The Student

He called me “Doc”; he was young, beautiful, good-humored, and bright.  He sat in the back of the class room and delighted in challenging me–eyes twinkling, laughing when his challenges were countered, a bit comically nonplussed for a few minutes, then trying again.  He came by the classroom at end of day to borrow my books and return others, to talk about the novels–Steinbeck, Tolstoy, Austen, Bronte–and to try more challenges.  Laughing as they were met again, he would toss a wry comment over his shoulder, and trot off after a promise to return with the books, his ideas after he read them, and another challenge. He was the student who chose to test himself (and me) in serious discussions and hilarious banter that delighted us both and made me a better teacher.

Eventually, I moved on to another teaching position, and he wrote that he felt lost without his teacher to tease and talk with. But moving on is both natural and required as we set our students free to explore and discover on their own.  We hope we gave them a few  tools and helped build their confidence to take on the world.  But years later, as a college senior, he suddenly appeared again, this time in my office.  Laughing, hugging, and asking for more books, he was a revelation: the student who not only remembered but also cherished those years of sharing laughter and books. We talked again for hours, and I felt touched because it is rare that a student who moves on comes back to touch base with the teacher who was there when he was younger, testing himself, and beginning to set out on his own life.

I have not seen that student since–he had a life, family, and career to build.  But as I reflect on my teaching career–now on a retirement path–I think about the thousands I have taught, and the dozens who became friends, hoping I made a small difference in their lives because they gave so much to mine. This bright, laughing young man was the one I had the most responsibility for, who had the most trust in me, and who gave so much more back than he could have known.

It is true that teachers touch the future through their students, but students also touch teachers’ lives and are remembered for years after they have disappeared into their own lives. We remember them as they were: beautiful, smart, funny, challenging–on the thresholds of newly-minted adulthood and so precious. They become metaphors for all we do in the classroom and beyond: the truth about teaching that flows both directions between teacher and student. It is all about the students and the sacred relationships between students and teachers.

Now I approach the end of my career, as this forever young student still twinkles, challenges, and laughs from the back of the class room.  I am grateful for and blessed by this memory and those of other students whom I have also loved, miss, and remember. They are the inspiration and the sound track of my life.


Diane Ravitch Speech to AFT Convention, Detroit, July 28, 2012

My Speech to AFT Convention, Detroit, July 28, 2012.

Celtic Queen Boudicca

My talk on Boudicca at Lone Star

Why Students May Not Give Me Excuses for Late Papers



Dear Buttercup:

If you are late to work and run a stop sign, do you think the cop who spots you will care that you ran it because you were late, and do you think he will listen to your reason for being late?  He might care, and he might even listen, but you will get the ticket.

If you hit an inside-the-park homerun, but you lollygag around the bases, strutting and doffing your cap at all and sundry, so that you are late getting to home plate and the center fielder throws you out at home, do you think the umpire, to say nothing of the fans, to say nothing of your teammates and your manager will be interested in your reasons for being late to home or in your outrage that you are being treated unfairly?  No, they are too busy beating you up.

If you are late turning in a major portfolio to the CEO of the company—an assignment that represents millions of dollars to the company that you were supposed to have worked on for weeks—do you think he will accept your excuse even though you think it’s a really special reason?  Actually, you will be carrying a cardboard box with all your worldly cubicle stuff out the big glass doors.  No corner office for you, Bro.

If you are a nurse and are late giving your patient his medication, and his eyeballs and toes turn straight up as he goes into cardiac arrest, do you think the doctor and the hospital will accept your excuse even though it seems very important to you?  No, you will be out the door and face a lawsuit.  

And, if you’re thinking, well [fill in the blank] is only an hour late, what’s the big deal—see dead patient above.

I have clearly stated the only acceptable excuse is your major illness documented by a physician who says you could not have completed the paper because you were at death’s door.  That’s it.  Not a relative’s illness; not a relative’s death (that excuse always seems to occur right at the research deadline: ask any professor in any college in the country; it’s a fact of life that students will use this excuse—though it is rarely if ever the case); not even a pet’s death; not a friend’s fainting spell requiring your attention lest she die, too.  Nada.  In fact, many professors don’t even allow the wiggle room I do because we all suspect you are lying anyway: we call it the grandmother kill-off season.  Seriously. 

Now, Dude, as you read this, you may think it’s harsh.  But here is what you are up against if you and your pals decide to try the ‘excuse for late work’ ploy:

The student with four kids whose husband is on the front lines in Afghanistan; her life is anguish every second though she has never once asked for any attention, nor has she ever complained.  She got the paper in on time. 

The contractor who is based in Iraq (several contractors have died there)—a completely different time zone in an extremely stressful environment.  He got the paper in on time. 

The single father whose wife died last year, and he’s raising two kids by himself while working two jobs to support them.  Yep, he got the paper in on time. 

The mom whose child is sick and over whom she has had sleepless nights.  Because she had begun the paper and took advantage of the help I offered and paid attention to suggestions, she in fact had the paper ready even before the deadline. So though her little boy was sick—yes, she submitted the paper on time. 

I can give you countless other stories of students who had enormous pressures, worries, difficulties, and even deaths in their families—who knew the paper was due and submitted it on time.

The research paper assignment has been in the works since the first day of class; everyone knows it  Everyone has also had the opportunity to submit focus, thesis, and rough draft several days before the deadline.  Everyone has been encouraged to submit the paper earlier than the deadline. 

So, you see, when a student does neither and then begins to use the following words, “my paper is late because followed by reasons and excuses, when every student knows full well what the only acceptable excuse is and that I have heard yours a thousand times over 30 years, well it’s just not creative—even if you are a former student of mine and you have done all the other work, and you send me a picture to remind me how adorable you are. 

Sorry, but your formerness and your cute pic are irrelevant.  Seriously. Besides, you’re not the only former student, and you certainly are not the only student who has done all the work, and you definitely are not the only student with vexing or even wrenching problems.  

It’s simple really: do the work or drop.

If you think this is mean, and that your excuse for late work is the exception, think back on that wife and mother who does not know if her husband, who is fighting for his country against the TALIBAN for god’s sake, will come home to them.  

Then get your paper in on time.  


Fear of Writing: An Open Letter to My Students

I am always saddened when I read/hear how many students fear or dislike the writing experience because I think you should enjoy writing — even when it’s tough to do, as good writing often is. In fact, most very young children are fascinated by writing: one of their proudest moments is when they learn to write their names, and then other words. But then something happens to cause the fear or dislike of writing, and I believe it begins in early school years, when some teachers may have used writing as punishment.  Examples: “Go to the board and write 100 times, ‘I will not talk in class,'” which was public humiliation often at a very sensitive age in front of critical young peers. “Write me an essay tonight about why you shouldn’t talk in class,” which, though it may have been intended to get the student to think, instantly turned writing into self-flagellation. The child really should have been given something interesting and creative to do in class, so he didn’t disturb others but also wasn’t embarrassed or led to associate writing with punishment. Sometimes that fear or dislike begins when the writing efforts come back covered in red ink with no explanation of the errors or positive commentary or encouragement. The child begins to lose confidence in his ability to write that he had been so excited about earlier. Or the writing assignments are excruciatingly boring because the teacher is too overworked to think of interesting topics: the classic “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” springs to most people’s minds as one of these–unless the child had a scintillating summer vacation. As the child becomes older, her disappointment may become resentment about the entire writing process, expectations, and especially grades. However, some students have always made good grades on their writing, because the teacher likes them or because they use lots of adjectives and ‘big’ words or even because the teacher just gives A’s on the papers rather than teach writing after becoming jaded and exhausted by the whole process of dealing with too many essays without enough time to teach, much less comment on the students’ writing. Then the student enters college and discovers that in fact she has a great deal of work to do on her writing, which is often quite a blow. Of course, there are also teachers in the public and private schools who are doing a good job of teaching writing, and students who truly do write well. But too many students’ experiences with writing, unfortunately, are not so happy.

I will be giving you tips throughout the semester that I hope will aid in developing your individual styles while also training you to be sensitive to your audience. I will always try to be as constructive as possible in my comments; however, I’m also not going to allow areas that need correction to be overlooked since how we write gives a definite impression of us to others, and it’s important to remember that we are working on one of the highest levels of composition: academic writing. For now, here are some objections I’ve heard through the years about having assigned topics, brainstorming requirements, deadlines, and restrictions, as well as fears about writing the paper itself or having the paper returned covered in red ink. These are comments I make in response at the beginning of every semester in every class. This is long, so you may want to print it to read when you have time, but please do keep it and read carefully.


If teachers don’t give topics, some students might never venture into areas they’ve not thought about, but which affect them and their environment. That said, I always try to give options, and the research paper topic is completely your choice with approval from me only in the sense that it can be handled comfortably in the time and scope allotted for getting it done. The brainstorming exercises I’ve been assigning you are necessary, and I’m asking you to trust me on this. I know some of you feel you write better in the full flush of adrenalin the night before a paper is due — or simply off-the-cuff writing, then turning it in — you may think that is more ‘creative,’ and in some cases you may be right. However, do you think Shakespeare wrote Hamlet like that? Do you think Stephen King, whom many of you like, writes his novels like that?  Do you think your favorite song writer does?  How about great screen plays or television writing or an editorial in a newspaper or magazine? Do you think those writers toss off that sparkling dialogue or those interesting sentences in a rush?  Most good writing goes through numerous stages, headaches, and lots of perspiration before it is ever ‘finished’ (actually no writing is ever finished; just ‘due’ — to a teacher, a boss, a publisher, etc.). Some writers, it’s true, brainstorm in their heads rather than on paper or computer, and some good writing can happen in a white heat; but all good writers go through a lot of ideas before they settle on their topic and focus; and all good writers revise (‘re-vision’: to look at again). If you don’t brainstorm, you might never find the topic and supporting ideas for a really great paper that was waiting for your discovery. If you procrastinate and don’t leave enough time left to revise, what could have been a good paper may not appeal to your audience the way you had hoped; worse, it may be so riddled with errors that it is unacceptable because the flaws distract the reader.


If teachers don’t give deadlines, some students might never finish much less turn in an assignment. Practically speaking, if there are no deadlines, the teacher will never be able to read the papers and give the student a course grade. Think about the fact there are deadlines (and rules) in just about every facet of life. Learning to work within the frame of deadlines and requirements is designed to teach focusing, developing, and editing along with discipline. If teachers don’t restrict the length, format, scope, etc., students might not end up with a readable paper for the audience. Deadlines and restrictions exist in almost every facet of life; writing well is no exception.


Opposite of the student who writes in a white heat right before a deadline, some students are so worried about their papers, they can’t seem to ‘let go’ of them. They will worry over a sentence or a paragraph until they feel panicked by the fact it’s not working out, and may actually start making mistakes not there before. The student who is so worried may have written a really fine piece, but can’t seem to believe that. Of course I want students to edit for errors in grammar; polish for style, tone, and content. But also, I want students to remember it’s an academic paper that, if it follows directions and is well organized, developed, and edited, should have a good reader response (and grade). But it’s not ever going to be perfect, as no writing is. Even Shakespeare wrote some bad scenes–truly. So don’t let worry and panic paralyze the effort. Follow the directions, edit, think about your audience, and then turn that paper in when it’s due. When you get it back with comments, learn from the experience and move on to the next assignment.


My teaching career dates back to the early 1970’s (the end of the Vietnam War), before computers, and I always used pencil to comment on students’ papers: one student years ago said pencil ‘softens the blow’, so I never resorted to red ink. However, all of my classes, both Internet and Campus, now submit papers electronically in MSWord, and I use color to differentiate my comments from the students’ text. I type mostly in blue and green in brackets along with yellow highlighting to further catch the students’ attention; never red unless the student is repeating the same grammatical error, and I’m trying to get his attention. But it’s not just the color, is it? Students don’t like to see their papers covered in what they regard as ‘criticism.’ Think about this: if you are learning how to play tennis, do you expect your coach to ignore a poor backhand? If he does, will you be a good tennis player? Would you respect a coach who didn’t correct your backhand — especially if that cost you in a tournament? I realize writing is much more personal to most of you than that: the ‘criticism’ seems hurtful because you’ve poured your heart into that piece of writing, and it wearies your soul to see it come back with the commentary. However, if the teacher ignores grammatical errors; doesn’t suggest corrections for logic, tone, diction, syntax, and punctuation; doesn’t fuss about spelling (especially since just about every technological software and gizmo these days includes spell checkers) — then how will your writing be regarded by others?  Whether we like it or not, we are judged by others when we put a piece of writing in front of them, and they have a right to be upset by and even intolerant of carelessness because we are asking them to spend their time reading what we have to say. 

Actually, you may not believe those teachers who told you they were getting you ready for the ‘real world,’ but they were. Most college professors — in addition to English instructors — will not tolerate unedited student writing; most business professionals abhor poor writing and will not hire candidates without good writing skills or promote others if the problems surface later. In fact, in many ways it is the ‘fear of grading’ inculcated by school boards, administrators, and parents that has caused some teachers to actually back off to such an extent that students have suffered: there has been a marked decline in both reading and writing skills in public schools and colleges across the country for the past 30 years. Why? Fear of hurting the students’ feelings or self-esteem; fear of backlash from the above-mentioned sources; and in some cases, just sheer incompetence on some teachers’ parts. Yet society still demands (and rewards) clear, coherent, edited, sensitive writing. So if you had great teachers who took the time to comment on your papers, did you read those comments, study them, look up the problems, get the teacher’s or a tutor’s help? Learning to write well is the student’s responsibility, too. And writing well is not just about the paper you’ve turned in; it is also about the topic, the tone, the audience, and — yes — the style of what you’ve put down. Writing is communication: if you don’t learn how to do that well, then “what we have here is the failure to communicate” (the line is from the film, Cool Hand Luke), which is what your vigilant teachers have really been trying to tell you. If you never correct the flaws in that backhand I mentioned earlier, you’ll never return that stroke, will you? If you never correct the flaws pointed out in your writing, you won’t be able to reach the audience as well as you should be able to.


Good writers are almost always readers. Most students who were blessed with being born into a family that read to them when they were children and who enjoy books, newspapers, and magazines, develop a love of reading. Most children love to be read to from a very young age. Students who weren’t so blessed with family members reading to them, or who did not enjoy reading themselves, are often the ones who say they don’t have time to read and will give lots of reasons. Reading for pleasure and information hasn’t become a part of their lives, and that is a shame because there is so much to gain from reading. But students who have not had this experience can develop the reading habit. Even reading just 30 minutes a day — magazines, newspapers, novels for pleasure — has a way of helping students pick up language, sentence structure, tone, ideas, organizational ideas that help them develop their own styles. When they are trained  by writing teachers, students often start noticing the styles of other writers, which, again, helps them develop their own. Every teacher will tell you we can almost always tell when an essay is written by a student who reads and has developed an appreciation for language and style; conversely, we can almost always tell when an essay is written by a student who has not made reading a habit in his or her life. So the best advice I can give students who are trying to learn how to write well is to read.


Grading a piece of student writing is also about praising the attributes. A paper that is well organized, developed, thoughtful, and edited is a joy, and the writer deserves accolades. If you submit a wonderful piece of writing to me, I will simply enjoy it with a smile and appreciative comments. But if I see problems that need correcting, I won’t let you distract your audience with them. So please regard my comments on your papers not so much as criticism but as teaching. My goal for you is that your writing at the end of the semester will show marked differences in the maturity and skill of your writing, preparing you not only for other courses and continued improvement, but also for the ‘real world.’

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