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Taking Responsibility: Who Signs Off on Learning?

In three decades of classroom teaching, I was a participant in hundreds of parent meetings convened because there were concerns about a student's academic performance. These meetings invariably ended by creating an action plan, with everyone present making promises about What Will Happen Next.

More often than not, parents and teachers agreed to additional duties: Daily planner checks at home. Weekly written progress reports from school listing current grades, missing assignments and "citizenship." Parent signatures on all completed homework. Often this campaign began with a supervised locker and backpack clean-out, the so-called "fresh start."

The only person not wholeheartedly embracing all this taking of responsibility for learning? The student.

I remember one meeting in particular. I was surprised when I got the notification because D was one of my favorite students (yes, teachers have favorite students). He was a smart, articulate kid with a deadpan sense of humor (a big plus when you're in the 7th grade), a consistently strong performer.

His parents were distraught, however. D had become so irresponsible and scattered! He left his lunch and gym bag at home all the time! His grades were slipping! He completely forgot about assignments--twice in the last month! They had taken to checking on him frequently in the evenings, to make sure he was doing his homework. And found him--more than once--curled in a ball under the desk in his room, staring up at the ceiling.

I could understand their concern. But when they asked D's teachers to call home if his grade dropped below an A- (!) and fill out weekly accounts of his work and behavior, I looked around the table--were we buying into this extreme vigilance? Evidently, yes. The counselor was already writing out the progress report requisition. It was what D's parents wanted, and we were all about satisfying parent requests.

I began to understand why D was hiding out under his desk.

I thought about D (now a college grad in his 20s and professionally employed) when I read Iowa City blogger Chris Liebig's excellent piece Don't Sign the Homework. Liebig nails the reasons why excess hovering--and endless parent confirmation signatures--can turn out to be counterproductive:

I want my kids' school work to be their business. I want them to get experience with being independent and taking care of their own affairs. I think that kind of autonomy is a key ingredient in building a sense of agency and competence.
[Signing] presumes them to be slackers until they prove themselves otherwise, over and over again. It encourages them to see themselves as doing the work to satisfy others, rather than to make it their own. It elevates rule-compliance over substance.

Bingo. It's more than just the suffocating presence of a momma-copter suspended over the teaching-learning process, or parents who are unwilling to let kids handle the logical consequences of forgetting their gym shorts or spacing out on an assignment. It's pretending that filling in all the boxes in the grade book represents actual, valuable learning. That the ultimate goal of school is being a "good student" rather than the intellectual and emotional reward of applying new skills and knowledge--trying things, creating things, exercising ideas.

I admit: lots of teachers are on board with everything-must-be-tracked-and-signed policies, handing off ultimate oversight, the checklist of requirements, to mom and dad. It prevents big ugly surprises on report card day, and absolves teachers from the distasteful job of nagging. It also reinforces the teacher's primary role as planner, goal-setter, dispenser and evaluator. Read: controller.

Something important is lost, however, when kids assume that mom will always play backstop to any academic negligence. It's the reason why students now expect to get good grades simply for completing and turning in mediocre work in college. And all of this cheapens learning.

A friend who has a son this age appreciates the tight control she currently exercises over her son's schoolwork, checking daily and signing off, keeping tabs on everything. She reminds me about research on the impulsive, risk-seeking teenaged brain.

I taught middle school for 25+ years. I don't need to be enlightened about how inattentive, lacking in judgment and just plain goofy adolescents are by nature. Some of them, anyway. I've also known plenty of eighth graders that I'd trust with my life, if it came to that.

A useful framework for teaching middle schoolers--one that I came to understand only after years of experience-- is the deep conviction that we don't give them enough real work and responsibility. We trust them to babysit for toddlers, but then we turn around and fly-speck their homework habits? That says something about how we define maturity and responsibility--and what we really think about the value of the homework we're assigning.

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