Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Choosing The Winners: From The Ridiculous To The Sublime

My daughters are teaching me how to embed YouTube clips. They've shown me how to do this before, but I'm not the world's swiftest learner, and to be honest, they're not always the world's most patient teachers, but boy, have they made great strides: no one has yelled at me once and we've spent a good fifteen minutes on it! And lucky me: I've been able to let my pesky WIP sit for a few hours. And I have found yet another way to procrastinate, so I can give the FreeRice site a little break.

As a teacher of basic English, the decisions I have to make are sometimes heartbreaking. By giving -- or withholding -- a point or two, I can either mess up someone's summer plans or make them the world's happiest kid. Although the results are the main thing, sometimes there are other factors that come into play: how hard the kid tried, whether or not s/he has a part-time job, how good the student's attendance was -- and, damn it -- punctuality.

It's not easy. Most of the material I have to grade is of a very basic level. Here is just a little taste:

My Best Friend (Serhat)

I'm happy to meet Onur. Because He is friendly always. He is shy boy but also He is extrovert. sometimes I feel myself alone. Always I want together. I hope we don't leave never and I hope our friendship are going to until endless.

My Best Friend (Mehmet)

My Best Friend Ahmet is quite and friendly boy. He is liked by everybody. Because he He is gentleman. Sometimes His working too much and everybody is liking him. His family is quite poor. But his family is gentleman. He is quite fat. But everybody look his by ripe person.

Which one of those two would, in your opinion, rate the higher points? Would it really not matter to you if you knew that one of the students came from a very poor family and had to work at a part-time job? As it happens, both of these students are boys, but what if you knew that one was a girl whose parents refused to pay for her university education?

Do you see the kind of dilemmas I am faced with here?

Now, for what it is worth, here are two clips of the performances of two talented young men. After listening to these several times, I thank God that I teach bonehead English and don't work as a musical critic.

Haochen Zhang of China

Nobuyuki Tsujii of Japan

If any of my readers can tell me definitively which one of these musicians is better -- and why -- I will be enormously grateful.


Bish Denham said...

WOW! And I can't answer your question.

Kim Ayres said...

Critique has never been my strong point

Charles Gramlich said...

I recognize it clearly as music. And I believe the instrument is a piano in both cases.

angryparsnip said...

Just watching their hands has mine in pain...

Who I enjoyed more is a personal choice, as why I like the color green better than orange but as a music professional. . . gosh I have no answer and I am so glad I don't have to make that choice. I'm with Charles on that one.

Kim you have the perfect Critique Face !

Mary Witzl said...

Bish -- Awful, isn't it? All the same, I'm hoping someone will be able to give me some pointers.

Kim -- Nor mine. I'd be okay for art, in a pinch, or literature, but not music. Or at least not at this level.

Charles -- Yes, they're both pianos, I got that too, and I know what they're playing isn't jazz or pop...

AP -- I love watching the hands too. I am in awe of anyone who could truly tell the difference between an excellent performance and one that is just very good. But it seems to me that once they're this close, the judging must be near impossible.

And yes: Kim DOES have a perfect critique face!

Eryl Shields said...

'But everybody look by his ripe person', does it for me!

I will be teaching the literature part of the university access course this summer, and will no doubt be subjected to the same dilemmas as you are here. I have no idea how I'll deal with them, but I think there is something to be said for positive discrimination. Good luck with your decision making!

As for the music: when I was listening to the first I thought this must be the best, then I heard the second...
I'm sure that in order to judge such things you must have some kind of distancing criteria. My old art teacher used to turn paintings upside down to assess their merit.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Quite the dilemma! Maybe that was the reason my school flirted with "pass/fail" instead of grades in my youth. Then there was always the "E" for effort. Neither are likely options in your situation I would assume.

Child prodigies have always caused me concern - are these kids driven by a maniacial parent trying to vicariously realize a dream that eluded them in their lifetime? Do the kids have a life or are they merely consigned to eat, sleep and play piano? Almost like those crazy moms who enroll their little girls in those beauty pageants. Nice playing, though !!

Robin said...

I'm in awe of both, and I really like Charles' interpretation. Ha!

I would have such a hard time with those grading dilemmas. I know I'd weigh personal factors in, even though it's not fair. I worked with my dad for a semester when I was in college, and I'd argue for points for all the cute guys. Sigh. Those were the days.

Anne Spollen said...

Unless the kids are desperately bad and the next level teacher will come after me with an ax and anger issues, I pass my kids. I think it's really sh**** not to pass kids. I can't stand the idea of ruining a kid's summer over semi colons. Their summers matter way more in the long run.

I'm scared of child musicians. All I could think about when they were playing is, "Do you ever get a chance to go outside or play Doom?"
But I did like the second kid better because it sounded richer to me; the first one looked a bit tortured.

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- That one line is a real corker, isn't it? I'm still not entirely sure what it means...

I've listened to these two pianists' selections half a dozen times each, and I'm damned if I can tell who is the better player.

Good luck with your literature teaching! I look forward to hearing your stories!

Robert -- I hate those ridiculous beauty pageants for kids -- what a stupid way to teach girls to rely on their looks instead of their intellect -- but after getting to know that neighbor of ours who only wanted to play the piano -- and had been like that from earliest childhood -- I've revised my opinion on child music prodigies.

Robin -- (That's why I won't let my daughters help me mark!)

The kids I go all out for are the ones who really try. I would do just about anything for them, whether they're plain or cute, bonehead or genius. To be honest, they usually ARE bonehead. Geniuses where I teach are mighty thin on the ground.

Anne -- Honest, I bent right over backwards trying to pass some of my students, but I'm afraid I did fail a few who just didn't pull their own weight. It was so pathetic: they have so little to do, but it's still too much for them... I do feel mean, but they would suffer a LOT getting passed with their standard of English. And their teachers would come after me with baseball bats...

The interesting thing about the second kid (Tsujii, the winner) is that he is blind. A lot of people insisted that this must have been taken into consideration.

Kappa no He said...

In the case of Tsujii (the Japanese boy), it doesn't look like he was pushed too much by his parents. He's been blind since birth. There was this tiny piano toy laying around and he just began (like age two or something) to find it and play songs. It's amazing to see.

There has been a lot of old home videos on TV about him and this kid LOVED his music. From what I gather his parents were supportive but didn't push. If anything they coddled him a whole lot.

If anyone's seen the video of him getting the award it's really cute. He was standing on stage and handed it but then the man giving the medal reached over and grabbed the boy and pulled him into a hug. We all know Japanese aren't huggers and the look on Tsujii's face is just adorable. Yeah, I cried.

Chris Eldin said...

I believe the grading system is an overrated tool for measuring mastery of a subject.
The ones who do 'well' know this already. The ones who aren't can be demoralized by bad grades.
I could literally write pages on this topic...
Good luck with this. You're a fantastic teacher and I'm sure the right thing is already in your heart.

Ello said...

I believe in failing students who don't even try. But if they are trying, I will bend over backwards to try and help them. If they don't take advantage of my help then they will fail, personal situation aside. And I consider myself a softie!

And re: the piano players. I couldn't tell you who was technically better. But I can tell you who I preferred listening to and that was the Japanese kid. There was emotion there that struck me like a hammer - it was so good.

Mary Witzl said...

Kappa -- Until we met Mizuho, our classical piano-playing neighbor, my assumption about gifted young musicians was that their parents must invariably nag and bully them into practicing. But I now see that a lot of kids have this love of music in them to begin with, and I believe that Tsujii is one.

Apparently some music critics felt that his blindness might have unfairly influenced his win. For the life of me, I can't see that his disability makes his playing any better or worse, but I wondered if anyone else could enlighten me...

Now I want to see him getting his medal! It's mean of me, but I always love seeing how Japanese people cope with their first public Western hug. It always makes me smile.

Chris -- I could write pages on this too, and so could my husband! Test taking has never been my forte; I always freeze and forget vital information at the last minute. My heart goes out to all my good students with the same problem. But good teachers unfailingly know who these guys are! (GOOD teachers -- I am one of them, but not by any stretch of the imagination could I call myself 'fantastic'...)

One of the criteria I use when I grade is how receptive I believe the student is -- how likely s/he is to go on to further learning. A student who is good at memorizing and parroting rules but shrinks away from interactions with English-speaking international students will never impress me as much as one who may have less solid academic skills, but work hard to communicate with others and actually use English to do it.

Ello -- I'm a renowned softie other than when I am invigilating during an exam. If I catch a student cheating, I undergo a Jekyll-Hyde metamorphosis and actually scare myself.

I like the music Tsujii is playing and that is a factor for me, but Zhang puts a lot of heart into what he's playing too, and just look at his hands as his fingers fly over the keyboard! I swear, I'm split 50-50 on this one. No sooner do I think one is better than the other than I listen to them over again and change my mind.