An Asian Revelation

So regular school is over and I’m back teaching Asian summer school, otherwise known as Book Club/PSAT. Week 1, I had still been teaching, so I only covered the afternoon class in PSAT prep. Week 2 was the first week we had both classes, and as usual, I started out with a lecture that goes something like this:

“Anyone in here have a GPA below 3.9?”

No hands.

“Yeah. Okay, you’re sick little punks.” They laugh. No, really. “So you just wrote an essay about goals, and you all said you wanted to become better readers and writers, and I know you said that because you think that’s what I wanted to hear, even though I told you otherwise. What you really want, most of you, is an A. And that’s what your parents want, too.”

Laughs again.

“But here’s the thing: I don’t grade you. There is no A to be gotten here.”


“So that’s what you have to consider, boys and girls, Chinese, Korean, Indian, Vietnamese, and my lone Nepalese. What does it mean to do well in a class that doesn’t have grades? How do you actually become a better reader and writer?”


“I’m waiting.”

“Um. A higher PSAT score?”

“Hahahahaha. That’s a good one. Come on. Raise your hand if you personally know someone who hates to write essays, hates to read for fun, and got over 700 on the Reading/Writing PSAT. Oh look, everyone’s got their hand up. Hell, Sonya here is in 8th grade, she took the SAT twice last year for CTY and got, what, 550? 560? on reading and writing? Without prep. (It goes without saying that Sonya’s math score was over 700.) If all you want is higher SAT scores, come back next year for boot camp.”

“But my parents want me to do something other than watch TV this summer.” from Sam.

“You have TV?”

“Well, not cable, but I have a computer and I watch hulu.”

“So really all you want is higher PSAT scores?”

“….No. I really want to do something other than play computer all day, and I get to hang out with friends. Plus….I always am close to getting a B in English.”

“I actually got a B last semester,” this from Wan “and my parents were not happy.”

“Okay. So here’s the thing. You’re still talking metrics, grades, scores. I don’t have those. So if there are no grades, no scores, how do you know if you become a better reader or thinker?”

Carmella raises her hand. “I’ll know how to write essays. Like, when I have to write an essay on social justice and To Kill a Mockingbird I’ll know what to say.”


She starts to backtrack. “No, no, Carmella, that was a great answer. That’s a good goal. I’m asking you how you achieve it. How do you know what to say?”

Karthi: “Improve your grammar?”

“Really? Knowing correct comma placement will help you convince some annoyingly liberal English teacher that you give a crap about the damage done by segregation and white prejudice?”

“Well, at least I would get a higher grammar score on the rubric.”

“Ah, which brings up another point. What does it mean to be a better writer? Do I teach you how to make a perfect cursive Z? Lorna?”

“There’s, like, grammar and stuff, and then there’s knowing what to write.”

“True. So at least two ways of becoming a better writer. First, the actual quality of your written expression: be it grammar, vocabulary, varied sentence structure. Second…..?”

“So like how you say it and….what you say?”

“That works. Okay, so let’s take it as read that you will learn the rules of grammar and punctuation and get a higher score on that section of the rubric.”

“And will learning more vocabulary make me a better writer?”

“Sure, if you internalize the vocabulary knowledge. It’s not something you can do with a test score.”

Saba: “Yeah, but if I do better on tests I’ll have more vocabulary.”

“You will? Huh. Let’s put that aside for a minute. How do you know what to write?”

Alan: “That’s what I was going to ask! How does a better vocabulary help me know how to analyze literature?”

“It doesn’t. What do you need in order to analyze literature.”

“I need to know how to analyze, what to analyze.”

“And now we come to my favorite mantra. You are saying, Alan, that you are happy to learn how to write, but you don’t know what to write.”

“Yes!” the whole class is nodding.

“Which leads me to some terrible news. Writing is thinking.”


“See, when you say you don’t know what to write, you are actually saying…..”

“I don’t know what to think.”



“Indeed. How many of you google other essays and, please god, don’t copy them directly but take the ideas and rewrite them?” A few hands go up. “Yeah. DON’T DO THAT.”

“But I have no idea what to write.”

“Okay. So when you say you want to become a better writer, you are actually expressing the need to…”

“Become a better thinker?”

“Now, I realize I’m talking to a crew who doesn’t want an opinion per se, they just want to know what their teacher wants them to say.” Far too many nods. “But this particular teacher wants you to say what is on your mind.”

“But what if there’s nothing there?”

“Welcome to adolescence, puppy. But seriously, a big part of this class will involve you thinking. And if you don’t know what to think, then I’d rather you write articulately and carefully about why you don’t know what to think, instead of making something up.”

“And that will help my vocabulary?”

“Indirectly. But what also helps your vocabulary is thinking about words. Form opinions about words. Connections to words. Remember stories I tell you about words, phrases. Like, for example, what did I say about the word ‘dint’?”

“By dint of.”

“Which means…”

“Um, by that way of doing it, or something? So you’d say ‘by dint of working my butt off, I finished the essay on time.'”

“Okay. So memorizing vocabulary will not help you. But if you think about words, if you do the homework assignments I give you thoughtfully and google usage and spend time on the process, you will slowly form memories around the words and, over time, improve your vocabulary.”

“But that’s really slow.”

“Yeah, it is. One last thing: learning vocabulary for reading is entirely different from learning vocabulary for writing. In reading, approximations do just fine. Aggregate, monolithic, bevy all have something to do with groups. Castigate, chastise, berate, reprove, admonish all have something to do with criticize. In reading, that’s all you need to know in order to dramatically increase your comprehension of the material. But using vocabulary in writing is a whole different story. So when I assign ten sentences using vocabulary words, and you write ‘I collected a monolithic of shells’, I will not be happy. I want well-written sentences, sentences that imply the meaning of the vocabulary word chosen, and I want precision in definition.”

And they nod, and I know they didn’t understand a word I said, really, but I feel better for saying it.

So yesterday, I gave them a vocabulary quiz, which I only do to make the parents and school happy. I gave them notice, so they all studied hard. They were surreptitiously studying during class, which is insane, and it was all for nothing.

Because here was the test:

All of these phrases describe moods. Your vocabulary list contained words that accurately characterize these moods.

  1. Shocked disbelief
  2. Alert watchfulness
  3. Uncaring, uninvolved
  4. Blissful happiness
  5. Dismayed disbelief
  6. Argumentative, easily angered
  7. Cranky, whiny
  8. Sensible, wise
  9. Passionate, enthusiastic
  10. Caring, concerned

The kids get out their lists. “No lists.”

“So where’s the word bank to choose from?”

“Not giving you one.”

“It’s not multiple choice?”


“But I…”

“What do you think I meant by THERE IS NO GRADE? This isn’t a frigging test to get an A on and then forget. You all told me you wanted a stronger vocabulary. Well, then. This test is designed to make you THINK about vocabulary, what words you learned, what words might qualify for these definitions. Write down all the words you remember studying, and their definitions, and, just to reiterate, THINK ABOUT THE WORDS and what they mean. In fact, if you know a word not on the list that describes one of those moods, that’ll do just fine.”

I can’t say they did a great job, but the kids were quite pleased that they got any at all right, and bragged about it after class.

“I figured out five!”

“Man, I only got four, but I didn’t link solicitous to concerned. I should have.”

“I can’t believe it. I studied for like three hours, but I thought it’d be multiple choice! I only got 2!”

I love these kids. I really do. But realize that, speaking broadly about a large group, Asians’ grades and test scores do not reflect their actual abilities. Still, I’m doing my best to change that, fifteen kids at a time.

About educationrealist

37 responses to “An Asian Revelation

  • Lmcquaid

    Awesome post. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the current rhetoric about modern children being more “visually literate”. Personally I see it as a way of distracting from falling verbal comprehension.

  • Blog Raju

    Good! I know a few Indians who did very well in school and still don’t know anything about the world.

  • Roger Sweeny

    My experience with the other Big Three American ethnic groupings is that “their grades and test scores do not reflect their actual understanding,” either.

    • educationrealist

      Test scores usually do. Grades, no.

      • Roger Sweeny

        I interpreted “test scores” as scores on in-class tests that try to assess knowledge of the class material. Do you actually mean tests like the SAT and ACT?

      • educationrealist

        Yeah, “grades” means how they do in school, including school tests. “Test scores” means nationally normed tests. I’m saying that Asians that get high SAT scores do not, in my experience, have the same abilities as whites/blacks/Hispanics with the same test scores.

      • Roger Sweeny

        Do you have a theory for why that is so?

      • educationrealist

        No. I can tell you that my observations show that the kids are entirely focused on passing the test, not in learning the material. But the degree to which Asians can do this–that is, do well on the test, not understand the material—is surprising, to me. While I know white kids who focus on tests, they tend to remember the material. The exception is math, of course, where anyone can memorize the formulas and algorithms long enough to pass the test. But history? English? Vocabulary?

      • Roger Sweeny

        One of the great unanswered questions in education is exactly what students actually learn, what they understand and/or take with them after the course is over.

        I suppose I shouldn’t call that an unanswered question because it’s hardly ever asked. We just assume (or pretend?) that a passing mark on a test sometime during the term indicates learning.

        There are even cool ed people who say, “Why should we hold it against a kid if he doesn’t know it on day 1 or day 51 or day 101 or day 151 as long as he knows it on day 180?” I agree that we shouldn’t. But the same people almost always measure “knowing it on day 180″ by a test or project grade on that day. There is no educational reason to privilege day 180 if the student doesn’t know it on day 181–or day 281.

        There may, of course, be lots of practical reasons to do so.

  • Mark Roulo

    What was the test question?

    • educationrealist

      Can’t tell if you’re joking. The kids had around 50 vocabulary words that they’d been looking up on their own time, as homework. (As I said, I do this to make the school happy). I chose thirteen of those words (only 10 reproduced here) and gave reasonable definitions. They had to identify the words. If they could come up with another word that had that meaning, fine.

      • Mark Roulo

        I’m not joking.

        So “shocked disbelief” would map to one of the vocabulary words, but they had to write out that vocabulary word free response?

      • educationrealist

        Right. And I wasn’t expecting them to be perfect at it–in fact, I was pleased that some of them got 6 or 7 right.

        What I wanted them to understand is that improving vocabulary means seeing “shocked disbelief” and running through your memories of words to find one that applies.

      • Mark Roulo


  • Hattie

    This makes sense. In my secondary school, once they deigned to stream the English classes, we’d typically have vast swathes of white faces in the upper tiers, along with a handful of upper class black Africans and maybe, sometimes, a single Asian or – more likely – Eurasian. (It was a pretty international school.)

    How are they performing relative to their ability? I can’t imagine the stereotypical Asian grind culture would do much for verbal intelligence, but culture and genetics seem almost impossible to separate.

    • educationrealist

      I know a number of kids who got 5s on AP US history despite relatively weak writing skills and history knowledge they forgot the day after the test.

      They are less likely to take AP English, and those who do take it do, on average, have strong writing skills. Again, in my experience.

      • JH73

        Anecdote here. I’m Asian and scored 5’s on all my AP with the exception of language classes (German/English) which is typical as you suggested for people of such ancestry. Nonetheless, I am appreciative of the classes and not just because all the hot girls seemed to take those APs. I went to a high school that was more liberal than most, at a time when I was evangelical. I was assigned to write an essay on religion and was assigned to read Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis and Wise Blood by Flannery O’Conner. My response to reading these books was probably similar to what must of been the outrage when the books first came out. The ensuing essay that I wrote must of been a completely convoluted defense of religion. I completely missed O’Conner’s message about salvation as I was too incensed with its grotesque imagery. It wasn’t till a couple years later that I realized this and began to appreciate the book and author more. So in retrospect, I’m not surprised I did so poorly on those tests.

      • educationrealist

        Did you ever read A Good Man is Hard to Find?

      • InfinityBall

        All the hot girls took AP German? That sounds like some weird alternate universe.

      • JH73

        Yes, I have! Though really only the namesake story stands out to me at the moment.
        Not German, but English APs, though I did go to a high achieving high school (though very few Asians). The English AP classes seemed to have a very skewed female/male ratio.

      • infinityBall

        Was not expecting this thread to be bumped today

  • Scharlach

    Inadvertently, you’ll turn them all into a bunch of sniveling, whining, anti-racist, anti-white little progressives who wouldn’t think twice about disconnecting your blog from the interwebs.

  • Powerlurker (@Powerlurker)

    My experience of the SATs back in the days of analogies is that the people who did the best were people who read extensively outside of class from an early age. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help the students who show up in (P)SAT prep in high school with 10 years of personal development to catch up on.

  • Robert Evans

    Reading this and some of your earlier posts (specifically, “The Myth of “they weren’t taught…”), I wonder what you think of the pedagogical experiments of Louis Paul Benezet?

  • Jokah Macpherson

    Incredulity vigilance detached rapture dumbfoundedness cantankerous bitchy sagacious zealous compassionate.

    This is extremely interesting about the Asians. I went to the “old money” public high school in my hometown and most of the Asians were at the “new money” public high school or in private schools so I largely missed out on this. I think too many students oif all varieities have the grades-are-everything mindset, though.

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  • surfer

    1. The vocab exercise is great. Similar to how the hardest thing in a foreign language is to go from English to a free translation into the other language. Much harder than decoding the language to English. Also that you are emphasizing shades of meaning.

    2. For me, the biggest learning that I got on writing came in 11th grade from an English teacher (in non honors!) who was a journalist. He emphasized that a paper was just a structured argument (maybe a structured exposition). And that the most important thing was what evidence you had for your theme. In other words WHAT you had to say rather than how fancy you said it.

    Now he wanted us to have clean writing as well. But a bunch of vocabulary or fluffy fruity English flourishes was not the point. Would not compensate for a lack of examples to prove the point.

    After that, it is a matter of clear organization into subthemes.

    He also gave me a great recommendation to have a short quote in every para and then one to four other examples (e.g. described events, items in the story). The quote is actually the most powerful proof of a point.

    I went with that advice on into 12th grade AP English and crushed it–5. And this coming out of non honors track and competing with the honors kids.

    The journalist also had some very practical comments on how to write an intro para with a hook. How to have a bit of a flourish at the conclusion of an essay to slightly open to broader implications. Also not to misspell the book or the author!

    But the main thing was the structured evidence. You can work on the style points too, no worries. But the main thing is the substance. Miss that and you are dead.

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