Posted by Bill Ferriter on Sunday, 09/22/2013
Blogger's Note: My thinking in this post is unpolished, y'all.
While I'm wrestling with homework and grading policies and the role that schools play in teaching kids to be responsible, I certainly don't have any clear answers to what are obviously knotty questions. I thought the conversation was worth having, though -- and hope you will join me in thinking about a challenging topic.
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No joke: When I found out who my fifth grade teacher was going to be, I almost crapped my preteen pants. You see, Mrs. Morosini had a BRUTAL reputation in the circles of ten-year-olds who lived in my neighborhood. Her nickname -- Meanie Morosini -- had been earned only after YEARS of putting the kids assigned to her classroom through the educational meat-grinder. Had Harry Potter been written in the early 1980s, I'm sure we would have called her a Death Eater.
As an example of her no-nonsense approach to taking care of business, Morosini gave us homework in pretty much every subject every single night. Each school day started with frantic scribbling in our pocket assignment notebooks -- remember those? -- as Mrs. Morosini stood at the front of the room droning out task after task. Nothing was posted on the board for us to copy. The expectation was keep up and stay organized or you're screwed.
And "you're screwed" took on new meaning in Morosini's classroom simply because missing ANY task on the day that it was due meant redoing EVERY task assigned FIVE times. Forget to practice your cursive letters? Better be ready to do your math problems again (and again and again and again and again). Leave your salt map of Africa -- remember those? -- home on presentation day? Better be ready to do your science worksheet again (and again and again and again and again).
Complicating matters for those of us trying to survive Morosini's class was the fact that we were born before the Internet became a basic tool for communicating expectations between home and school. Morosini wasn't posting regular updates and extra copies of handouts online for our moms and dads to check. Heck, Morosini wasn't even posting regular updates or extra copies of handouts in our classroom for us to check. Lose your paper in Morosini's room and you had to borrow a friend's to copy it by hand. The mimeograph machine -- remember those? -- was too expensive to operate for teachers to give irresponsible kids new papers every time something went missing in the bottom of a backpack.
Complicating matters even MORE for those of us trying to survive in Morosini's class was the fact that we were born before parents saw it as their primary role to stick up for their kids in every circumstance. My mother and father didn't send emails to Mrs. Morosini every time that I had to spend hours recopying homework assignments as a punishment for forgetting a task. Instead, they grounded me to my bedroom -- where my Carl Douglas Kung Fu Fighting album (remember those?) was my only entertainment -- as soon as I was finished with Morosini's consequence as a reminder to be more responsible the next time.
On the surface, Morosini's approach to homework -- and my parents' tolerance of it -- seems unreasonable.
As a guy who has always worked to give kids extra chances to complete tasks and who has used the Internet to post homework since Geocities made websites -- remember those? -- doable for regular people, part of me can't believe that there was a time when kids were expected to spend hours and hours on school tasks every evening, where the only communication that parents expected was a grade on a report card at the end of each nine-week marking period, and where severe consequences for missing work were expected, maybe even appreciated, by most families.
But one thing's for sure: As hard as Morosini's class was, I learned a TON about the importance of paying attention, being responsible and finishing my work on time.
The consequences for forgetting were very real and very relevant to me. No one was going to bail me out if I didn't have my homework done each day; no one was posting tasks online that I could access if I forgot to copy my homework down or file my handouts properly in my binder; no one was going to accept late work for full credit until the last day of the quarter no matter when the original due date was. Instead, everyone was expecting me to follow through -- and following through is something I got REALLY good at after being grounded to a bedroom with nothing but a record player and a book shelf a few times.
I guess what I'm wondering is in a world where teachers are always just an email away, where homework is constantly posted online, where grading policies favor second chances over consequences, and where schoolwork doesn't sit at the top of anyone's to-do list, have we inadvertently made things too easy for today's kids?
Was there merit in Morosini's practices? As coercive as they were, did they make me a better person -- someone who understands that in the end, deadlines matter and that the responsibility for completing tasks rests on my shoulders?
Or were Morosini's practices unproductive and hurtful? Did they take away from my ability to enjoy learning for learning's sake or interfere with my ability to spend time pursuing passions beyond school? More importantly, did they work better for me just because I had a mom and a dad who were ready and willing to support me once I got home? Is it possible that my peers from struggling families learned nothing about "being successful" from Morosini simply because "being successful" in their homes meant keeping the light and heat bill paid and the children fed from month to month?
I know there's no easy answers to any of these questions, but if we still believe that kids need to learn to be persistent and responsible in order to be successful -- if we believe that work behaviors matter -- I think this is a conversation worth having.
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