I remember one time literally coaching Marvin to finish his exam.
“You’re only on the second essay? There are only seven minutes until the next class comes. Please don’t worry about scratching all that out, just draw one line through it.... I know you were here for this, but if you don’t even attempt the last question that’s five points you can’t earn credit.... please just start your next essay, I’m worried!”
He smiled up at me, pen in hand, then silently shook his head and took his time, carefully selecting each and every word of his succinct essay, unbothered as students from the next class—and their professor—entered our room.
On our after-exam walk toward the student and faculty parking lots, he asked why I tortured him with essays when he knew could ace multiple choice.
“It’s part of college,” I told him. “You have to be able to put your thoughts into writing. And I love, love, love reading essay answers. Sick, huh?”
He laughed. And he earned an A.
I never got to see what he was thinking in those statements he scratched out.
Did he think Einstein was president instead of Eisenhower?
Did he put the Ho Chi Minh Trail on the 38th parallel? Or in Cuba?
Did he confuse Jefferson and Jackson?
I still wonder.
My freshman year at Loyola University in New Orleans, way back during Reagan’s second presidency, I took the prerequisite writing/composition class from a cheerful bearded male professor who graded our essays “thoroughly.”
On the days he returned our essays, that professor would have an index card in his hand with bloopers of grammar, logic and spelling written on it. Upon entering the classroom he would stand with his back to us, silently copying a list of our collective, anonymous mistakes onto the board.
I don’t remember if any of the mistakes were mine, but I do remember the “teachable moments” that came out of the laughter over the mistakes we made.
No finger pointing, no blaming and certainly no teasing.
In that same spirit, I began posting anonymous funny bloopers from my students’ essay exams on Facebook in the fall of 2009.
I know, I know, Facebook is a huge jump from the privacy of a classroom.
This is exactly how it started. While grading exams, I came across a particularly funny incorrect answer.
To the short essay question, “Explain the Atlanta Compromise,” a student had written “How Alaska became a state.”
I put the exam down and laughed at one of the worst guesses ever.
Alaska and Atlanta clearly aren’t even the same place.That wasn’t a “studying” mistake.
It wasn’t evidence that the student wasn’t the chippiest cookie in the cookie package.
It was not a sign of the downfall of public and private education, the result of some crack in the system that I’m trying to fix. It was just a funny “slip of concentration” mistake—I see those a lot in exams, especially from students who are new to writing essay exams.
I turned the exam over to see whose it was—I knew the student, I knew he had been to every single class.
I posted his anonymous, incorrect answer as my Facebook status and let other people giggle:
“Grading exams: ‘Q: Explain the Atlanta Compromise A: How Alaska became a state.’”
Thirty people “liked” it.
The person who made the mistake immediately recognized himself and loved it.
He will never, ever, forget that the Atlanta Compromise was what critics called Booker T. Washington’s famous speech, and years later he still likes to laugh at history with me.
I posted more bloopers—just the funny ones like “WW2 started when France invaded Germany through Poland.”
And “The Neutrality Act just said we would help out everyone in any way we could.”
In an essay on Operation Mongoose a student wrote: “When JFK became president he came up with a plan to kill Sadam Hussein called Operation Mongoose. Shortly after that, he announces he is communist. This was the Cuban missile crisis.”
Looking for slips of the pen and slips of the mind and slips of stories took my favorite thing (grading) to a new level.
Students loved reading bloopers and learning from them in class.
Ex-students loved that they remembered the material. Colleagues, strangers, friends of friends passed the bloopers among themselves and smiled.
I liked that. I really liked making people think about history and laugh, and so I kept posting bloopers week after week, semester after semester.
A former student suggested I take the bloopers and turn them into a tear-off-a-day calendar. That seemed like a lot of work. I told him thank you, maybe later. (Seriously.)
Another friend suggested I create an iPhone app for my bloopers. Again, that seemed like a lot of work. I told him thank you, maybe later. I had a book to write—Marvin’s book—and even though no deadline had been set, I was definitely (in my mind) taking far too long to do what should have been a straightforward task.
I’ve been like Marvin on test day, taking too long, scratching things out, starting and restarting, acting like I’ve got all the time in the world.*******
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