Tired of Hearing “I Don’t Know” in Your Classroom?

DO NOT ALLOW (under any circumstance) “I DON’T KNOW” (IDK) to be an acceptable answer from any student. This is possible through teacher enforcement that, at first, takes serious diligence. I promised you this, after you have assigned the class a “penalty” for one student uttering IDK your students will elevate your class environment to a new level of partnership – they’ll be managing each other.

How to Begin

I start the semester by explaining to classes that school is a place to learn. I don’t expect them to have all the answers but I do expect them to take an educated guess. After all, what would happen if doctors/scientists said “I don’t know” to a cure for AIDS? School is about thinking new thoughts and learning to be better analyzers.

To produce the right atmosphere and context, you have to be able to admit, to your students – in front of class, that you don’t know the answer. It may happen when a student asks you a question, or when a question arises from some other source. Once you admit you don’t have the answer, you can make a guess but admit that you don’t know the answer.

That is okay by the way… not knowing. Sometimes I think in the culture of our society we must always have the answer, but we can’t – we are, after all, only human.

Class When IDK Rears Its’ Ugly Head

After the initial talk to class, which may talk a good 30 minutes, about the participation guidelines for class, when a student says IDK in the next day or two I make a big deal and warn the class.

On the third day – and every day after until end of semester, when a student utters the dreaded IDK, the entire class who is present (not absentees) must write an essay that is due the next day – no exceptions.

The size of the essay starts small (200 words) and increases with each occurrence. I guarantee you this, by the third essay when a student says IDK the other students will be shouting and yelling potential answers at him/her. Let them go as long as the “helping” is in the spirit of academics. I’ve seen students threaten students and then I had to stop it. You know where to draw the line with your class.

Be consistent about enforcing IDK. Don’t have pity or feel sorry for the students. They’ll respect you when you do what you said you’re going to do…. IDK will stop.

Give students time to respond to questions. When they cannot say IDK, it takes longer than usual for some to form an answer, so give them the time they need. Letting them get answers from another student supports peer collaboration and builds partnership.

The Result

AH-HA, you have just improved the collaboration level (tone) of students in your class while also enforcing behaviors to make students think. Amazing things have happened to my classes as a result of using this technique, especially when a student just absentmindedly says it after two months…. and the class has a 400 word essay due the next day. You must be consistent with the essay writing, this structure does eliminate 99% of IDK.

Helpful Hints

1. When the students are assigned an essay, give them a title and write it on the board (and in your lesson). Students need time to write is down amid the groaning and belly aching. Even thought the essay is a penalty, you want to support students in being successful with completing it.

I keep the essay focus on thinking and responsibility:

– why is it important to make educated guesses in life?

– discuss five examples of people who made an educated guess and contributed to life.

– explain how educated guesses will support __________ (relationship, job, family).

2. I’m not giving you another assignment to grade with the essay – unless you want one. I deal with the grades like this; students who turn it in on time and complete (all the words) get a 100%. All the other students, except absentees the day of the assignment get a 0%. If they turn it in late I give them a low score……gotta keep in mind those students that got a 100% worked hard to get it.

BTW, sometimes I hand essays back to students, most of the time I keep them. I do read them at my leisure (have caught a few kids saying some nasty things that had to be dealt with). If I hand them back I do write comments on them first.

3. There are occasions where students are in groups and I’m having a discussion with one group when IDK comes up. In that case, I usually just have that one group do the essay. When it gets turned in on time those students are at ground zero for the group work – they can still do well. But, for the students in the group who don’t turn in the assignment, they are now at -100… chances are extremely high they’ll have to come in at lunch and do the project work by them self.

4. Crucial to the success of your effort to eliminate IDK – because it’s a culture shock to students to not say IDK – after two or three warnings, you MUST assign the essay for the next 6-8 weeks. You will have no mercy. Don’t get faint of heart and feel sorry for students, even if it’s just three or four students doing IDK. We are training our students to be responsible and watch what they say – in the end they will never forgot this exercise.

An excellent and far reaching benefit of this IDK exercise is students begin to manage themselves. You’ll see this self management spread to other areas of the class work.

Why is not saying IDK such a culture shock? Many reasons, but I think a big one is far too many of us teachers let students get away with saying it. Enforcing students to make an educated guess is supporting them in being better thinkers and analyzers.

Final note, I have, year after year, seen the learning environment in my class catapult to new levels with zero IDK because it forces students to get out of their comfort zone. No IDK means they must think, must take chances among peer pressure, and must move beyond habits of mental lethargy.

The Application Essay

Whether you’re submitting a personal statement, a statement of purpose, or a diversity essay, make sure to follow these rules:

Rule #1: Edit and Proofread, Then Proofread Again Your grammar, spelling, and punctuation must be flawless. When in doubt, pullout those old standbys The Chicago Manual of Style and Strunk & White. If grammar, spelling, and punctuation aren’t your strong points, enlist a friend to help (and give you a tutorial, while you’re at it). There’s no excuse for a college graduate to mess this up. And beware the spell-check trap — it won’t catch “right” when you should have written “write,” and it won’t catch your “commitment to pubic service.” (You laugh, but I saw that typo as a law review editor.) Always have a second pair of eyes proofread your essays before you send them off.

Rule #2: Nothing Cutesy Anything cutesy or gimmicky will make admissions officers groan. Stay away from the following:

Essays in the form of poetry

Essays in the form of a legal brief (“For all the reasons cited above, the admissions committee should admit Petitioner to Slamdunk Law School.”)

Essays in the form of an obituary (“Tracy Johnson died the most respected jurist of her time.”)

Essays in the form of an interview

Crayons, construction paper, perfume, or illustrated essays, no matter how sophisticated

Rule #3: No Legalisms You’re not a lawyer yet, so your use of legal concepts or terminology will most likely demonstrate that you have no idea what you’re talking about, not to mention the fact that legal writing is considered god-awful by the rest of the world, including admissions officers. Many applicants, for example, refer to a company or a person violating someone’s right to free speech, when, in fact, the First Amendment applies only to government restrictions on speech. And by all means, steer clear of anything in Latin.

Rule #4: Show, Don’t Tell Back up any general statements with examples and anecdotes. If you write, “The student presidency taught me that leadership means more than delegating,” tell us how you learned that lesson. What were the conflicts and problems you faced? If you write, “I have excellent time-management skills,” back up that statement by pointing out that you graduated in the top 10 percent of an engineering program that 40 percent of engineering freshmen drop.

Rule #5: Respect Page Limits and Other Minutiae If a school gives you a page or word limit, abide by it. And follow the spirit of the rule as well as the letter — don’t get too sneaky with fonts, margins, and line spacing. Admissions officers won’t cut you any slack if your essay comes in under the page limit but makes them go cross-eyed because the font or line spacing is so small. If a school doesn’t specify a length, a good rule of thumb is two to three pages, double-spaced, in eleven-point Times New Roman, with one-inch margins all around. When in doubt, shorter is better than longer. As an admissions officer buddy of mine likes to say: “The vast, vast, vast majority of just-out-of-college applicants (almost all applicants, really) are not interesting enough to fill six pages. Show me that you understand my time is valuable, and show me that you understand how to pick out what’s really important.”

Make sure to put your name and Social Security number in a header and page numbers in a footer, just in case your file goes splat and has to be reassembled. Also, identify in the header what essay question you’re answering, if you’re given more than one option or are submitting more than one essay (“Personal Statement,” “Optional Essay #3,” etc.). By the way, you don’t need to give your essay a title like “Morris 405” or “Jorge.” I added those titles in the appendix essays so that I could refer to them easily in this chapter.

Don’t submit pages that are crumpled, stained, or smell like pot smoke — most admissions officers really aren’t looking for that contact high. Really, your essay shouldn’t smell like any kind of smoke.

And finally, if you’re getting too close to your material and think you’re losing perspective, turn to the sample essays in the appendix to keep your big-picture objective in mind. Can you see how much more engaging and revealing the good ones are?

Copyright © 2006 Anna Ivey


An excerpt from the book The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions

by Anna Ivey

Published by Harcourt; April 2005;$14.00US; 0-15-602979-0

Copyright © 2006 Anna Ivey

Why Johnny Can’t Write – The REAL Reason

On December 8, 1975, Newsweek magazine ran a front-cover story titled, “Why Johnny Can’t Write.” It raised national concerns about the quality of writing that students produce in American K-12 schools. And it caused a 30-year flood of thousands of protest articles with the same title.

Furthermore, in 1998, 2002, and 2007, national tests continued to prove that those concerns were still justified, tests which were reported by the National Education Association–only one out of five seniors showed they could write well enough to do writing required in college. And in 2003, the National Commission on Writing declared there was a national crisis in teaching writing in America and recommended, basically, that all levels of schools and governments chip in lots more money, time, and people to cope with the crisis.

However, what authorities have not realized, even yet, is that most of the major problems with teaching writing come from teachers focusing their students’ writing merely on the FORMS of writing, without teaching the CONTENT of writing.

For instance, teachers emphasize correct grammar, punctuation, and organization, which are all forms. And when they teach how to write essays, they spend all their time on introductions and conclusions, thesis statements, topic sentences, and paragraphs–more forms. All those writing forms are needed, to be sure, but nowhere is there a connection between any of them and the most crucial thing in writing–CONTENT that is new to the reader.

True, most teachers and textbooks DO tell students to avoid cliches, to say something interesting, to say something original or new, but they don’t provide students with an actual process for coming up with something new.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not blaming teachers of writing: I’m merely describing the situation.

Actually, it’s a cultural problem, that is, a cultural conceptual problem.

You see, nobody really knows how to talk about the concept of newness, so how can teachers be expected to instruct on newness in writing? In fact, our civilization has ignored coping with the concept of newness for thousands of years.

Why? Because for all of us newness has been this mysterious, formless, HUGE black box in our minds that we put everything into that we–

  1. haven’t experienced yet,
  2. haven’t been told about yet, and
  3. haven’t thought about yet

Let’s verify this, right here. As a mental experiment, try this: Can you think of even ONE useful category that would fit ALL kinds of newness? (Of course, I mean other than the three groups in the previous paragraph. Let’s also add the idea of recency, making four. We do usually think of something that recently occurred as being new, such as a new headache or a new bill. What makes them new is only that they occurred nearby in time, or recently.)

So, right now, try to come up with at least one category of newness, and then resume reading after the line of asterisks, below.

**************** I couldn’t do it, either–until I realized a couple more things.

First, very like the vague concept of what’s new, the concept of what’s old has been a mysterious, formless, HUGE black box in our minds that takes in–

  1. everything we’ve experienced,
  2. everything we’ve been told, and
  3. everything we’ve ever thought about

–in fact, everything in our lives up until now! Even with these three categories, what’s old is so huge that we really can’t wrap our minds around it, can we?

Second, I discovered that we can cope with newness and oldness if we realize this fundamental relationship between the two–what’s new always depends on what’s old.

For instance, you know the old saying, “You can’t talk about color to a blind man (who has been blind since birth).” If your reader has no experience with the kind of thing you are talking about–that is, no experience with a shared group that the thing belongs to, something it is like,such as movies or computers–then you can’t talk with him about it. You really can’t explain anything unless you use words and ideas from groups of things you already share with him.

So if your reader is Tarzan of the Jungle (Tarzan taught himself to read, in the original story) and you use the word soap in your writing without explaining it, then Tarzan won’t know what you mean, since soap is something he has never experienced, has never been told about, and has never thought about. And you can’t describe a beautiful sunset to a blind man because he has never seen that group of things we call colors.

Now, that’s not too big of a mental leap, is it, to say that what’s new depends on what’s already old (or already known) to the reader?

Okay. Then what we need now are some categories we can use to divide up the concepts of new and old so we can make a working relationship between the two.

Here is a list of what I call old views:

  • Values
  • Expectations
  • Experiences
  • Reasoning
  • Language

And here is a list of what I call new views:

  • Reverse
  • Add
  • Subtract
  • Substitute
  • Rearrange

With these two sets of categories, we can teach students to identify what they share with their readers–the old view, and then we can show them how to process those with the five new views, making them new.

For instance, one student may identify her own strong old view value of not liking the divorce her parents went through, also noting that her friends don’t like divorces, generally, either.

Then we can suggest that she use the reverse new view process to say that divorce has some advantages, some good things about it. And on her own she more than probably could come up with examples that show her actually spending more personal time with her father each week, going to a show or to dinner more often with him, as well as the wonderful fact that he now buys her more expensive personal gifts than before the divorce. Then we can help her put that into a thesis statement, make it resonate in topic sentences, use it to provide examples and stories in her body paragraphs, and create a fine introduction and conclusion.

We can teach Johnny–and Janey–to write content with newness and still use forms in doing it. But only if we stop focusing so exclusively on forms and start focusing first on what’s new to the reader. And only then should we show them how they can use traditional forms to support and convey that newness.

As we all know, in the real world newness of content generates forms, not the other way around.

By universally teaching “what’s new to the reader” as the most important factor in writing courses, we’ll never have to see another irritating article titled, “Why Johnny Can’t Write”–and we’ll save a mountain of money in the process.