Accuracy vs. Interpretation and Matters of Respect

I’m tough when it comes to lit papers. This is something I’m very open about on the very first day of my advanced English 10 class. After talking with my students about what their plans are for next year and beyond and 9/10ths of the time discovering that said plans include AP English and then college, I talk about the very high expectations I set for their work, especially the papers they’ll write. An A, find out, will truly feel like an earned A.

That being said, I am not insane, either. I may set the bar high but I know that my students don’t have a lot of experience writing literary analysis and may not have a lot of experience with persuasive writing, so we start small and build up. And while this is prompt-based writing, I always allow for creative interpretation as well as discussion of works that are outside the ones assigned in class. I even like tangents, as long as you don’t go so far off topic that you can’t find your way back. But as much as things are open to interpretation, I expect a fair amount of accuracy as well.

This year, I assigned a paper about Elie Wiesel’s Night. One of the questions to choose from read as follows:

One of the major focuses of Wiesel’s story is not just the Nazi atrocities but the strength of his beliefs as a Jew. Based on what you read in Night, how does Wiesel define the concept of faith and how does his relationship with faith change throughout his ordeal? What criticisms does he offer about faith and those who hold onto it in order to see them through crises? How is this book a meditation on the nature of faith as much as it is about The Holocaust?

 

One of my students handed in a paper that attempted to tackle this question and wound up being about how Wiesel’s faith was what got him through the ordeal, and that he held onto it and at the end had the hope that faith provides after he had lost everything else. Now, if you haven’t read Night since high school or haven’t read it at all, I’ll tell you here that it’s quite the opposite. Wiesel does start the book as an extremely devout Jew but as he goes further and further into the nightmare that is The Holocaust, he becomes angry with God and abandons his faith entirely. It’s his relationship with his father that keeps him going for quite a while and after his father dies, he is nothing but a shell, thinking only of food and survival until his eventual liberation from Buchenwald in April 1945.

He closes with this:

One day when I was able to get up, I decided to look at myself in the mirror on the opposite wall. I had not seen myself since the ghetto. From the depths of the mirror, a corpse was contemplating me. The look in his eyes as he gazed into mine has never left me.

 

You leave Night feeling just as empty. The beauty of this book is in how it is raw, brutal, a punch in the gut that knocks the wind out of you. There may be hope in the fact that he survived but he’s so hollow at the end that it’s hardly inspirational. Because of the complete misreading of the events of the book as well as several style issues and mechanical problems, the paper in question earned a D. I made sure to comment extensively on the paper and point out exactly where its problems were in addition to pointing out what areas worked well and could be expanded in order to strengthen it. I then recommended taking advantage of my rewrite policy–rewrite your paper and I replace the old grade with the rewrite grade. When I passed the paper back, I heard an audible “I’M PISSED!” come from that student. Then the bell rang and they stormed out.

The next day, I was standing in the hallway before class and the student approached me. They asked, if they had written enough pages this time, why did they get a D? I explained why, reiterating my comments about accuracy. They then got angrier, saying that they’d read articles and seen the interviews and know how devoutly Jewish Wiesel now is. I conceded that yes, 70 years after his experience in a concentration camp, he definitely has rebuilt his faith, but the student was being asked to analyze the events of the book in context. They then began using the phrases, “It’s open to interpretation” and “That’s just your opinion.” I managed to make the point that interpretation and opinion are wonderful and welcomed but you also need to get your facts straight and the student’s facts simply weren’t straight.

The late bell then rang and I suggested they come see me on my planning period–which happened to be the period right after their class–and we’d sit down with their paper, the prompt, and the book, and go through everything thoroughly so they could do a solid rewrite. I reminded the student toward the end of class and several times over the next couple of weeks. There was no visit and no rewrite was ever handed in. A few weeks later, we were doing a poetry writing unit. I set up the grading so that 50% of the grade came from self-assessment–put simply, students would give themselves a grade and then write an explanation as to why. This particular student gave themselves a 100 and justified it with, “I need a good grade since you gave me a D on the paper.”

Since I had promised to not question the voice of my students in their self evaluations (and since I didn’t feel like picking this particular battle), I let it go. Part of me feels like I shouldn’t have because the student obviously didn’t learn anything except how to be bratty; part of me feels like I should have because as the teacher it’s probably my fault anyway. But overall, I was disappointed and still am. I take a lot of pride in the rapport I build through the year with my advanced class and really make the effort to have them drive a lot of their own learning.

Yes, it’s a shock to the system when they get C’s and D’s and then realize how hard they will be working for a B or A, but I feel that we really develop a respect for one another. Sure, there are times when I still play teacher but I don’t enjoy that as much as I enjoy fostering the back and forth that puts us all on the same level. And yet … this. When students complain about not having a voice, when they complain about not being respected, when they complain about the way their teachers treat them, it’s because of moments like this. And not one moment specifically but many, built up over time. We love to celebrate our successes, but we often are hurt by what we consider our disappointments and failures. Moreover, we internalize them, and their adding up leads to complaining and bitterness that can sometimes result in a desire to simply give up because that’s a better defense mechanism than allowing one’s sense of respect and trust to be taken advantage of.

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