade is low because they did not complete a homework assignment, or a classwork assignment, or a quiz. And it's possible that they were. As I said, many of them have no parent at home to write them an excuse. The chances of getting an excuse from a doctor are even slimmer – the hospital here is so ridiculously overcrowded that only people at death's door are likely to be able to see a doctor. And even if there were someone to write an excuse, the administration is so disorganized and the school is so overpopulated that there is no good way to keep track of the excused vs. unexcused absences (though in theory we are supposed to try).
Anyway. As I (finally) begin to compile the final grades, and listen to (endless) student complaints about them, I'm realizing a few things that I think will help me next marking period. One is that I need to give more homework assignments. Even if the students cheat and copy off of one another (which they will), and even if it takes me forever to grade and feels like a waste of time (which it will), it's better than nothing. I gave too few assignments this marking period, which meant that students who happened to miss the one or two days of class in which they had graded work were punished more harshly than was really fair. More assignments will give me a more accurate idea of who is consistently coming to class (even if the only thing they do is show up). I should also try doing more groupwork, especially in the smaller classes. I'm not sure how this will work in terms of the whole classroom management thing, which continues to be a disaster, but at least it will lighten some of the burden of grading.
Of course, as always, I have plenty of great ideas for how to do my job better, but they are all easier said than done. In the end I still end up feeling like I'm scrambling just to do the absolute minimum.