Wednesday, January 14, 2009

When It's OK To Fail

FINAL UPDATE: My daughter's letter was NOT published (shocker). There will be a shortened lass schedule tomorrow because the student body is - yes - required to watch the inauguration.

Semester exams start next week. Just sayin'.

UPDATE #2: Got a less than apologetic reply from the teacher this morning, which I will paraphrase here: the assignment was apparently given in response to a contest in the local paper, and the nun-in-chief had the English teachers assign it to the students on Monday. It was NOT optional, and indeed, no alternative assignment was given. The teacher states that the contest gave writers the task of writing a letter "detailing" what The One's policies and goals should be, or drafting the first 250 words of his inaugural address, and he indicates that the words "congratulate" and "positive" were not in the contest rules. He advised students that submissions were, however, supposed to be "appropriate for publication."

I am looking in the newspaper's online archives for the contest details to confirm this, but in the meantime, one must ask: What exactly is "appropriate for publication" in a left-wing newspaper is supposed to mean? Was this left open to interpretation by high school English students? When they are told to "behave appropriately," is it not implied to the child that their behavior must be "good" or "positive" behavior? Could it be that the teacher is blaming the kid for interpreting the intent of the assignment rather than accepting that it was an ill-conceived assignment?

Here's a direct quote:

...when I am made aware of legitimate concerns, I always try to accommodate those requests.

Hmmmm....perhaps my concern is not regarded as "legitimate" depending on how you interpret that last bit. See the problem?

I'm not done with this.

UPDATE: Sent a written request for clarification of the assignment requirements to the teacher a few hours response yet...

My eldest, the quasi-Catholic high school student, has received the following mandatory Honors English assignment:

Write a letter to President-Elect Obama congratulating him on his inauguration. It must be positive, and not exceed 250 words.

[yep - it's a RED ZONE moment]

The letters must be emailed by the students to the local paper and to the teacher.

Yeah. I have a slew of MAJOR ISSUES with this assignment. I told her she did not have to do the assignment if she did not want to, and that I'd go to the mat for her with the teacher and the administration...including the habitless nuns...about the lack of 1st amendment rights involved when one is required to support One who she knows to be an insupportable politician. She did not want to go that route because the implicit threat involved getting a failing grade if you went "negative," and that was something she didn't want to deal with.

We conferred until late into the evening last night about how to be "positive" and yet make a stand against what's wrong about The One at the same time. We discussed the issues, she drafted, and I helped her pare it down to the required limit. (I suggested that she write a thank you letter to President Bush for his service and especially for keeping the country safe from enemies foreign and domestic during his tenure and hand it in along with the required letter for extra credit...but we agreed that might not go over well...)

I doubt the letter she wrote will be published (I'll post it later in that case), and I hope she won't be punished for having the audacity to hope in her letter that The One will stick to his vow to protect women's rights...including those of unborn women. ("FOCA" that!)

If she is penalized in any way, it's game on - and make no mistake, I will scorch some serious earth if I have to.

I try to be a reasonable person, I really do. I have been trained to look at issues from both sides, and I strive to do so in my professional life even when a counterargument is just patently nonsensical. As I have been taught, and as I now teach others, sometimes you have to set aside your own feelings and take a step back...because you must be able to understand the opposition in order to defeat it. But today, I just can't do it. I cannot comprehend the goose-stepping mentality the Obamaniacs have...and the fact that said mentality has infiltrated a Catholic High School where I'm paying (a lot) for viral immorality to be downloaded into my child's head, well, it sickens me.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Sounds like you came up with a creative way to deal with this assignment. You're taking this much better than I would. I seriously think if my high-schooler brought this home it would be a moment of hell-fire and open warfare with the school. Especially because it is a Catholic School.

This is why when I moved here my middle son, who was still in High School, did NOT attend Catholic School here in DOR, even though he had attend 3 years back in our old diocese. I'd rather him attend a Public School, which I know isn't going to pretend to be Catholic, rather than have heterodox habitless nuns have any chance at poisoning my son while I paid them to do it.

Really interested how this turns out.

Jane Lebak said...

If she gets in trouble, ask for a chance to redo the assignment. I'd be more than happy to help you write a letter that congratulates him on the good fortune of winning while either double-speaking or simply omitting any actual hint that his win is a good thing for the nation. It wouldn't take too long, and it would fulfill the letter of the assignment and be technically and grammatically perfect.

It's certainly fine for anyone, supporter or non, to say, "you have worked hard for your win over John McCain" and "I hope the United States benefits from your presidency," right?

Kasia said...

Wow. That is seriously messed up.

(Kudos to me for stating the obvious.)

If it didn't have to be e-mailed to the paper, I would be less disgusted - might be able to think of it as an exercise in being able to argue both sides.

There is no place, whether in a public or a private school, for requiring students to express political opinions that are not their own and to require that they submit them for publication as if they were their own. That is not an intellectual exercise; that is forced participation in propaganda.

Come to think of it, I'm not keen on their being required to submit their opinions to the paper at all, but you're the legal expert...

Joe of St. Thérèse said...

I'm with you Kit..I'm willing to compromise where compromise is possible, but in some situations (such as this one) that is impossible.

I guess that's one of the advantages of being in the science department, I don't have to give these kinds of stupid assignments. If I happened to be at that school, I'd go to bat with your child as well as you, I don't care about my reputation, I'd rather be known as someone who got fired yet stood by his principles than staying on and compromising them to evil.

There are times like this when I wish I was the boss, the teacher would of been fired on the spot, but I digress.

This is an assignment I'd be more than happy to fail.

Adrienne said...

That is a ridiculous assignment. I think you did the right thing and I'm looking forward to hearing the outcome (and the letter)

Unknown said...

'Tis a time of persecution. And I don't know but, because your daughter is a minor, because you are paying, because this is a first amendment issue and because this involves non-negotiable Catholic teachings, you may well have a responsibility to refuse to allow your daughter to participate.

I tend to run these things past a priest - someone like Fr. Rutler at Our Saviour. I hope you have someone of his calibre available.


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A Secular Franciscan said...

Speaking as a principal, if this were given as a "mandatory" assignment by one of my teachers there would be a meeting in my office, a change in the assignment, and a call home to the parents.

If it's "required," I find it offensive.

What school is this? If it's one of the Catholic High Schools, they are not run by the diocese, by the way - the orders operate them.

Jane Lebak said...

Has anyone asked the newspaper how they feel about receiving 30 to 50 poorly written letters from students who are going to most likely be parroting what their teacher said?

(With the occasional terrific letter in there. I tutored too many college freshmen to think all the letters will be good.)

Jane Lebak said...

Here we go, Kit...I woke up thinking about this. Note: make the assignment transparent, express love for the COUNTRY, express patriotism, express that votes are a gift, define true leadership.

Dear Mr. President-Elect Barack Obama:

You don't know me, but I'm XX YY, a 14 year old student at ABC School, and as part of my history class I was assigned to write a positive letter to the Rochester D&C congratulating you on your presidential victory.

Congratulations on winning the election. You certainly worked very hard to do so.

I am not one of your supporters. Right now, I am wary of what you and your administration may do to my country, but I am cautiously hopeful (audacious as that may be.) Our country is a great one and has survived many crises. May you leave my home and motherland a better place than it is now.

If you want my vote in four years, I expect you to show me true leadership. I will put my support behind a man who shows compassion to the powerless, protects the weak, and acts as a voice to the voiceless. Such a man would be able to hold an unpopular opinion and stand up for truth, no matter the backlash.

Then and only then will I consider you worthy of the gift of my first presidential vote.

I'm willing to give you a chance, and for love of my country I will follow where you lead. I'm asking you to prove you are the leader you've claimed to be.



gemoftheocean said...

This instructor needs TO BE FIRED. IMMEDIATELY. What school does she go to? If I knew, a nastygram would be in the principal's website.

I am shocked and appalled. You're on a little sticky ground here in that it's a *private* school. Public school, you could sue their ass off, I think.

Who in the HELL do they think they are? I'd ask that your daughter be transferred from the class at the VERY least.

And frankly, if possible, go down their today and rip them a new *******.

gemoftheocean said...

Kit, I'm going to forward the link to your post to Damian at the UK Telegraph. He writes a relgious blog (he's Catholic.) I'm outraged.

Your daughter and that entire class is owed a written and public personal apology from the so-called "teacher" and frankly, she should be forced to resigned. The fact that she would even THINK of giving an assignment like this comes off as purely evil. Is she so stupid she doesn't know how proabortion that jackass is?

gemoftheocean said...

KIT, UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES, let your daughter "comply." These goose-steppers need to be taught a lesson!

Kasia said...


This sounds more reasonable than it did initially (though there's still the question of fact re: the actual terms of the assignment).

Strictly speaking, "appropriate for publication" does not mean "supportive of X" - newspapers print letters to the editors and op-eds that disagree with each other and with the opinions of the editors. I admit I'm still less than comfortable with compelling ninth-graders to submit political opinions for publication - I'm no Con Law expert (or any law, really), but I would think that the First Amendment would protect intentional silence as well as regular speech - but it's not as bad as it originally looked.

I would say the issue hinges on two things: the aforementioned question of fact re: "positive" and/or "congratulatory", and how the school is interpreting "appropriate for publication". If the school thinks that suggesting different policies than those that Obama himself has outlined is "inappropriate", well, then there's an issue. A big one. If the school is OK with a student writing that (for example) he should abandon his support of FOCA and focus on the economy, provided they follow the terms of the assignment, then that's different.

I'm still not comfortable with this mandatory submission to the paper, though.

Re: the question of fact, in addition to looking for the original assignment...You know your daughter better than any of us could - is she apt to read more into what is said than is actually said or implied, or is she usually pretty objective?

Oh - and I agree that the "legitimate concerns" sounds like a bit of a dig, though it may be less so in context.

Kit said...

Thanks everyone - especially Jane & my comrade-in-arms Karen - for your comments and draft letters! :) I am still gathering info...more to come.

And Dr. K. & Lee - it's the only Catholic HS in the Southern Tier, and indeed not a Diocesan school. Given the last-minute nature of the assignment, I think it may have been more a ploy to showcase the writing ability of the students in the paper as an attempt to gain publicity and perhaps more incoming students than to make a political statement. (I'm being generous...given the number of Pro-bama bumper stickers in the school parking lot).

I'm trying to keep the fight on the down-low until I get all of the facts and the original contest rules in hand...being the rabblerousing troublemaker I apparently am for occasionally demanding authenticity and accountability in Catholic education, I have to work twice as hard to make my point and be heard.

gemoftheocean said...

This STILL smells to high heaven. This smacks fo the Washington Post Advertising section where ONLY "positive" vibes and good wishes for "the one" were to be sent. This still smacks of an abuse of the 1st Amendment. I wouldn't be done with this either. What next? Little red kerchiefs?

Kit said...

All right - I have been weighing my desire to protect my kids' anonymity against posting everything here, but given the spike in Rochester hits again, I s'pose everyone here and up at Buffalo Rd. who don't already know & loathe who I am won't have a hard time figuring it out.

Here's my daughter's submission - name still withheld on principle:

Dear President Obama,

Congratulations. Your election to the presidency is the realization of the hopes and dreams of millions of Americans. I hope that you will be a wise and courageous leader. I hope that you will safeguard the freedoms that Americans enjoy including LIFE, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

I hope that you will be a champion who protects the weakest among us, including minorities, the disabled, the elderly, women, and the most vulnerable of all, unborn children. During the election, I watched you speak about how much you love your daughters and that you want them to do well in life because you respect women's rights.

Mr. Obama, half the children killed each year by abortion are future women, who should have the same rights as your daughters and I do. They should be allowed to be born and enjoy their rights. For example, by supporting FOCA (the so-called "Freedom of Choice Act") you would give unborn women (and men) no choice, and no chance, at all. I hope you will consider that when you take office, among many other things.

I hope that you will promote a culture that seeks to reclaim personal responsibility as a virtue, which in turn will be a culture that respects life at all stages, and makes abortion rare, not a form of birth control.

Mr. Obama, you have many challenges ahead. Please be assured that I will pray for you to be a leader of integrity and clear conscience.

Grade 9
[Quasi Catholic] High School

Kit said...

...and here's the email exchange between the teacher and me/us:

-----Original Message-----

Date: Wed, 14 Jan 2009 14:36:59 EST
Subject: Assignment question

Hello [Teacher] -

[Princess] advises that she was given an assignment to draft a letter to Barack Obama congratulating him (?) on his election/upcoming inauguration, that the letter had to be "positive," and that this letter had to be emailed to you and to the Star-Gazette. She worked on it last night and this morning, and I reviewed it with her before she sent it to you this morning [...] I hope that you received it timely.
Because she started work on this assignment after cheering at last night's game, and because she indicated that there was a submission deadline today, I did not have an opportunity to contact you for more detail about the assignment, nor did I find the original assignment on [school website], so I have a few questions:

1. Was this a REQUIRED assignment, or was it an extra credit assignment?

2. Were students who did not wish to submit such a letter given an alternative assignment?

3. Will all letters (with original content intact), or only editorially selected and revised letters, be published in the [local paper]?

I realize that the actual assignment parameters may differ from her understanding and recitation of them to us (as stated above), so I am seeking to clarify what the exact instructions, options, and potential penalties for not completing the assignment were.

[Princess] and I, and then my husband and I, had a very lengthy discussion about this letter and how to draft something "supportive" despite having strong feelings to the contrary regarding the individual in question. I hope that there is enough latitude in your classroom and at the school as a whole for my Catholic daughter and for other students to freely express their dissenting opinions regarding the incoming president and his stated policies without fear of any sort of academic penalty.

Please email your response or feel free to contact either my husband or me at [...]


Dear Mr. and Mrs. [Brookdwellers],

Thank you for contacting me with your concerns. I am sorry if this has caused your family any discomfort. Let me address your questions.

1. Yes, the assignment was required.
2. I did not give an alternative assignment. However, when I am made aware of legitimate concerns, I always try to accommodate those requests.
3. It is entirely up to the [local paper] which, if any, responses from our students will be published.
I received notification of this opportunity from Sister [headmistress], on Friday. Thus, there was a very short window to make the assignment and complete it before the deadline. The assignment made no mention of "congratulating" Obama. Neither did it indicate that the response had to be "positive." Quoting from the [local paper] itself, the students were asked to submit "a letter to the president, detailing what they think the president's goals should be." Another option was to "write their version of the opening paragraphs of the inauguration speech." I added that all responses needed to be appropriate for publication.
I trust that this answers your questions.

Again, thank you for your interest.

My rebuttal today:

Dear Mr. [Teacher]:

Thank you for responding to our inquiry.

We would like to see the actual, printed contest instructions, and I am having a hard time finding them in the [local paper's] online archives. If you could forward them to us, we'd appreciate it, and we will discuss the matter with [Princess] again here at home.

While I am willing to accept that no ill intent was involved in giving this assignment to the students, we do remain concerned, and I believe legitimately so, as to how the spirit of the assignment was interpreted by our daughter and her peers.

As I'm sure you can appreciate, high school students readily associate the word "appropriate" with words like "good" and "positive" (i.e., expectations of "appropriate behavior" or "appropriate dress" in school), and that was certainly [Princess]'s take-away from whatever was stated in class.

The fact that this assignment requires Catholic school students to engage in political commentary of any sort, or otherwise to address an elected official whose fundamental, publicly stated beliefs directly contravene Catholic doctrine is troublesome to our family and to our friends -- among them Catholic priests and religious. As one of my legal colleagues stated, "Whether the letter had to be positive or impliedly not critical, sending a curtailed opinion piece to the paper amounts to mandated propaganda," and, as one of my professorial colleagues pointed out, ". . .'academic freedom' doesn't apply to students, but this shouldn't have been required." Our religious friend was slightly more blunt: "No one should be forced to acknowledge a proud purveyor of evil."

I believe [Princess]'s submission was well-stated, and, as it turns out, her letter rather fortuitously addressed "goals" for the incoming administration (albeit in vain), and was "appropriate for publication." However, had she been given a choice, I believe she would have preferred to write a different sort of letter, either stating her displeasure with the incoming administration's policies, or perhaps a letter thanking troops and/or the outgoing administration, whatever its flaws, for keeping our country safe for the past eight years.

As a college professor, I certainly have had experiences where my students misunderstood written instructions, and I have had to clarify what I believed to be fairly straightforward assignments. Accordingly, I would like to sit down with my daughter to review the written instructions with her, discuss where any erroneous interpretation may have originated, and hopefully resolve the issue once and for all.

Thank you again for contacting us.


I'll keep you all posted...

Packrat said...

I guess I'm blog stalking, but I saw Adrienne's reference to this and was horrified. I followed the links to get the details.

Good luck! Battling the "powers that be" can be so mentally exhausting and frustrating. Already it sounds like the instructor has probably told you something different than what he/she told his/her students.

Special note to your daughter and all students: write down the assignments as close to word for word as possible - better yet, record it.

While I absolutely agree with what you are doing and don't want you to back down, I will offer a word of caution: Please watch that there isn't a blatant or subtle backlash on your daughter or any other children you might have (or will have) in that school. (We learned the hard way, and yes, those involved were fellow Catholics, members of our own parish.)

Our prayers are with you and your daughter.

Packrat said...

PS - I just saw where you wrote, "if she is penalized in any way..."

Anonymous said...

Kit-I know I'm a bit behind on this, but good for you and congratulations to your Princess for standing firm on this.
I am astonished at the response you have received from the school. Oh wait a minute-no I'm not. It's just the same old.

Karen-I love your honesty without sugar. It's a rare commodity; don't lose it.
God bless you both.

ben said...

Thats just awful ... unfortunatly I'm not surprised, my wife is an alumni of that high school and quasicatholic is a good description.

good luck

Mike Shea said...


Even your newspaper seems confused about what they wanted to see in students' letters.

Here they say, "The Star-Gazette sought submissions from area students asking them to write President-elect Barack Obama with advice on or questions about his upcoming administration."

Yet here the message is a bit different: "The Star-Gazette sought submissions from area students asking them to wrote what they thought the first few paragraphs of Barack Obama’s inauguration speech would, or should, sound like."

ignorant redneck said...

This is why I absolutley do not support "Catholic" schools: the nuns tried this crap on us in '76.

I wrote a 5 paragraph theme about freedom of speech and the cumpulshion iherent in the assignment.

I flunked the assignment.

Nerina said...

Good for you, Kit. Go to the mat. And can I just say that this displays incredibly LAZY teaching? Now teachers get their assignments from the newspaper?

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Sister Mary Martha said...

It is entirely possible to congratulate someone without supporting their policies. John McCain springs to mind.

To that end, it is a very good assignment, pressing one to call on our very best Christian principles.