Beyond Old Windows: A Teacher's Thoughts Between Centuries

Phi Kappa Phi Forum Columns

Morning Meeting, Part One: The People

Posted on March 15, 2010 at 9:12 PM

This piece was requested by the editors as a keynote article for a special Teacher's Edition of the Phi Kappa Phi Forum ... longer than the typical column, I have separated it into two entries here ... it was written for the fall issue of 2001, and was published on the heels of the terrorist attacks of nine-eleven...


THE TEACHER:

As she rinsed her coffee cup in the sink, she saw her husband's note reminding her to stop and fill her car's gas tank. She mentally clicked through the other things she was trying to remember today - the two novels she had marked with passages that linked into the unit on child labor, the sketchy map of Victorian London that went along with the lesson on Dickens's settings, and something else ... what was it? She remembered.

Back upstairs to the computer, where she had left her list of assignments and of students who were missing work. She had printed out the list only as far back as the beginning of second term, not wanting to stir up too much dust in the meeting today. Several of her students were on the list, some missing one or two pieces and a few glaringly missing most or all of the homework to date. Still three weeks before report cards, she would read the list of names and ask them to see her regarding the missing work. She smiled when she pictured, in her mind, her long ago professor - he would have insisted that she see students individually and not embarrass them by reading names out loud from the list. Where those minutes to see them individually should come from was never addressed. For that matter, she probably would not need to read the list: the students all knew who had and who had not turned in assignments. She mentally thanked her quiet mentor for his impromptu reminder.

Still, she was concerned with the number of students on the list. She had given only two assignments per subject per week this term, and yet her students were struggling. She knew that several papers would appear on her desk the week before grades closed. The students knew that she would take late work. She was more interested in knowing that they did it, and seeing how well they could do it, than in penalizing them for delaying so long. Her colleagues told her that her list of missing work was longer than theirs because she did not deduct points: she still could not do it. There were always one or two legitimate excuses in the batch, and it took additional time to sort out who then should and should not lose points. She always felt unprepared to weigh excuses but was unwilling to reject them out of hand. Instead, she kept a clear calendar for that final week in the term and encouraged her students to turn in the work. Most of them did, at the last minute, looking frazzled and annoyed and sometimes slipping behind in another class while catching up in hers.

The meeting scheduled for third period today concerned such a girl - a good athlete, active on student council, busy with her family on weekends, she had fallen behind in the first term but had caught up after only a few reminders.The list showed six missing assignments in the past seven weeks - almost a quarter of what had been assigned, compounded, no doubt, by her missing work in other classes as well. Maybe she would be willing to stay twice a week during extra help sessions, not necessarily needing help, just needing a quiet, structured, scheduled spot in her life for homework. No doubt she would prefer less homework.

Could the teacher drop the class down to just one assignment per subject per week? She immediately anticipated howls of protest - but where would they come from? Not from the parents who were coming in today - maybe from the parents of students heading to private school, maybe from the teachers still assigning two to three per week, or maybe no one would complain. Maybe everyone would see the logic in her action . . ..

She doubted that, returned to the kitchen, picked up her bulging bag, stuffed the list of missing assignments in the outer pocket, ruefully remembered the ungraded essays she had optimistically brought home last night, looked for her keys, and headed out the door. Her husband's note lay forgotten on the kitchen counter.

THE GUIDANCE COUNSELOR:

"But why do they keep giving so much homework? I can't get it all done, and then I'm in trouble! My teachers get mad, my parents get mad, and I just feel worse."

As the counselor pedaled through the morning streets, enjoying the bonus of an unusually mild early-winter day, the girl's late-afternoon question still echoing in his ears, he thought ahead to the meeting scheduled for third period at the middle school. The girl's parents, overwhelmed by the amount of homework and projects coming home, asked him to arrange a team meeting. He knew the family; this was their third child attending the middle school, with a fourth coming along behind her.Though both parents worked, one of them always arranged time to come to school functions. The kids played in town athletic teams on weekends, belonged to church groups, and spent time helping at home. These parents were losing patience with what they described as the never-ending, escalating burden of homework. They expected their children to do well, encouraged them to do well, but resented the lost family time stolen by hours of homework. But he knew the teaching team was reasonable. Why had this reached a point of frustration? Was the amount of homework truly increasing? Or was the tolerance for it decreasing? It certainly was becoming a point of discussion in many conferences, at many grade levels.

He enjoyed this portion of his ride - the low hills and gentle corners near the elementary school, traffic safely slowed by the blinking yellow lights. He pedaled lightly up the slopes and was rewarded at each crest with an easy glide down and a cool, soft breeze. He knew most of the elementary teachers inside; his own children had been students there, had often been rewarded for their academic achievement, and sometimes for their good character. He now met yearly with the fifth grade team to hear their concerns for students heading on to the middle school. They spoke often about the homework dilemma, saying time and time again, "Although bright, his grades are lowered by incomplete assignments and he'll never survive at the middle school!" He wondered about that perception, where and how often it was voiced. Did they believe that about the middle, that somehow the caring would not continue beyond elementary? Did the teachers lead parents to think that, too?

As he approached the long, level downtown neighborhood surrounding the middle school, he eased the gears higher and sat back on his seat, coasting quietly, enjoying the distractions around him, watching the foot traffic of students, bank tellers, office workers, and coffee shop patrons. He was consciously conserving his energy for the long hill to the high school and for his early-morning meeting with the ninth grade teachers, who would review the records of his former students who had entered high school with unresolved issues. Some of the behavioral difficulties included a refusal to do homework, accompanied by an angry, defensive posture, the end result of early years of struggles, arguments, lower grades, and consequences. What might have altered that outcome? More incentives, more pressure to complete homework - or less emphasis?

Wiping his brow, he removed his front wheel, lifted his bike into the rack, and turned to face the long hill he had just conquered. The view from the high school was spectacular, the entire town displayed in bright sunshine: the college buildings off in the distance at the edge of town, the commercial district beginning to fill with traffic, the highway carrying commuters into the nearby industrial parks, and beyond, the city, with so many opportunities to consider. But for now, his job seemed to be to help students negotiate their passage through the schools designed to prepare them for such choices. Homework was a recurring theme, more often now seen as an imposition, an unwelcome dinner guest at family tables. It was difficult to determine who was responsible for the unhappiness - parents, students, teachers, or the community at large. Who owned the issue?

THE PARENT:

She poured the heated water from the kettle into the china teapot, added the tea bag, and took her favorite cup and saucer out of the cabinet, fussed with a cloth napkin, and smiled at the unlikely picture of herself spending a leisurely moment with a cup of tea, alone, in a quiet house. Not very often, she commented wryly to herself, not with a husband and four kids in school and a full-time job and housework - might as well enjoy it when it happens.

She had made arrangements to take the morning off, to meet with the guidance counselor and her daughter's team of teachers. Homework was becoming a major issue, and she could not count the number of arguments, tears, and sullen evenings that had darkened this cheerful dining room. What was going on?

She knew going to work full time would change things, but her first two children had gone through middle school without this much difficulty. They were both at the high school now, and it often seemed that one computer in the family was no longer enough, ridiculous as that sounded. Her oldest wanted a laptop, so she could work alone in her bedroom on papers and projects. Her husband thought that would be feasible, if he continued to work overtime through the winter. She thought it was unnecessary, but had to admit that the computer was in constant demand with her three oldest children. It seemed gradual, this increased need for computer time to complete homework assignments, but it had reached critical mass. What would it be like next year, when her youngest reached middle school as well?

Her husband's overtime, though, meant more housework for her, even with the kids helping. They really were a good bunch of kids, she thought with satisfaction. "If I could just get the school to ease up on them. Not give up on them - I want them to do well, " she had told the guidance counselor on the telephone. "I just want some family time back - I read this book a few weeks ago, saying parents all over the country are experiencing this, and that we need to take back our family time. Would you set up a meeting - I really want to find out what's going on."

And so the counselor had, and she had arranged time from work to take the morning and go to school during third period, to talk about her daughter's progress. She knew how the meeting would start. Everyone would tell her what a nice, pleasant girl her daughter is, and how bright she is, and how she contributes to class discussions and is never a problem, and is always helpful and supportive to more needy students, and so on and so on. Then we will get to her grades, and they will talk about missing assignments. Feeling tired already, she thought to herself, "I will explain that she shares the computer with her two older sisters, and they will all nod and say yes, family time is important, too. We will all agree that she wants to do well, that her heart is in the right place,and so are ours. And then we will all make a plan for her to address missed work, and she will come home more stressed and irritable..." It was such a predictable script.  "Can we change something in this picture?" she imagined herself asking ...  What do I want them to do? Do I want less homework, really? Or do I want all of us to have more time? Does my daughter ever have a quiet moment like this, alone with a cup of tea?


by Terry Palardy, with a cameo appearance of Mike, who counseled me as both a teacher and a parent, and recognized me as a lifelong student advocate as well...

Copyright National Forum: Phi KappaPhi Journal Fall 2001


Note: go back to the Phi Kappa Phi page and select  Morning Meeting, Part Two for more on homework and family time...

 


 

Categories: parents, homework, collaboration

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2 Comments

Reply Terry
10:07 AM on April 17, 2010 
Liz says...
You nailed it with the description of the team meeting. Even though this was written years before I came here, it sounds like the exact same type of team meeting we could have this year.

Yes ... and last year, and next year ... until we choose a change ...
Reply Liz
11:38 AM on April 14, 2010 
You nailed it with the description of the team meeting. Even though this was written years before I came here, it sounds like the exact same type of team meeting we could have this year.