Sunday, September 21, 2014

Free Fridays and Ketchup Days

Now that we're back in the swing of school and I feel like I've gotten to know my 9th graders well, there are some things I have encountered that disturb me. A lot. (One of which is the way they all use the word 'alot.' It's two words, people. A. Lot. But I digress.)

I pride myself on being a tough teacher. If a student makes an A in my class, it's because he or she has earned it. I don't give A's just for showing up - students earn A's when they complete and master assignments. What disturbs me, this semester more than any other, perhaps, is how many of my students expect those A's just for showing up. The first few quizzes, tests, and homework assignments threw them for the proverbial loop. There were many grades far below par, and there were many confused students and parents. There was a confused teacher, too. If the answers aren't right, then I must mark them wrong, right? If the assignment is only halfway completed, then it cannot earn more than a 50 percent, right?

Yes, my expectations are high, and no, I don't apologize for it. But what has been on my mind lately is simply this: are my expectations really that much higher than my students have known? Is completing an assignment fully and accurately really such an anomaly? Have attempts without mastery been acceptable in the past?

Don't get me wrong - I know that high school is a whole new ballgame for kids. The pace is faster, the classes are longer, and the load is heavier. Understandable. But the expectations - shouldn't they be similar? The demand for responsibility - shouldn't it be comparable?

A friend of mine teaches across the hall from me, and she had a student ask if they got to have "Free Friday." Her response: "I'm sorry - what? You get free Saturday and Sunday. We have work to do."

Free Friday? Is there really such a thing? Are there teachers somewhere who have fewer standards  to teach and lower expectations from their administration? How can this exist?

My mind is always blown when I give back the first test, students see a low grade, and the question is posed, "When can I retake this?" I try very hard to control myself when I answer, "Never. You didn't take the notes, you failed to turn in the homework, and you didn't come in for extra help." I sincerely don't understand, and I need someone to explain this one to me. Is retaking tests standard practice now? Is getting a second chance when you did zero work the first time somehow helping children succeed? I would argue vehemently that giving multiple chances after initial laziness only perpetuates laziness. Why should a child study or work hard the first time if there's going to be a second? (Of course, there is a difference for a child with a diagnosed learning disability. That's a very different conversation.)


Likewise, "Ketchup" Days leave me dazed and confused as well - at least for high school. My students have 5 days after an excused absence to make up any work missed. After 5 days, the missing work becomes a zero, and they are not given the opportunity to "ketchup" no matter how cute the graphic on a red folder is. After 5 days, we have moved light years ahead, and failure to complete missed work becomes a responsibility issue. I fear we are teaching learned helplessness. My take on the issue is very black and white - the missing work was in the folder, you knew the procedure, so your failure to complete the work is a you problem. Case closed.

We are doing students - future adults - no favors by giving them a zillion chances to complete work well and completely. We are teaching them no life skills when we allow them to get away with anything less than the best they can give.

I'm going to make this into a poster to hang in my classroom!

The best thing happened during a conversation the other day with a student. She shared with me that she had fun in last year's class. The teacher was cool and let them use their phones all the time, but now she realizes how little she actually learned and how far behind she is as a result. She wishes her teacher had taught and demanded more. Isn't that the point of education? To teach people what they didn't even know they didn't know?

I desperately want to be remembered by my students as someone who challenged them daily, teaching them how to think deeply and act responsibly. I want them to look back on freshman English and think, "Man. I really earned that A."