Three things I wish I’d said to shift thinking about assignment deadlines

I’d asked for push back. Toward the end of my second keynote address in as many days at the Technology Integration & Instruction for the 21st Century Learner (TICL) conference in Storm Lake Iowa. I had the audience stand up, mix about, and share their thinking on what I’d just said.

The morning’s topic was “digital literacy” and I was highlighting projects I’ve designed as a teacher and completed as a student.

“What’s the ugly?” I’d asked, “What did you hear this morning that you don’t agree with.”

One of the participants raised his hand and said his partner understood the importance of choice, but wasn’t jiving with the portion of the writing project I’d described where students were allowed to set their own due dates.

He was a business teacher, you see, and in the business world you aren’t allowed to miss deadlines. Letting students set their own schedules would mean missed deadlines, and that wouldn’t do.

In the moment I agreed with the teacher. He was teaching a business class. If meeting deadlines was a skill firmly planted in his curriculum, then perhaps more freedom wasn’t the answer in that arena.

Since then, I’ve had some opportunity to think more on the matter, and my answer was wrong.

1. Most of the undesirable habits we say won’t fly in the business world probably will. I’ve heard enough stories from friends in the business sector of employees who don’t meet deadlines or need a bit of extra time on a project. Those employees, it turns out, don’t lose their jobs. “You won’t be able to get away with this in the workplace,” is teacher code for, “Because I said so.” While it would be easy to suggest that taking a more hands-off approach could lead to further reinforcement of bad business practice, you need only survey the current global business playing field to realize the strict hierarchical, authoritarian approach hasn’t led us anywhere good.

2. Make deadlines worth meeting. The auditorium wasn’t the place to have this conversation. If I’d been talking with this teacher in a breakout session or one-on-one it would have been an excellent opportunity for the difficult conversation around the goals of deadlines. In adults’ daily lives, if we’re playing the game correctly, we’re faced with requirements of our jobs that ask us to keep up with deadlines. We meet them because they are the terms of staying connected with something we’ve determined is important and valuable in our lives. Assignments and class deadlines often assume students are playing by the same rules and with the same intent. Often they aren’t. Assignment to a class or registration to fulfill a credit requirement isn’t the same as jumping administrative hoops as part of a job you’ve chosen and find intrinsically rewarding.

3. Learning is the goal. If students aren’t learning, the question shouldn’t be “How can I lock this class down so they have no choice but to complete the assignments?” It should be, “What’s going on in my instructional practice that’s turning kids off to learning?” It’s a more sensitive and ego-deflating question, but it runs a far greater risk of improving and increasing learning than racheting up the perceived punishments of coming to class.

Of course, all of this is contingent on whether or not the teacher in the audience was keen on a convervation or had decided this was the reason he was looking for to discount anything else that might shift his thinking.

I tend to assume the best in people, and I’m sorry I missed the chance for the conversation.


Things I Know 127 of 365: The real world accepts late work

I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.

– Douglas Adams

Jabiz called me out this morning.

He didn’t mean to, but I’m glad he did. Each of his assertions was incorrect. I haven’t written 124 posts. Neither have I written a post each day since January 1.

Let me explain before you give up on this experiment all together.

This is my 127th Thing I Know. I realize yesterday’s post was labeled “124 of 365,” and there’s a reason for that.

I can’t count. Well, I can’t keep count. If you were to comb the archives, you’d find two 63s and two 94s. I’m not sure how it happened, but every TIK from March 6 on has been a day or two off. I’ll be going back and correcting them, but it’s going to take some time to individually rename half of the posts I’ve written this year.

The second inaccuracy was the claim that I’ve written one post per day. There were a few days over the last couple of weeks that got away from me. From being on the river to writing narratives to entering grades to report card conferences, my days got away from me.

I’m not sure anyone would have wanted to know what I knew in those few days. At least two of the posts were begun in end-of-day exhaustion only to result in me wake finding an open laptop on my stomach after I had passed out in bed.

I counted this weekend. May 10 is the 130th day of 2011.

I owe me some posts.

They’re coming.

No matter whether anyone else cares, my brain won’t sit right until this is all back on track.

What’s interesting to me is my lack of freak out. I could be rambling on and on to myself that I’ve lost the purity of the project or that writing more than one post in a day to catch up is cheating.

I’m not doing any of that.

It will get done, and the missing posts aren’t missing because of sloth or apathy.

Life needed me to prioritize school ahead of writing and then sleep ahead of writing. I obliged.

Today, a student got to my first period class late. We were just finishing up a vocabulary quiz. At the beginning of the year, my policy was that any student missing during the quiz would not be allowed to make up that portion of the quiz.

“Get here on time if you’re think it’s an unfair policy, and you’ll never have to worry about it,” I said.

The tardy student raised his hand once he’d taken his seat.

“Can I make up the quiz tomorrow during lunch?”

“Where were you?”

“I just got to school.”

“Why were you late?”

“I woke up late and then had to catch the train.”

“You can make it up Thursday at lunch.”

Then, I walked away.

I could have lectured him on the importance of punctuality or restated the policy, but that’s not what he needed at the time. The student was visibly frazzled and stressed by getting to class late and missing the quiz. Adding to that would have accomplished nothing.

If he makes a habit of it, we’ll talk.

I’ve been late to meetings and missed deadlines outside of self-imposed blogging deadlines. I’ve felt the frustration of falling short of the expectations of others and myself.

In those moments, it wasn’t the people who lorded the hegemony over me who made me want to work harder the next time. It was those who looked closely to see what I needed and responded from a place of care.

If I ever took advantage of their empathy, they once again responded caringly and called me on my actions, helping me learn lessons I didn’t necessarily want to learn but needed to.

I once taught with a teacher who accepted no late work and allowed no make-up work, citing the real world in her reasoning.

“When these kids get into the real world, they’re going to have bosses who don’t let excuses and tardiness fly.”

I’ve been in the real world for a few years now, and it’s not nearly as cut and dry as my colleague made it out to be.

There are times when deadlines are hard and fast, not to be taken lightly. Other times, life piles up and we’re forced to make choices. Then there are those moments when we make the wrong choices and firm understanding, not berating and belittling, is what’s called for.

I am reminded of this sentiment as I catch up on my writing. I will remember it again, Thursday, as I administer the make-up quiz.