Tag Archives: reading

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.