Thursday, November 5, 2009

Let him fail? or, lest I get too complacent about Connor

One of the challenges of having my kids in school is that it requires a certain overarching organizational skill that I don't have. Since Connor has started middle school last year, my limitations in this area have been painfully evident.

Middle school requires much more initiative in taking responsibility than Connor exhibits at this point. His obligations go beyond doing the work, to tracking the work. This involves recording assignments and making a plan for pacing himself and prioritizing. Sometimes his weakness involves understanding what needs to be done. Sometimes it means he fails to record the assignment. Sometimes it means he fails to bring home progress notes and worksheets.

This has meant that I've needed to exert myself to get a meta-sense of what his assignments are so that I can backstop him. This also means I need help from the teachers, and I'm finding there's a curious reluctance.

I can't blame their reluctance I guess. I'm reluctant myself. As I said organization is not my strength and sometimes I feel bedeviled by trying to parse out the details of his obligations. And I'm not clear if it is reasonable that I ask that the teachers stay current with their blogs and posting their assignments. I've gotten the impression that they believe the child should be responsible for recording what they need to do in their planners and the blog is only a last resort (which means they may or may not post). However, I've noticed that Connor seems to do best in the classes where the teachers stay current and consistent in posting on the blogs.

This year is definitely better than last. He understands better what he needs to do. Technology helps as well. This year there's an internet innovation called Engrade where teachers record the results of his efforts. So I have a more real-time gauge of how he's doing. Last year in his social studies I had a miserable time with a teacher who didn't post his assignments or tests, didn't send home progress notes, and I was surprised by a failing grade at mid term. Then a lot of time was lost in his not responding to me about what Connor needed to do to bring this up. I was adamant this not happen again this year, since the same middle school team is in place. Engrade has helped me stay up-to-date with this particular classroom, and this particular teacher (who still doesn't post on the provided calendar the homework assignments and the dates of tests/quizzes).

Spanish was another problematic course last year, and so I introduced myself to his new Spanish teacher at Back to School Night in late September. She assured me that Connor had been focused and attentive in class. Then last week he brought home an access code that told me she was now recording on Engrade. I looked her up and saw that he's failing Spanish. It's 8 weeks into the trimester and I'm only finding out now.

Upon contacting her I find that he's continuing to be focused in class, but he's not turning in his homework. No, she won't accept his missing assignments. The best he can do is start doing the homework now. Even if he does perfectly from here on in he's probably going to get a low grade this trimester.

I checked her blog. There were no current assignments posted for the past 3 weeks. I emailed her and told her if she doesn't accept late assignments, could she let me know on the front end what his assignments are so that I can help him stay on track in doing them?

Unfortunately, I will not be able to tell you "on the front end" what his assignments are. Connor must take responsibility for his own homework completion. This includes writing his assignments in his agenda and completing them on time. This is basic organization that must be learned before he moves on to high school and college. We would be cheating Connor if we let you be his assistant - he must learn to do it for himself.

When I look at this and consider the implications this seems to be influenced by a philosophy of responsibility that doesn't leave many options. She seems to be a mouthpiece of this, saying, there is a basic organizational skill that Connor should be doing. He's not doing it. If I help him with it, or if you help him with it, he'll never learn it, even though he obviously hasn't learned it yet. If you help him you are enabling him by keeping him from experiencing the consequences of his lack of responsibility. He should fail, and experience the consequences of his failure. Then he'll be motivated to take responsibility next time.

This is an overt articulation of what I've sensed before as teacher reluctance when I notice that they haven't posted an assignment. But what if a child isn't intrinsically motivated by a love of the Spanish language to do well? What if he's only taking it because it's required? What if he doesn't care if he fails? If he fails because he doesn't care, does that motivate him to care and succeed next time? Is it appropriate parenting to let him hitch-hike on my caring, particularly if he's responsive when I know the assignments and influence him to do them? Or is it better to parent by punishing failure retrospectively? Does that motivate him to do better?

I sent the principal an email with three basic questions:

Is it reasonable for me to expect that a teacher inform me sooner if Connor is not doing his work?

Is it reasonable for me to request that the teachers post their assignments and tests so that I can backstop Conrad in keeping track of what his obligations are?

Is it appropriate to let him experience the consequences of his failure to organize—a failed grade in Spanish (and Humanities)? Certainly it would make life easier for me if I didn’t have to help him track this. Is there value in letting him fail in this sink or swim approach, at this age?

Any comments from you middle school parents or educators out there?


Mrs. Spit said...

I had this friend, who by the age of 30, when he was taking his MBA, had never failed at anything. And the first time he failed, it was an absolute crises, because he hadn't failed, and the older you get, the higher the stakes.

The consequences of him failing spanish are much less in middle school, than university.

I'd walk him through one last time, what he needs to do. Then, he needs to own his homework.

Ailey said...

While I can see that failure can teach a good lesson, with not as dire consequences resulting from it in middle school as in graduate school, there is a lot of time in between those two places on life's journey and still plenty of time to learn from other teachers besides failure.

I mean if we are to follow the logic of the teacher then why tutor kids who aren't keeping up in a subject, like math or science or language? Just let them fail and "learn" from the experience of failure right? Wrong! If you're not getting math, a conscientious teacher will offer help, or make parents aware of available help. Why is a parent in essence offering to "tutor" her child in learning time management looked upon as doing it for the child, which would not be helpful,rather than recognized as trying to help the child learn what he needs to know in order to be successful?

I don't see a problem with Mom wanting to break the process down a bit more as a way of helping Connor learn these essential skills. At some point, and under the right circumstances, natural consequences make perfect sense. But shouldn't that be somewhat within the parents' control and shouldn't their perspective on their child and where he/she is developmentally be allowed to inform that timing?

He's not in highschool yet. Middle school years are transitional ones in more ways than the physical transition from childhood to adulthood.

Kristin said...

I think the teacher’s response is ridiculous and exasperating. Twenty years ago we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. The teacher would have, by the second week, taken Connor aside and said, “I noticed you haven’t been turning in your homework assignments. Are you having trouble with them? What can we do to help you complete them?” And if that hadn’t worked, he/she would have called you and said, “Mrs. Excavator, your son is not completing his homework assignments. What do you think would help him complete them?”

This sink-or-swim, personal responsibly philosophy neglects child development. Planning a project is a developmental skill that BEGINS to take hold (on average) around 11+ years, according to people who study child development. Of course, if your child is not average it may be 12 or 13, and even if your child is average, the skills used in planning are EMERGING at this age—not mastered.

This is baggage from the No Child Left Behind teaching standards that swept the country. It was decided that being able to plan and organize a project at this age should be a “standard”, regardless of the cost. And the cost is high—feelings of failure, hatred of school, or a subject. My personal experience with this was last year in 4th grade. My 9-year-old was expected to plan, conduct, and write-up a science fair project on a large 3-paned poster over the course of a month, on her own. She was given a packet of instructions, buried in which, was a letter to parents telling them that their child would need some support with this project.

We saw the packet 3.5 weeks after it was handed out—the weekend before the project was due. Needless to say, the entire weekend was filled with tears, tantrums, and my daughter crying herself to sleep. She was the not the only one. Other children in the class were at our home, using our printer and computer, frantic and in tears. Monday morning, I saw children running to class with their posters, looking completely miserable. One girl was crying because she wasn’t able to get her results typed up—didn’t have a computer. Another boy was weeping because the glue had not dried and his pictures were sliding all over the cardboard.

So, what was learned? The children felt like failures. They hated Science. (continued below)...

Kristin said...

Think of the alternative. The teacher could have helped them plan each step of the way:

Day 1 (step 1): He could have asked the students: What are your hobbies? What do you really love to do? Is it cooking? Is it sports? Play with your pets? He could have taught them that science is everywhere—cooking is chemistry, sports is physics, pets are zoology and mammalian biology.

Day 2 (Step 2): He could have asked the students to think of some questions they have about their favorite activities. Why don’t my muffins rise sometimes? How can I make home fries that are crispy instead of soggy? What size basketball is best for my hand? What skateboard ramp angle lets me jump the farthest? What kind of pet toy is Fluffy most attracted to?

In the next days and weeks, he could have walked them through the half-dozen other steps in the plan: He could have taught them how to change their question into a hypothesis, how to test their hypothesis, and how to figure out what the variables are (what things to vary and what things to hold constant). He could have gotten parents involved in buying the materials and conducting the experiment, and then explained to the children how to put their data in tables, how to graph the data, print it out, and how to lay it out on a poster board and get images that would show off the work.

Critics might say this is too much hand-holding, that children should take full responsibility for their projects, planning them out day-by-day and week-by-week, but again I say, this is beyond a 9-year-old’s developmental capability, and at what cost? What is the end goal here? I want my daughter to LOVE school and be self-motivated to learn more. I want her to learn that science can be fun and fascinating. But because of school “standards” that expect children to organize, plan and do their work independently (under the guise of “Well, we’re preparing them for the tough world of middle and high school”), we missed an opportunity to do a terrific family project together, my daughter hated school and science, and she felt like a failure.

So, what’s the end goal in your situation? That Connor learn Spanish? Or, that he fail the class, and learn to hate Spanish? Seems pretty straight-forward to me. My feeling is that planning and organization skills emerge, just like everything else, slowly and over time, and when the child is developmentally ready.

excavator said...

GREAT comments! Thank you so much.

I sent the email to Connor's principal. Thursday afternoon I had an opportunity to talk with him, with Connor. I'll put that in another post.

Ailey, I liked your remark about 'tutoring' my child in learning time management. And, Kristin, the scenario you laid out below fleshes it out wonderfully--as outlined, the kids have an opportunity to learn so many things at once--that there is a Method for adding to knowledge about things that are meaningful and interesting to them. There is a way of transforming a wondering into a hypothesis, and then testing it and drawing conclusions. And then knowing something in a way you never knew it before. What seems ideal to me is instead of assigning something like this in addition to the class, why not build the class itself around it, incorporate it into the curriculum?

This model provides a safer structure in which to experience 'failure'--where the failure isn't implied to be about something inherent in the child's character, but something that can be recovered and learned from. I think this is what you're referring to, Mrs. Spit?

Thank you all, for your thoughts. They've inspired me to think of some other ways I can help Connor.

excavator said...

I was so excited by the content of the comments that I forgot to properly welcome Kristin to my blog. I really appreciate the thoughts you brought to the discussion, and hope that when the time seems right to you that you will comment again.

I also really hope you will start a blog soon. You have a lot to offer.