The Secret Life of Teaching, #4
By Horace Dewey
The following piece has been published on the home page of the HNN website.
The phone on my desk is ringing when I arrive in my office at 8:17 a.m. on the Thursday morning in the week before winter break, though with the temperature stuck in the thirties, Spring feels like an eternity away. I pick up the receiver—how much longer is there going to be a phone on my desk?—while simultaneously trying to slip out of my coat. I’m tempted not to answer it.
"I'm so glad to reached you. This is Ruth, Jason's mom? We met at the basketball game a couple weeks ago."
"Yes of course. How are you?" In my mind I see nothing, no name, no face. But Jason—Jason Thompson—will be enough to work with. I drape my coat over my desk chair, pull my laptop out of my briefcase, and power it up.
"Well, I've been better,” she’s saying. “I'm calling about the History Day project. As you know, Jason's working with Tom Schlacter."
"Yes.” I sort of do know that. I’ve got a hard copy of the master list somewhere in my inbox. I begin to rustle through it.
"A thoroughly depressing subject, if you ask me." Now I remember: They're doing the decision to drop the atomic bomb. Originally, they wanted to do World War II. I told them the subject was too broad. They've narrowed it down to the bomb, and are working on a PowerPoint (the first refuge of scoundrels). The first draft I saw was not too promising. Big slabs of text, relatively weak in conceptual organization. Technical glitches. Normally, one or both of them will be working with Joey Rizzo. But Joey has grand plans for a tabletop reenactment of Pickett's Charge that he says he's been working on since July with Roy Shimkin. Ominously, I’ve seen nothing new on Jason and Tom's project since they handed in their notably sketchy first draft last week, only an email with a string of questions that could have been answered if they’d actually studied the assignment’s parameters.
Then I realize that I've not been paying close attention to Ruth, who has been explaining the series of obstacles Jason and Tom have encountered. "It doesn't help matters any that Tom lives so far downtown. He never wants to come to our place. Did you know that they spent all night working on this Saturday?"
Given the taciturnity of both of these boys, I'm tempted to ask how I would know that, but bite my tongue. I also imagine an empty pizza box, a Madden NFL game on a laptop, and vintage Ludacris blaring from a set of speakers. Still, I feel a twinge of unease. Truth is, the History Day Project has long been a sore point among some administrators and colleagues, who think it asks too much of the kids at a difficult time of year. We have revisited the subject from time to time as a department, and concluded that the pluses outweigh the minuses. For grading purposes we like to have a substantial grade-wide assessment at the end of the quarter, and see bona fide value in a group undertaking in which students get to choose their topic and work on it in a planned sequence of stages. And some of the final results are truly extraordinary. Alas, that's not going to be the case here.
"I'm sorry to hear that,” I say soothingly about the all-nighter. “I know that this is a difficult undertaking. That's why I always emphasize at the start of the project that students need to think carefully about with whom they're going to work and to emphasize that the quality of their collaboration is an important dimension of what this is all about. I also emphasize that they stand or fall together, and that if one kid coasts and another kid does all the work, that itself can be a valuable lesson."
"Well, I'm not sure I agree with you about that,” she says. “Don't get me wrong— I'm not saying that Jason has handled this perfectly. He can be lazy. But I knew as soon as I heard that he was can be working with Tom were going to be problems. Tom is a nice kid, but I don’t think he’s capable of pulling his weight, intellectually or otherwise.”
Not a kind assessment, but not an inaccurate one, either. I click on my browser, go to my bookmarks, and choose the weather page. I see something about an approaching storm.
"What I don't understand," she continues, "is the timing of this project. Why does it have to be just before the break? We're leaving for St. Bart's tomorrow morning. We’ve planned this trip for months, and I'm pulling the kids out of school tomorrow to get an early start.”
I click on the WINTER WEATHER ADVISORY link. Snow to begin late this afternoon; six to ten inches by morning. Fine by me: I’m not going anywhere.
"Well,” I respond, “the deadline for this project is something my department periodically reviews. But we've learned from experience that it makes more sense to have the project due before the break so that really we clear the decks for kids to have a real vacation. Nobody likes to have a big assignment hanging over their heads going into a stretch of time off." Actually, I have traditionally had this assignment due a week before the break, but watching my own son scramble to complete it (a documentary about strategic bombing -- the boys always seem to go for war) has led me to conclude that a little more time really does make a difference. He kept me out of the loop on that one, I’m happy to say. His partner’s dad was a documentary filmmaker, so that's where they got most of their help.
Ruth is pressing the point: "I've got to tell you, an assignment like this really wreaks havoc on family life."
"Again, I'm sorry to hear that. Is there something you'd like me to do? Would you like me to talk with the boys?”
“That would be good," she says. "But what would really help is giving them more time. I don't think these two really understood what they’ve gotten themselves into. The geographic factor has really proven to be a major complication, and coming up with good times to collaborate has been a major, major problem. At my urging, they made plans to meet after school today—Tom is going to skip practice and come over—and my hope is that they’ll forge a game plan to finish it. I think Jason will have lots of down time between connecting flights and will be able to work while we’re on the plane. They can communicate by email or instant messaging or whatever. Do you think you could give them another day or two?"
I can't resist a smile. Normally, I'd be in a position I really hate: having to say no. To accede to this request would not only precipitate an avalanche of similar ones—the word would be on the street almost immediately—but get me into trouble with my colleagues, as we've all sworn a blood oath to hold the line in the face of these pressures. I realize I'm taking a chance here, but if my bluff gets called, I can say I was certain, however mistakenly, that there was going to be a snow day, rendering the deadline moot.
"Well, I don't like to do this, but understand extenuating factors in this particular situation. So I'll allow Jason and Tom a little more time to finish this up. As long as I have it we get back from break, there should be no harm done."
"I really appreciate that. I want you to know that Jason loves your class.”
Yeah, right. "Thank you. I enjoy working with him."
"The best part of this," she tells me, adopting a confiding, even conspiratorial, tone, "is that Jason will be spending the second week of the break with his father. For once in his life, the man will actually have to pay attention to his son's needs. Can't wait to see that.”
"Glad to be of service," I say with a chuckle. And though I don't know why, I mean it. Though she's given me little reason to think so, I suspect her grievance with her ex, whoever he is, may well be legitimate. "Have a good trip, Ruth."
“Thank you, Mr. Dewey.”
“Please call me Horace.” But she’s already hung up.
Turned out to be more like a foot. But they got out in time. Jason came back with an enviable tan.
* * *
There are multiple frictions in the triangular relationship between parent, teacher, and student, ranging from grades to school budgets. But on a day-to-day basis, the most pervasive, if evanescent, is homework. It’s a subject on which each party feels ambivalence. Students typically say they hate homework, but it’s often the source of their most substantial achievements. Teachers feel they need homework to make class time more productive, but assigning it usually means more grading. Parents want to feel their children are learning, but worry about the demands on their time and the way homework can sometimes interfere with extra-curricular and/or family activities. (Having been involuntarily been drawn into my own children’s projects, sometimes as a matter of the specific mandate of teachers, I can sympathize with this exasperation.)
Of these three constituencies, it’s teachers who are the most stalwart champions of homework. Mastery of anything is always to some degree a matter of a willingness to invest—and a willingness to waste—time in the pursuit of long-term gain. This is a truth that students experience in realms ranging from sports to computer games. Not all students are eager to make such an investment in Spanish or chemistry, but they certainly can understand why their parents and teachers want that for them.
Which is not to say that homework is always assigned thoughtfully or usefully by teachers. Inexperienced or lazy ones will sometimes use homework as a crutch to compensate for failures to use class time efficiently. Or they will assign homework that has no clear relationship to the material being covered in class. Or assign it without assessing it in a timely way—or at all, an omission that breeds resentment and fosters corrosive corner-cutting by students.
Even if one assumes that every teacher is thoughtful about the way homework is deployed, the fact that any middle- or high school student will be taking up to a half-dozen subjects at a time creates significant stress in even the best-organized student’s life. It’s not unusual in some school districts for students to routinely have over three hours of homework a night, a particularly daunting prospect for a kid in a play or on a team who returns from school on a late bus, has dinner, and gets to work circa 7:30 p.m., twelve or more hours after the day has begun. While schools often have circuit breakers of various kinds in place for this kind of problem (no homework over weekends or holiday breaks, make-up provisions for students saddled with multiple assessments on the same day, et. al.), they’re such complicated organisms with so many moving parts that it’s virtually impossible to craft an even work flow for any given kid. Even if this was possible from an academic standpoint, the discretionary choices students make—clubs, theater, sports—and their varying ability to juggle such balls, complicate any attempt to create a truly level playing field. Under the circumstances, teachers can not only plausibly say they can’t know what else their students are doing, but also that they shouldn’t allow such knowledge to become a consideration, lest their particular enterprise be crippled altogether.
It’s for reasons like these that education reformers like Alfie Kohn argue for the elimination of homework entirely. Such arguments get additional support when one considers how little a role homework plays in leading educational powers like Finland. And how much of role it plays in others like South Korea, where saddling students with extra work has become an arms race of sorts generating so much misery and alarm that the government has resorted to police raids on tutoring classes that run beyond the state-mandated curfew of 10 p.m.
Perhaps predictably, I will state that I’m a homework partisan. I try to be intelligent and efficient about it. Even more than work undertaken during class time, students should have a clear understanding about how what they’re being asked to do fits into a larger curricular schema or prepares them for an upcoming assessment. Homework should be relatively modest in scope—the rule at my school is an average of 45 minutes a night—and ideally give students some leeway in the timing as to when they complete it, as in an assignment given on Monday but not actually due until later in the week.
There are two core tasks that homework is good for—that homework is uniquely good for. Both are alike in that they demand a measure of concentration and reflection difficult to come by during the school day. The process of education is inherently social; while home schooling has its partisans and may be necessary for any number of reasons, children learn best in school because interacting with peers on multiple levels is central to learning (including the acquisition of self-knowledge). And yet—in part for that very reason—an educational process that does not build in opportunities for solitude and absorbing lessons, implicit as well as explicit ones, is incomplete. Students need time to make sense of things. This work of making sense can happen in the hurly burly of class discussion or in scribbling down notes while a teacher talks, but processing and integrating information is typically work that gets completed off-site.
The first important homework task is reading. Adults typically laud it, for themselves and children—“readers are leaders,” a beloved uncle of mine, a construction worker who as far as I can tell was indifferently educated at best, used to say—but few of us really have much stamina for it. Reading requires a sense of focus that’s difficult to attain, because there’s so little time in the day, or because of our physiological limitations, or both. I think of reading as really quite akin to physical exercise: the more you do it, the better you get at it, and the faster your mind works. Reading may well be less important for the actual content you encounter than the habits of mind it inculcates—attentiveness, imagination, a capacity for abstraction. In the end, reading is the sin qua non of learning: everything else is a short-cut, a compensation, a substitution (like a fad diet in lieu of exercise). To use a cooking metaphor: reading is homemade; getting it in lecture form is store-bought. Sure, reading takes longer. But it’s just plain better.
Precisely because reading is so difficult, teachers should assign it with care—something which, alas, is difficult when one is subject to district-wide mandates. Textbooks are like baby food in that they’re age-appropriate, relatively substantial, and segmented into measured servings. But that doesn’t mean they’re tasty. Far better are selections chosen by a well-read teacher with a sharp eye for the relevant newspaper article, blog post, short story or poem. As in so many other ways, less is more. In part that’s because the ability for students and teacher to read together, to close-read sentences and passages, is an excellent use of class time after students come to class having already had a first coat of exposure to a piece of text. Reading intensively, which is to say reading things more than once, is among the most important wellsprings of learning.
Reading is so crucial because it’s foundational for success in an even more demanding intellectual task that’s also best undertaken as homework: writing. Writing is among the most complex neurological tasks the human brain performs, and it’s hard work. Paradoxically, good writing seems effortless. Which is one of the reasons students find it so daunting: it seems like it should be easy, and when it isn’t they assume they’re bad at it, which makes them even less willing to undertake it. But knowing that it’s hard for everyone will only get you so far: writing is like bench-pressing a lot of weight—you have to work yourself up to it. That’s what school is for: creating a space where such activities are promoted and sustained, precisely because there’s really nowhere else it would happen on a mass scale.
But—really—the single most important reason to ask students to write is that it’s something that they must do alone. Only when they’re by themselves, grappling, seeking, struggling to communicate with somebody else, are they fully engaged in the task of learning. Actually, they can’t really begin to explain something to someone else until they’ve explained it to themselves, which is what first drafts are for. Writing is also a collaborative enterprise, in that peers and parents can provide feedback, and in some cases teachers can sit beside students and coach them through the process. But even when this happens, there still needs to be a time and place where students follow through on their own: the coach must step aside.
The coaching analogy is a very rich one for understanding teaching generally, but it has particular value in the context of homework. Coaches prescribe workouts, some of which are executed on the field of play, but much of which take place offsite. The coach can’t monitor any given athlete continuously; nor can a coach be certain that a particular routine will pay off equally or at all for every athlete. It’s a game of percentages which, should the student honor the coach’s instructions, is likely to yield long-term gain. Beyond some general parameters (like the length of a practice and care for the health of the athletes), the coach doesn’t know or care what else the players may have to do, and a coach’s personal regard for a player should not cloud the coach’s judgment about who is or isn’t in shape. There are no guarantees. But the best way to win games is to practice.
* * *
The goals of the History Day project that Jason and Tom are working on are a bit different than what I’ve been outlining here. My school participates in the National History Day, a program that annually involves 50,000 students from 49 states who work within the parameters of an annually chosen theme like “Turning Points in History,” “Revolution, Reaction and Reform,” or “Rights and Responsibilities.” Students can work alone or collaborate in groups of up to three people, and choose formats within a menu of options that include tabletop exhibitions, documentaries, dramatic presentations and websites. My colleagues and I believe that the work of formulating arguments may be easier for students when working in media other than traditional essays, which is why this project is a capstone assessment for the quarter (a grade-wide research essay is the main undertaking for the end of the year).
We’re pretty upfront with students at the time when we assign this project in January that it’s as much about managing the enterprise as it is about the content. That means planning ahead for deadlines that come up in stages: topic, bibliography, first draft, final draft. We tell them: choose your partners carefully, because you sink or swim together. Someone who does all the work will get the same grade as a member of your team that does none. (In fact, we keep an eye on this, and make a mental note the balance the ledgers in some silent way.) “I'm not sure I agree with you about that,” Ruth had said when I explained my colleagues’ thinking in our phone conversation, and she might be right. But we try to get kids to perform different kinds of intellectual tasks, and revealing her son’s difficulty in performing this one is part of the point.
For all our planning and justifications, however, we never entirely feel we’re in control of the assignments we give. Loopholes and ambiguities inevitably present themselves; so do unplanned exigencies like snowstorms. My delight in conferring on Ruth and Jason Thompson an extension dissipates quickly as my colleagues in the History Department realize the storm is creating a logistical mess, and a flurry of emails swirl among us. If the History Day project was a run-of-the-mill essay, we might simply expect students to email their work to us, whether or not school was in session. But given the number of projects that actually have to be brought in and set up (the kindly librarians have given us some space), we can’t expect that. Since we need to be uniform, we decide the project will have to be due the first day back after the break. The very thing we were trying to prevent—having kids with homework over the holidays—has come to pass. Jason and Tom’s project, long on images and short on interpretation, gets a B. On the acknowledgments panel of their PowerPoint, Jason thanks his Dad, “for help in proofreading, and for the pizza.” Motherhood, apparently, is truly a thankless task.
In the aftermath of the year’s assignment, we decide that maybe a post-break due date isn’t such a bad idea after all. In fact, we agree, the thing to do is to have draft workshops the first week back, and have the projects due the second week. That will create a grading squeeze before the semester ends, but it seems worth it. For teachers no less than students, there’s no substitute for experience. We learn by doing—and redoing.