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The Secret Life of Teaching: History Day

Image via Wiki Commons.

The phone on my desk is ringing when I arrive in my office at 8:17am on the Thursday morning in the week before winter break, though with the temperature stuck in the thirties, spring feels like an eternity away. I pick up the receiver -- how much longer is there going to be a phone on my desk? -- while simultaneously trying to slip out of my coat. I’m tempted not to answer it.


"Mr. Dewey?"


"I'm so glad to reached you. This is Ruth, Jason's mom? We met at the basketball game a couple weeks ago. I'm calling about the History Day project.”

Now I remember: Jason is partnering with Tom Schlacter on the decision to drop the atomic bomb. Originally, they wanted to do World War II. I told them the subject was too broad. They've narrowed it down to the bomb, and are working on a PowerPoint (the first refuge of scoundrels). The first draft I saw was not too promising. Big slabs of text, relatively weak in conceptual organization. Ominously, I’ve seen nothing new on Jason and Tom's project since they handed in their notably sketchy first draft last week, only an email with a string of questions that could have been answered if they’d actually studied the assignment’s parameters.

"What I don't understand," she continues, "is the timing of this project. Why does it have to be just before the break? We're leaving for St. Bart's tomorrow morning. We’ve planned this trip for months, and I'm pulling the kids out of school tomorrow to get an early start.”

I click on the WINTER WEATHER ADVISORY link. Snow to begin late this afternoon; six to ten inches by morning. Fine by me: I’m not going anywhere.

"Well,” I respond, “the deadline for this project is something my department periodically reviews. But we've learned from experience that it makes more sense to have the project due before the break so that really we clear the decks for kids to have a real vacation. Nobody likes to have a big assignment hanging over their heads going into a stretch of time off." 

Ruth is pressing the point: "I've got to tell you, an assignment like this really wreaks havoc on family life."

"Again, I'm sorry to hear that. Is there something you'd like me to do? Would you like me to talk with the boys?”

“That would be good," she says. "But what would really help is giving them more time. I don't think these two really understood what they’ve gotten themselves into. Do you think you could give them another day or two?"

I can't resist a smile. Normally, I'd be in a position I really hate: having to say no. To accede to this request would not only precipitate an avalanche of similar ones -- the word would be on the street almost immediately -- but get me into trouble with my colleagues, as we've all sworn a blood oath to hold the line in the face of these pressures. I realize I'm taking a chance here, but if my bluff gets called, I can say I was certain, however mistakenly, that there was going to be a snow day, rendering the deadline moot.

"Well, I don't like to do this, but understand extenuating factors in this particular situation. So I'll allow Jason and Tom a little more time to finish this up. As long as I have it we get back from break, there should be no harm done."

"I really appreciate that. I want you to know that Jason loves your class.”

Yeah, right. "Thank you. I enjoy working with him."

"The best part of this," she tells me, adopting a confiding, even conspiratorial, tone, "is that Jason will be spending the second week of the break with his father. For once in his life, the man will actually have to pay attention to his son's needs. Can't wait to see that.”

 * * * * *

There are multiple frictions in the triangular relationship between parent, teacher, and student, ranging from grades to school budgets. But on a day-to-day basis, the most pervasive, if evanescent, is homework.  It’s a subject on which each party feels ambivalence. Students typically say they hate homework, but it’s often the source of their most substantial achievements. Teachers feel they need homework to make class time more productive, but assigning it usually means more grading. Parents want to feel their children are learning, but worry about the demands on their time and the way homework can sometimes interfere with extra-curricular and/or family activities. (Having been involuntarily been drawn into my own children’s projects, sometimes as a matter of the specific mandate of teachers, I can sympathize with this exasperation.)

Of these three constituencies, it’s teachers who are the most stalwart champions of homework. Mastery of anything is always to some degree a matter of a willingness to invest -- and a willingness to waste -- time in the pursuit of long-term gain. This is a truth that students experience in realms ranging from sports to computer games. Not all students are eager to make such an investment in Spanish or chemistry, but they certainly can understand why their parents and teachers want that for them.

Which is not to say that homework is always assigned thoughtfully or usefully by teachers. Inexperienced or lazy ones will sometimes use homework as a crutch to compensate for failures to use class time efficiently. Or they will assign homework that has no clear relationship to the material being covered in class. Or assign it without assessing it in a timely way -- or at all, an omission that breeds resentment and fosters corrosive corner-cutting by students.

It’s for reasons like these that education reformers like Alfie Kohn argue for the elimination of homework entirely. Such arguments get additional support when one considers how little a role homework plays in leading educational powers like Finland. And how much of role it plays in others like South Korea, where saddling students with extra work has become an arms race of sorts generating so much misery and alarm that the government has resorted to police raids on tutoring classes that run beyond the state-mandated curfew of 10:00pm.

Perhaps predictably, I will state that I’m a homework partisan. There are two core tasks that homework is good for -- that homework is uniquely good for. The first important homework task is reading. Adults typically laud it, for themselves and children -- “readers are leaders,” a beloved uncle of mine, a construction worker who as far as I can tell was indifferently educated at best, used to say -- but few of us really have much stamina for it. Reading requires a sense of focus that’s difficult to attain, because there’s so little time in the day, or because of our physiological limitations, or both. I think of reading as really quite akin to physical exercise: the more you do it, the better you get at it, and the faster your mind works. Reading may well be less important for the actual content you encounter than the habits of mind it inculcates -- attentiveness, imagination, a capacity for abstraction. In the end, reading is the sin qua non of learning: everything else is a short-cut, a compensation, a substitution (like a fad diet in lieu of exercise). To use a cooking metaphor: reading is homemade; getting it in lecture form is store-bought. Sure, reading takes longer. But it’s just plain better.

Reading is so crucial because it’s foundational for success in an even more demanding intellectual task that’s also best undertaken as homework: writing. Writing is among the most complex neurological tasks the human brain performs, and it’s hard work. Paradoxically, good writing seems effortless. Which is one of the reasons students find it so daunting: it seems like it should be easy, and when it isn’t they assume they’re bad at it, which makes them even less willing to undertake it. But knowing that it’s hard for everyone will only get you so far: writing is like bench-pressing a lot of weight -- you have to work yourself up to it. That’s what school is for: creating a space where such activities are promoted and sustained, precisely because there’s really nowhere else it would happen on a mass scale.

But -- really -- the single most important reason to ask students to write is that it’s something that they must do alone. Only when they’re by themselves, grappling, seeking, struggling to communicate with somebody else, are they fully engaged in the task of learning. Actually, they can’t really begin to explain something to someone else until they’ve explained it to themselves, which is what first drafts are for. Writing is also a collaborative enterprise, in that peers and parents can provide feedback, and in some cases teachers can sit beside students and coach them through the process. But even when this happens, there still needs to be a time and place where students follow through on their own: the coach must step aside.

The coaching analogy is a very rich one for understanding teaching generally, but it has particular value in the context of homework. Coaches prescribe workouts, some of which are executed on the field of play, but much of which take place offsite. The coach can’t monitor any given athlete continuously; nor can a coach be certain that a particular routine will pay off equally or at all for every athlete. It’s a game of percentages which, should the student honor the coach’s instructions, is likely to yield long-term gain. Beyond some general parameters (like the length of a practice and care for the health of the athletes), the coach doesn’t know or care what else the players may have to do, and a coach’s personal regard for a player should not cloud the coach’s judgment about who is or isn’t in shape. There are no guarantees. But the best way to win games is to practice.

* * * * *

The goals of the History Day project that Jason and Tom are working on are a bit different than what I’ve been outlining here. My school participates in the National History Day, a program that annually involves 50,000 students from 49 states who work within the parameters of an annually chosen theme like “Turning Points in History,” “Revolution, Reaction and Reform,” or “Rights and Responsibilities.” Students can work alone or collaborate in groups of up to three people, and choose formats within a menu of options that include tabletop exhibitions, documentaries, dramatic presentations and websites. My colleagues and I believe that the work of formulating arguments may be easier for students when working in media other than traditional essays, which is why this project is a capstone assessment for the quarter (a grade-wide research essay is the main undertaking for the end of the year).

We’re pretty upfront with students at the time when we assign this project in January that it’s as much about managing the enterprise as it is about the content. That means planning ahead for deadlines that come up in stages: topic, bibliography, first draft, final draft. We tell them: choose your partners carefully, because you sink or swim together. Someone who does all the work will get the same grade as a member of your team that does none. (In fact, we keep an eye on this, and make a mental note the balance the ledgers in some silent way.)

For all our planning and justifications, however, we never entirely feel we’re in control of the assignments we give. Loopholes and ambiguities inevitably present themselves; so do unplanned exigencies like snowstorms. My delight in conferring on Ruth and Jason Thompson an extension dissipates quickly as my colleagues in the History Department realize the storm is creating a logistical mess, and a flurry of emails swirl among us. If the History Day project was a run-of-the-mill essay, we might simply expect students to email their work to us, whether or not school was in session. But given the number of projects that actually have to be brought in and set up (the kindly librarians have given us some space), we can’t expect that. Since we need to be uniform, we decide the project will have to be due the first day back after the break. The very thing we were trying to prevent -- having kids with homework over the holidays -- has come to pass. Jason and Tom’s project, long on images and short on interpretation, gets a B.

In the aftermath of the year’s assignment, we decide that maybe a post-break due date isn’t such a bad idea after all. In fact, we agree, the thing to do is to have draft workshops the first week back, and have the projects due the second week. That will create a grading squeeze before the semester ends, but it seems worth it. For teachers no less than students, there’s no substitute for experience. We learn by doing -- and redoing.