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Class Notes
The politics of late assignments
(Published November 17, 2003)

By MATT WENNERSTEN

The chill morning air as I walk to school is a pleasant change from the hot and humid end of summer. November is here Ė time for presidential campaigns and winter coats. Itís hard to believe that 10 weeks have passed. The first grading period is over. Teachers across the city are reviewing their class lists, readying new assignments and getting set for the second grading period. Students have new schedules. A fresh start, and a chance to reflect on our progress so far, and decide which way to go from here.

Next November, weíll be deciding to vote for a Democrat or a Republican (or independent, for those inclined). This November, teachers are deciding other questions of politics. Consider this seemingly unpolitical example: How do you handle late assignments? A student didnít do the work in time for the deadline. November has rolled around, and afraid of the dreaded zero, the student scrambles to complete the work. A conservative Republican might say: "You made a choice to not do the work, you pay the price." A liberal Democrat might say: "You made a bad choice, Iíll give you another chance to become better." Most teachers fall somewhere in the middle, where you donít get full credit, but you do get some credit for turning in missing work. Much like the next president will be deciding the direction of the nation, but at a much smaller scale, what should the direction of my class be?

The end of this advisory has brought mixed success, along with the last minute torrent of late work to consider. Itís as if only when the grade book is closing that the grades become real. Without considering the late assignments, over half of my students will receive failing grades. This is a shocking statistic for any teacher to consider. Is their failure a failure of the teacher to teach, or a failure of the students to do the work to standard? Like a president confronted by bad news, you look for ways to find positives. Many of the projects my students turned in at the last minute are, while long in coming, at or above standard and demonstrate the type of mathematical understanding Iíve been hoping for all first advisory.

My high school band teacher used to say that playing the right note at the wrong time is still the wrong note. Iíve been grappling with this idea for about two years. I believe it cuts to the heart of our reasons for having school. On one hand, the purpose of school is to increase knowledge and improve the ability to think. Whether this takes place on Day 1 or Day 49 of an advisory really shouldnít matter. If a student demonstrates that they have learned what that they are supposed to learn (assuming that the teacher actually has picked something worthwhile for them to learn), does it matter exactly when in school they demonstrate it? On the other hand, another purpose of school is to prepare our young people for the future, which means the world of work and adult responsibility. No one is going to change your mortgage from an F to a C if you make a late payment, or give you half credit on your taxes because your mother wrote you a note. Itís important for kids to learn this before they have to learn it the hard way.

Also, once you accept late work, the importance of deadlines vanishes. Regardless of whether they learn the subject, students learn real fast exactly what you can and canít get away with for each teacher. If I accept late work, why turn it in on time? Yet if I donít accept late work, kids who missed deadlines early in the grading period will have no incentive to work in the last weeks, since theyíre destined to fail anyway.

Am I doing a disservice to kids by being easy on them? Will another generation of kids graduate from high school unready for real-life because I was too much of a cream puff?

On the last day of the advisory, I asked my pre-calculus class what they thought I should do. Pre-calculus is a college preparatory class: 25 smart, college bound kids, juniors and seniors, getting ready to graduate and move on with their lives. Their frankness surprised me. Most of the kids wanted to turn in late work and get credit for it. They swore up and down that all the other teachers allowed them to do make up work. Yet even considering these two statements, the majority of these students didnít think I should do it. They want me to take late work, but they donít think I should.

Next year for sure, Iím going to take their advice. No late work for me. Weíll see what happens. Perhaps a Democrat will be in the White House.

***

Wennersten is a third year mathematics teacher at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights and a graduate of the D.C. Teaching Fellows program (http://www.dcteachingfellows.org). Please send stories, comments or questions to mwenners@yahoo.com.

Copyright 2003, The Common Denominator