Saturday, March 03, 2007

You have to terrify them, see?

This is for Bill, who asked about kids and homework and why they're so annoying. Although, for the record, I think we were all that annoying at that age. We just remember it differently.

When I was a kid I was terrified of failure. Okay, I'm still terrified of failure. My parents held my aimless alcoholic aunt over my head like the sword of Damacles. Anything less than an A meant a lifetime of living in a trailer in Bellhaven with eight kids and a mangey half-breed Rottweiler. My parents weren't exactly gentle people.

The point is, I did my homework, largely out of fear, but also because the school I went to simply expected me to. I'm guessing most of the people who read this blog had similar experiences. Well, maybe not parents who cancelled your twelfth birthday party at Chuckie Cheese because you made a C on a diorama, but still. You did your homework too.

Kids simply don't do homework anymore. It was the case in North Carolina and it's the case here. It's scary, really. I used to give homework and nobody did it. NOBODY. They'd never had to. They have this theory that it will all be okay regardless, like they can do no work and still pass. And that's because they always have. I had a choice to either fail my entire class or stop giving homework, so I held my nose and caved.

Is that a mixed metaphor? I'm not sure what "caving" literally means. Can you hold your nose and cave? But I digress.

Now I ease the kids into homework. Start an assignment in class, finish it at home. Read half a chapter of a really good book and get them into it, then have them finish the last three pages at home. The next day give them more pages at home. Eventually maybe they'll write an essay, but I always give them a few days.

One assignment that worked was the interview. I had them choose a personal hero and interview them and write up a biography of the person. They pretty much all did that because it interested them.

That was a great semester, come to think of it. I did nothing but heroes. Joseph Campbell, Beowulf, Don Quixote. I miss that class.

But alas, they come in waves. You'll get a terrific class of hard working kids one period and the next period the entire population of Attica will unleash itself on your classroom.

I had this student once back in North Carolina who had no chance in hell of passing my class. He never did a single assignment. When it was time for the final I told him to stay home and continue to smoke pot and not waste his time on this silly little education - you know, pretty much what he'd already been doing - but he insisted he could still pass. I told him as keeper of his grade and his long line of zeroes that there was no way he could pass. He repeated that yes, he could if he passed the state exam. Apparently he was also failing math.

He showed up. The really sad part is that he actually did pass the state exam. The state exam is a joke. Eithe that or I am such an awesome teacher that my very presence is enough to make you smarter.

He showed up to check his grade the next day and was amazed to discover his big fat F. Oh, wait. It wasn't an F. At that school we gave Es.

It never ceases to blow my mind.

The Latino kids are far worse off grammar wise. Over the past year and a half I have learned to decipher some really strange sentence structure. I can read and understand sentences I never would have before. There's so much wrong with their writing that I often don't know where to begin, so I tell them to read more and read aloud what they write. They usually speak English just fine; somewhere between the brain and the paper it gets all screwy.

It's also worse in California. The state is disorganized as hell and has been operating under the social promotion philosophy for over a decade. I'm not the biggest fan of No Child Left Behind because it's actually dumbed down North Carolina curriculum, but here in California it has stopped teachers from just passing kids because they're breathing. The problem is, these kids are used to passing with no effort and it's really difficult to break them of that habit.

Every semester I tell them the only way they will fail is if they have zeroes. Every assignment I remind them that if they try, they will at least pass. And every semester I have students get down to the last day and try to negotiate with me on how they can make up eight weeks of missing work in two days.

And no matter how often I warn them about life in a Bellhaven trailer, they still don't listen.


  1. You know you're still my idol though, right?

  2. I am?

    You don't have a shrine to me, do you?

    I mean, it would be understandable. I am pretty cool.

  3. Congrats on the new digs and new rewrite.

    I just thought it was strange that kids seem to have leisure time that I didn't have - and that they seem to *expect* leisure time.

    This isn't just kids, though - people seem to just expect things these days.

    I know this is one of those old fart "when I was a kid we had to..." things, but I think we didn't have much else to do other than homework (except chores - and homework was easier).

    - Bill (what is the price diff between the bus and Southwest Air?)


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