May 19, 2007

Middle schools and getting students to be organized and do the work

As anyone who has taught or been a parent to someone in the middle grades knows, the most common apparent reason for student failure in grades 6-8 is not completing or turning in the work.  (We're not talking Aristotelian causes yet...) Joanne Jacobs links to a chain of opposing views on giving students incompletes: Laura/Huerter0, who describes a conversation at her school (whose value was primarily getting the staff to talk about the problem), and The Science Goddess, who thinks that forcing students to respond to incomplete work by, er, doing it will short-circuit the habit of many students to do the minimum work necessary... or often below the minimum, given standard adolescent miscalculations.

I'll offer two perspectives here, a personal one and a professional one. I find myself sympathetic to the younger adolescent student on this point, in part because I'm horribly disorganized myself. Whatever skills I have in forming big-picture judgments, making short-term efforts on projects, and being persistent over the long term cover up for a chaotic mind and a habitual lack of organization in any physical space I manage. I see children who stuff papers into a backpack without filing them neatly and see myself. I have sympathy for students who cannot get their lockers to open in less than 2 minutes, so don't go to lockers between classes. I pity the 70-pound student whose middle-grade teachers insist on their carrying every single paper from every class put neatly in binders that then almost outweigh the student when all stuffed into a backpack (not even counting texts). The problem with the One True Way to introduce students to an organized student life in sixth or seventh grade is that there is no One True Student, and some part of the bristling is the students' recognition of the gap between the teacher's convenience and what works for a student.

As a parent, I've done the First 30 Days' routine with two sixth graders: Every day, you sit down, go over everything, and make sure the work is done. Praise until the adolescent's eyes start to roll. Then hope that the first round is an inoculation with no booster needed. (Eduwonk and Michele from NCLBlog, your times are coming on this, I assure you.) But if my life now is a fragmented kaleidescope of work, chauffeuring, and making whatever personal connections are possible in the time remaining, how can I not be sympathetic to the adolescents who have less than a third of my life experience, especially when they are in less control of their time than I am?

At the same time, I've also been on the other end, as a teacher of students who are in college for the first semester or returning after a long gap. There is only so much I can bend for the students, and while I try to compensate with scaffolding (such as the week's checklist I posted on my class's Blackboard site Thursday), the uniform scaffolding only goes so far when there are individual problems: some students haven't gotten their IDs yet, so they can't access the Blackboard site.  And don't talk to me about incomplete semester grades, when I know some proportion of students will just not finish the work or turn it in at an incredibly inconvenient time for me to respond to it. (Fortunately, most such students acknowledge that if they were late with the work, they can't complain when I can't get around to it quickly.)

Professional perspective: Assigning either zeroes or incompletes for undone work is a coping mechanism, part of the routines of a teacher's life. No routine is guaranteed to motivate students, and to some extent one shouldn't expect coping mechanisms to solve others' problems. That doesn't mean that schools can't do a better job of the routines: forcing students to carry around pounds and pounds of paper in the name of organization is ... uh ... largely counterproductive. Many elementary teachers use folders with pockets for student work, and I suspect that would work fairly well in middle school (with more folders, of course), as long as there is a rotating schedule of when classes shift material from folders to binders. Yes, I think the poor planner (which is usually ignored by October and generally disintegrates around March) could be replaced with a folder. But that's my particular coping-mechanism idea. Tips and tricks are important, but they don't address larger problems in schooling.

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Posted in Education policy on May 19, 2007 4:24 PM |