We the Rain.

The week before last, my American Government Honors students took a test on the Presidency. The test included an essay question which was worth 25% of the total test grade. I don’t have a copy of the prompt in front of me, but the gist of it was:

Evaluate the relative strength of the executive and legislative branches. Justify your answer. (Translation: Who’s more powerful, the President or Congress? Are they equally powerful? Why?)

I spent two days grading the essays. Some of them were very good, some of them were okay, some of them needed improvement. But there was one that stood out above all the rest in terms of audacity and hilarity. From the very first word, I knew that this essay would be one for the ages, one that I would tell my students about twenty years from now. That word was “Pokémon.”

I don’t know how much time passed before I regained consciousness. I got some water, took some migraine-strength Excedrin, and hoped I’d recovered enough strength to go on reading:

Pokémon… The main three types are water, fire, and grass. But which one is the strongest? Water puts out fire, fire burns grass, but grass absorbs water easily! Does the cycle ever end? Well, that’s how the struggle of powers between the President and Congress has been viewed.

What an awesomely horrible introduction–and it might have been inaccurate, too; someone said there weren’t three types of Pokémon.

I’ve heard that in preparation for FCAT writing tests, students are told to “Explode the Point,” which, as I understand it, means to attempt to grab the reader’s interest and entice them to read further. Well… consider the point exploded. I wrote in the margin:

Do not ever put anything like this in one of my essays again.

In the next two paragraphs, the writer used several specific details to support his thesis, whatever that was. The problem was that most of his details were wrong. For instance, the President does not declare war (not even with Congress’ consent), the President needs no congressional approval to make executive agreements, and Congress can not override a presidential pardon.

The final paragraph matched the introductory paragraph for sheer silliness:

So, when it all comes down, who still has more power? Well, in my opinion, We the people do. Although Congress and the President can counteract each other, who put them there in the first place? We did! So, rock may break a pair of scissors, scissors may cut paper, and paper can cover a rock, but guess what? Rain makes scissors rust, deteriorates paper and erodes away rocks.

I suppose that “the people” were symbolized by the rain. To be honest, it was an entertaining essay, and his analogies were valid—but he had neglected to use a sufficient amount of correct information. I gave him an F, and wrote at the bottom,

XXXX, this essay was horrible. I can say no more.

But I couldn’t just give him the F, record the grade, and then let it go. I had to share this with somebody, anybody. I found my brother and tried reading the essay to him, but I couldn’t stop laughing. I handed him the essay.

He read it, chucked a little, then handed it back hesitantly. “Are you allowed to write that on his essay?”

I said, “What do you mean?”

“Aren’t you being a little bit mean?”

Now, the “mean” accusation had come up before—from the students I made take a test on September 11 rather than watch the news, from the students who demanded to have class outside all year long and got their wish on the hottest day of the year, from the students who have been jolted awake from the crack of a yardstick against a desktop—but never from anyone whose opinion mattered. I figured I’d better review what I’d written.

I re-read the blood-red comments scrawled in the margins of his paper, and realized that maybe some of my comments might be taken the wrong way. I wanted to let him know that it was an utterly terrible essay–one that I would tell my students about for the rest of my career, one that would take its place in the Hall of Academic Atrocity next to the essay by an African-American former student of mine, stating that if she had to delete one civil liberty from the Constitution, it would be the one from the Thirteenth Amendment—but without hurting his feelings.

I decided to soften the blow a little. I drew an asterisk after “I can say no more,” and continued my commentary in the top margin:

*Actually, I will say more. While your analogies may be valid, you spent way too much time writing about them and not enough time proving your mastery of the content. KNOW THE MATERIAL.

That sounded a little more professional. When the student saw his graded essay, he seemed good natured about it and understood what I was trying to tell him. Hopefully he took my criticism as constructive, and he’ll be a little better prepared for his next essay.

3 Responses to “We the Rain.”

  1. aabrock Says:
    October 16th, 2006 at 12:18 PM

Would he have warranted a higher grade should he used the standard “Rock – Paper – Scissor” analogy? We the People would be Dynamite!

Although after reading the test question I thought I was about to read a bad rant about the unitary executive.

  1. Andrew Jackson Says:
    October 20th, 2006 at 11:19 AM

What the hell is Congress?

  1. ticklemeelmo Says:
    October 25th, 2006 at 9:14 PM

You should have used semicolons instead of commas for some of your clauses. You asked for this…