Saturday, January 19, 2008

The disservice of lax deadlines.

At the time I was drunk on admiration and paralyzed by the fear of her wrath, so I completely bought into her philosophies and beliefs about education, no matter how arbitrary or well researched they were. "Dr. Smith" as I will call her, was the first principal I would ever be employed under, the one who gave a starry-eyed intern her first real interview and first professional teaching job offer. From the first day I arrived in that Florida middle school is was the perfect symbiotic relationship. With the ink of my diploma barely dry, I needed to be on the leash of a strong leader who could guide me. She needed a young puppy to train, to sit at her heels, look up admirably and buy into her all her policies and beliefs. I was happy to oblige. I freely laced up my sneakers before she even said jump.

Dr. Smith was firm on her deadline policy, which I faithfully implemented in my classroom. Students were allowed to turn in assignments late at any time during the quarter, even on the last day (and in some cases after the quarter), regardless of when it was. The point, she reasoned, was for students to learn the material and complete the assignment. Wouldn't it be better for them to do it late than never at all? Absolutely, the little puppy would say, wagging her tail. Students were to learn, nay master, the objectives, and they should have as many chances as they needed.

It seemed like the right thing to do. It made parent conferences easier; we presented the idea that we really cared about student knowledge, no matter when that knowledge takes place. We were the educational heroes, putting the spirit of learning ahead of the convenience of timely grading.

During my second year, with a continuous lack of extended effort from my students, I began to feel something was amiss with this idea. I slowly chewed off my leash and began to ask other teachers what they thought about the policy, if they had done anything differently and what they reasoned was best for students in the present and future.

Before I had any time to process my findings however, I traded in my Florida i.d. tags for shiny new ones from Illinois.

I forgot about deadlines for awhile, trading them instead for the hugs and crayons of kindergarten students. Deadlines don't really exist in kindergarten. If Joey doesn't master his lower case letter sound identification the first quarter he just keeps practicing them the next. There is no great penalty on a check plus report card.

Re-entering middle school this year I naturally took the same policy of assignment deadline lenience I was obliged to use in Florida. I took off some employability points (points for skills relating to time-management, organization, participation, etc.) for turning in an assignment late, but otherwise told students they could turn in their assignments up until the last day of the quarter and they would still receive full credit. The result? The initial deadline for assignment after assignment lapsed as my list of zeros grew larger and larger for students who did not turn in their work, if they even bothered to do it at all. At the end of the quarter, when those few lucky students who had parents looming threats over their heads started to panic, I was quick to remind them they had the privilege of turning in missing assignments from the entire quarter up until the last day. Some dutiful students would quickly scribble out a few meager and grammatically disastrous sentences and try to turn it in as genuine prose. More others took the notion of "What? You mean WORK?" Nah, they implied, I'll take the F.

Is it any surprise that in all my classes totaling 107 pupils, that 16 students failed my class the first quarter and that 26 students failed English the second quarter? (It should be noted that there are many variables which caused or contribute to these F's, such as different genres of writing each quarter, students turning in work on time but producing poor quality, low employability scores and general laziness.) This is 8th grade English for crying out loud, not rocket science.

My team sat around at one of our daily meetings right before break and recounted our F list (most of these F students failed classes other than mine too). I couldn't see where I was going wrong, they could turn in their papers at any time, basically, why weren't they? Why did I deal with the inconvenience of having an additional stack of papers to grade at quarter's end because of the inability of my students to follow a deadline. Furthermore, why was I allowing myself to be manipulated in to feeling like I was a bad teacher because of these students, to allow my teaching self-esteem bank account to enter numerous withdrawals?

I took part of my winter break to reflect some more on this issue and came to the conclusion that perhaps it wasn't that my students didn't understand what a deadline was, it was that they didn't understand how not to follow a firm deadline.

Students are faced with deadlines all the time. "You can not play with your friends until you put on a coat." "You have to earn your allowance money before you can go shopping." They watch their heat being turned off in their apartment because mom or dad couldn't pay the gas bill by the 15th. Coach makes them run an extra lap because they were the last one to practice. Auntie burned the pie again because she didn't take it out when the timer beeped.

We are a culture of deadlines; when time lapses past the deadline and the task is not completed direct and indirect consequences happen. Middle school students understand this, perhaps what they have a harder time understanding is how to function without the deadline. If that pie doesn't have a burning point, then it doesn't need to be taken out of the oven until you are ready to eat it. If the gas company doesn't shut off the heat, then why bother paying? If we can turn that assignment in any time then we can just wait until later and do it. By giving kids essentially no deadline I was actually inhibiting them from doing their work. The cognition of a tween is not well suited to time manage long projects, ambiguous deadlines, and (as many middle school teachers can attest) is not going to work hard out of pure intrinsic motivation (bless the few that do!).

Indeed students are familiar with deadlines, and find comfort in the routine and familiar. Dr. Smith's philosophies on this issue, while perhaps so easily practiced for the "good of the child," are flawed, and I fear are doing a great disservice to our students. After all , the world ahead of them is not deadline free. Morons who forgot to vote in the last election are now stuck with a mockery of a political leader we call president because they failed to meet a deadline. High school teachers, and certainly college professors, will not be forgiving to students whose printers break, or who had to stay late at practice and couldn't get that paper done. Empathy and deadlines often do not embrace each other in the real world. Too bad so sad, as the saying goes.

Out of my winter break reflection came a new hypothesis that stricter deadlines may actually lead to more students turning in papers. I've decided to set my own classrooms into a small, informal experiment to test this theory. When we came to school this January, the classroom still chilly from lack of daily inhabitants, I shared the new stricter late work deadline policy with my soon-to-be-freshman. They would have 1 week and 1 week only from the original due date to turn in the assignment. Once the additional week ended that assignment would be closed, and they would be unable to make it up.

Though they could get full credit for the assignment (**see footnote below), they would face a 20 point deduction from their employability grade (20 points no matter if it was a minute late or 5 days late).

I can hear Dr. Smith's voice resonate in my mind, "Don't you want your students to complete ALL of your assignments, don't you want to give them that last chance to succeed?" Yes Dr. Smith I do, but every last one of those students who did manage to turn in work last last LAST minute, turned in poor quality that did not meet the objectives- so what were they learning there?

So far I have heard no grievances about this new policy. Our first assignment of the quarter was due last Thursday. And yes, though they had two weeks to work on it, as usual approximately 25 students did not turn it in. I anxiously wait to see if any of these individuals turn their narrative in before this Thursday's final deadline. (Giving students this one extra week allows for me to still look like I'm giving them additional chances, which the eyes of administration look for).

In this I hope to bring a better philosophy to my own classroom for the betterment of all my students- both current and future. Only time will tell if I prove successful. Should my hypothesis be discredited, at least I've contributed to the pool of introspective teachers, who actively work to make their classroom policies better.

So too I will have begun to toss aside my collar from Dr. Smith's world, no matter how as newbie teachers we so easily let them be tightened. My paws will be free to stretch and explore and test new theories in the pursuit of educational excellence!

(**Giving student the chance to keep full credit avoids bias in the gradebook entry. When parents look at the grade they know the A, C, D, etc. is based on their writing skill and mastery of the assignment objectives, not because they turned it in late. It keeps the grade record as standards-based grading as we can do at this point.)