Monday, July 20, 2009

The load

In which we see Ms. Bradstreet weigh how much homework is enough

The Maria Chronicles, #2

Maria is conflicted. It's a Sunday night in mid-July, and she's sitting on the deck outside her frighteningly expensive, but at least unpacked, little apartment on Southside Avenue. She believes that what her landlord told her is true, that it will afford a view of the Hudson come winter when all the greenery is gone. For now she settles for occasional pedestrian traffic and the occasional sound of the Metro North train coming into the station a couple blocks away. She's been bent over her laptop for hours now, the container of lo mein she brought home from dinner last night long since forgotten, as is the half-empty bottle of Pinot Grigio. Standing up, she realizes that her back and neck are sore from her unnatural position. It hadn't been her intention to spend so much time on the syllabus for this new course, which she looked at after she came home from a jog in the park, but once she got started her immersion had been complete. Until a few minutes ago, anyway, when she got stuck. Now she stands, realizes it's getting dark, and moves her stuff inside to the kitchen. No more wine. She's tired. And about a week into her new life, a little lonely.

The problem is with her new "Advanced Topics" class. This is actually a plum assignment in a portfolio that includes the year-long survey and other staple courses. The school recently decided to drop its AP curriculum as too restrictive, a move she thoroughly endorses. This has opened up a space for an elective of her choosing, and Maria has decided she would like to try her hand at historiography in a class she's calling "Great Debates in U.S. History." She's using the latest edition of a nice course reader that she got as a desk copy last year, having then decided it was something she would like build a course around someday. That came to pass sooner than expected -- along with the end of her marriage, a new home, and a new job, which she hadn't expected at all.

The issue at hand is how much work she can or should try to get out of her still-imagined students. Maria knows she's going to ask them to write a couple short pieces on readings of their choice. She also knows she's going to ask them to do a final project on a movie
with a historical theme, like Last of the Mohicans or Saving Private Ryan, that she'll want them to situate in terms of academic scholarship at the time of its release and/or today. What she can't quite decide is whether to require them to read and write a review of a major piece of historical writing from a list she'll give them, something that will include classics like Garry Wills's Lincoln at Gettysburg or Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's Good Wives. The books would have to be short. And she knows it will be tough for students who will no doubt also be taking similarly challenging courses in science and math, not to mention playing soccer, performing in the percussion ensemble, or whatever. But shouldn't they have a sustained encounter with a major piece of historical scholarship? Especially since they're taking this course because they want to be challenged? Or maybe she should be thinking, as education guru Ted Sizer says, that Less Is More. Maybe three short reaction pieces, the movie essay, and class participation is enough.

Maria knows that the issue isn't entirely intellectual or pedagogical. It's at least as much about the kind of tone and reputation she's going to establish, how she's going to be perceived. Will they see her as a hard-ass? Is that a bad thing? She knows from experience that setting the bar too high discourages kids, some of whom will drop out -- and a sharp melt early on will not be good for her image. On the other hand, setting the bar too low conveys a lack of seriousness, and paradoxically may mean she gets even less work out of them. It's more important than usual that she get this right.

The sudden burst of Los Lobos's version of "La Bamba" from her cell phone comes as a relief to Maria. She's glad to have the diversion and human contact, particularly when she sees that it's her daughter Felicia calling from Seattle, where she's now a few months into her job as a reporter for the History News Network website (thank God her boyfriend, a software designer, has a salary they can live on).

"Hello darling!"

"Hello Mama! How are you?"

"I'm great. Really great!"

"Oh no you're not. I can tell from your voice."

"Now honey, don't you start."

"What is it, Mama? You feeling all alone out there? How could you not? You know, the Labor Day weekend coming up, but I bet I could even -- "

"Nevermind about that. You tell me how
you are."

There's a pause. Maria knows Felicia hears the edge in her mother's voice. The right answer is to answer. Good girl: Felicia does, with talk about the office, her boyfriend David, a recent visit to Vancouver. This goes on for a while. When Maria senses that Felicia wants to turn the conversation back to her, she shifts the ground again.

"And your brother? Have you heard from him?"

"Yeah, I talked with him yesterday," Felicia answers. "I didn't get the sense things were all honky dory with Doreen -- he sounded a little tired, maybe even down -- but I didn't press and he didn't say much on that. His work is going well, though. And what about
your work? Are you preparing for classes?"

This is safe ground. "Indeed I am. Maria describes her curricular planning, including the work she'd done that afternoon. She also decides that Felicia is a good sounding board, and asks her opinion.

"Oh I would definitely assign the book," Felicia says. "Let 'em do some real history. You're talking as if you're going to inflict pain on them. It'll be fun!"

"Well, it would be fun for
you. You were always the golden girl when it came to homework. I'm worried about it being perceived as too burdensome."

"Burdensome, schmerdensome! If you're really worried about it, have them read the book over spring break."

A good idea. But Maria shoots it down. "Can't. I was told when I was hired that they really try hard not to make the place too much of a grind. School policy is no homework over vacations."

"Well, that may be the policy, but you and I both know there will always be kids who do homework over vacations, whether they want to or not. So don't actually assign it for the break. Set it up so that anyone who
wants to can read it at the airport while waiting six hours to board the plane to Orlando, but no one will actually have to read it, because the review won't be due for a week or so after that."

"Honey, you're brilliant."

"Of course I am. That's why I'm making a fortune here writing news digests for HNN. Have you asked my good-for-nothing brother what he thinks?" Maria knows Felicia really is fond of Evan, and really thinks of him as lazy.

"That good-for-nothing brother of yours is making about twice as much as you are. But no, I haven't asked him."

"Well don't. You know what he'll say."

Maria does. That's why she's tempted to call him. But she knows that he's going to a Coldplay concert tonight.

Maria gazes back out toward the deck. It's fully dark now, and she's fully tired. "You know, Mama, David has some frequent flyer miles. I could get out there to see you maybe even next weekend."

This is all too tempting an offer. "Nonsense. Maybe Labor Day. We'll see. Let me go, honey. I want to catch some re-runs of
In Treatment on HBO."

"OK, Mama. You think about that visit. I can be there at a snap of your fingers."

"I know, sweetheart. Thank you. Love to David."

Maria has no intention of watching
In Treatment. Instead, she puts her wineglass in the dishwasher, turns off her computer, and turns on a lamp in her bedroom, where a paperback copy of Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge awaits. She had already thought of what Felicia had said. But hearing her say it has emboldened her. It's going on the syllabus. She can change her mind later. Ted Sizer says less is more, she thinks as she takes off her shorts and crawls into bed with the T-shirt she put on after the shower that followed her run. But he also talks about patient expectation. Something like that. I'll aim high, at first, anyway. That's always been my way. Mark would say that's why he had the affair -- that my standards are too high, but . . . .

Maria is grateful for her exhaustion. She's barely opened the novel before she falls asleep.