Monday, January 23, 2006

Study Buddy (by Ben McGrath, the New Yorker)

Note to the illustration: “Dear Mom and Dad: Thanks for the happy childhood. You’ve destroyed any chance I had of becoming a writer.” (College girl writing to parents from a little dorm cubby.) ID: 69004, Published in The New Yorker December 22, 2003

link to the illustration source

Note from the blog editr: the illustration did not come with the article, but when I saw this when it was publish, I loved it.

Issue of 2006-01-23
Posted 2006-01-16

Whatever side you’re on in the homework wars (more vs. less, phonics vs. “whole language”), a case can be made that study habits formed i grade school establish patterns for negotiating life as an adult. The kid whose mom builds his diorama may expect a rent-check stipend later; the gir who spends Friday night finishing her science project will likely resist the temptations of happy hour with her co-workers

When the city’s public libraries announced, last month, the launch of an all-points Web site,, for K-12 students, proponents hailed it as a critical blow to the old “dog ate my homework” excuse. Dakota Scott, a freshman at Bard High School Early College, stood before a group of teachers and librarians at the Donnell Library, on West Fifty-third Street, and demonstrated some of the site’s features, performing searches on “insects” and “ancient Egypt.” She did not click on a link for “live homework help,” but, had the demonstration occurred between 2 P.M. and 11 P.M., the link would have connected her, via, to any of twelve hundred tutors around the country sitting on their sofas, or in cafés, and, for all we know, sipping margaritas, while dispensing advice on trigonometry or mitochondria or intransitive verbs.

Or, as it happens, love. On a recent Friday night, Yasmin, a graduate student in animation, sat on a futon in her boyfriend’s studio apartment, in Brooklyn. For roughly ten dollars an hour, she had signed on to counsel students looking to get a jump on the weekend’s assignments. She had her laptop open and was logged in to the server.

On her screen, a window popped up: “A student has requested your help.” The student was apparently in the fourth grade and was logging on from California. A chat session began:

Student: Can you help me with wrighting?
Yasmin: Sure. What is your assignment?
Student: Fiction. . . .
Yasmin: Ok, great. Do you know what you want to write about?
Student: My frind said love hurts but I want it to be about passion.
Yasmin: You want to write a love story? . . . Or should we brainstorm?

A nine-year-old writing a love story on a Friday night? Suddenly, the Internet connection failed and the session was terminated.

Sometimes, Yasmin explained, it’s difficult to tell whether a student is legit. But she thought the fiction-writing kid was for real. “Teachers can get pretty creative with assignments,” she said. “The other day, a student had to make a mix tape for a character in a book.” He was to include liner notes, explaining why each song had been chosen.

One of the songs that the student had picked was “Kokomo,” by the Beach Boys, about Caribbean romance. (“Afternoon delight / Cocktails and moonlit nights / That dreamy look in your eye / Give me a tropical contact high.”) The book he’d read was called “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” “He related it to the character, a guy going somewhere with his mother,” Yasmin said. She wrote to the student, “ ‘Kokomo’ isn’t exactly a song I think of when discussing a person’s relationship with their mom.”

Back on Yasmin’s laptop, a new request came in, from a sixth grader:

Student: I need to learn about William Shackspear
Yasmin: Ok, great. Do you have a specific assignment?
Student: Nooooooooo. . . . .
Yasmin: Have you read any sonnets or plays?
Student: Nooooooooo.

The aspiring fourth-grade romance novelist signed on again:

Yasmin: You said “love hurts.” Tell me more. How? Why?
Student: Well, I changed it to passion.
Yasmin: Ok, what about passion? Let’s make up some characters?
Student: Do you have any idears?
Yasmin: Do you want to have one male and one female character? What should their names be?

On a shared “whiteboard,” a virtual chalkboard, the student scrawled the names Jesus and Christine, using his mouse. Yasmin, still credulous, tried to develop the backstory: How did they meet? (“Um”) Where should they meet? (“At a special place. Could you think of any?”) They agreed on Hawaii as the setting:

Yasmin: How will they meet? Do they know any of the same people . . . ?
Student: She was thirsty, so she wanted a drink.
Yasmin: . . . So she goes to a restaurant?
Student: Yep
Yasmin: Is Jesus working there? Is he there having dinner?
Student: Yes. . . .
Yasmin: Christine goes to the restaurant for a drink and meets Jesus . . . how?
Student: He took her order
Yasmin: So he’s the waiter?
Student: Yep
Yasmin: And then what?
Student: She looked up and saw him.

And, with that, the session, which had lasted nearly half an hour, timed out. Yasmin dutifully typed an entry into her tutor’s log: “We started brainstorming a story about passion.”

link to the original posting

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