As a part of my beginning journalism curriculum, I would teach students the basic elements of page design and give them an assignment: design a four-page spread, including a cover, a center spread, and a traditional news page.
On the last day of the fall semester, one student pleaded with me to give her a chance at raising her grade. She had failed to complete the assignment—which I entered as a zero in the gradebook—because she had been sick for several days during the page design unit. In fact, she was still really, really sick on this particular day and begging me to just excuse her from the assignment entirely.
I couldn’t do it. She’d had opportunities to come in after school or during lunch to make up the work and hadn’t done so. She was an “A” student, and in retrospect, my guess is that she was probably busy making up tests and quizzes in any of her five other classes, scrambling to get a tremendous amount of work done in the few short days that remained before the semester closed.
So I told her that I was staying late after school and that she could finish it right now. Her sinuses were dripping and her eyes were red and watery, but she headed over to a computer to get to work.
“I have to do this,” I told myself. “I can’t get a reputation where kids can just whine and cry and get out of doing assignments. If I go down this slippery slope, soon every kid will walk into my class and start laying out excuses!”
Time passed, and the student approached my desk and said she was done. I walked over to the computer, but she’d finished only half the project.
“Don’t let her get away with it!” I thought. “She has to complete the whole assignment like everyone else!”
I told her to keep working. She grabbed another tissue box and kept plugging away. Eventually, she completed the entire project and earned an “A” for the semester.
I thought to myself, “What did she just learn?” I doubt she learned anything about page design. Maybe she learned a lesson about procrastination, but I doubt it.
More than anything, this episode probably re-enforced in her that school is a place in which adults have power over kids, and sometimes adults use that power to enforce arbitrary rules that have nothing to do with learning.
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