Pushing Back the Flames. . .

Recently, Middleweb–a phenomenal website providing practical resources for middle grades teachers–spotlighted my recent post arguing that giving zeros to students was just plain irresponsible, and describing my own approach to zeros in my classroom.

Since Middleweb ran my piece, I’ve gotten a ton of questions from teachers who are curious about what I’m doing and wondering how to make it work in their own settings.

Here are some of the more common questions and my replies:

What about grades ‘due’ at the end of the quarter? Say the quarter ends Oct 10 and some kids haven’t produced a final product as of Oct 9, due either to procrastination or timing of due dates?

This actually hasn’t happened for me.  My kids get so sick of having to come to working lunch instead of being with their friends, that they typically churn out assignments pretty quickly.  They might turn in work that is less than stellar, but they turn something in every time. 

I’ve been asked this question before, though, and I think what I would do for kids with a significant number of missing assignments is give them an incomplete on the report card or interim report.  I guarantee you that would wake the parents up, wouldn’t it?!  In fact, it would probably get more attention than the low grades most of these students have gotten used to bringing home.

From there, you can work with parents to figure out a plan for addressing missing work that doesn’t muddle academic ability from work behaviors. 

Do you put your plan in place for homework, or just ‘big’ stuff? Presently, I take off a few homework points from a starting 100 for worksheets not completed, as I usually go over it in class the next day.

I actually do this for every missing assignment—and while that may seem like it has the potential to be overwhelming for the teacher because of the number of assignments that we collect during the course of a day or week, it’s not primarily because the number of missing assignments drops dramatically when students realize that you’re serious about taking their recess away!

Once kids realize that the consequence is immediate—-and it’s a consequence that they care about (as opposed to missing points, which most students who struggle don’t really care about)—-missing work becomes somewhat of a non-issue. 

To give you an example, I haven’t had a missing assignment in my room in months.  Not bad for a bunch of 12 year olds, huh?

Is this just for your class? For your entire grade level?

Right now, the idea of "every kid does every assignment" is a school-wide practice.  Every grade level has some form of "working lunch" and every child in the building is expected to do every assignment. 

Some grade levels—and teachers within grade levels—have different levels of consequences for missing work, though.  The current thinking in our building is that students need to see grade point consequences for missing tasks because those are the consequences that they’ll face in high school. 

While I’m completely open to the idea that the consequences that are appropriate for sixth graders may not be appropriate for eighth graders (or vice versa), this is an area where I’m hoping to see change in the future.  I strongly disagree with the idea that taking points off of papers "prepares kids for high school." 

To me, preparing kids for high school means ensuring that they learn the required curriculum—and if they’re not completing assignments, I can’t accurately measure their knowledge of the required curriculum. 

Over time, I believe that our school will wrestle with this thinking in greater detail.  I’m just proud that we have all finally agreed to the idea that every child will complete every assignment—and that our administration is taking steps to free teachers from other tasks to make that possible. 

I too use lunch time to make things up, but have a heck of a time getting kids to show up either at all or with enough time to work/complete the quiz.  Do you wind up going to the cafeteria to hunt them down? Consequence for not coming?

I actually don’t ever go and track any students down for working lunch.  That’s too much effort for me—and we didn’t want to make working lunch something that teachers resented because it was something else they needed to do.

On our hallway, if a child doesn’t come, we sign something called their "Responsibility Record."  That is a sheet that every child keeps in their agenda, and it tracks their behavior.  Parents are expected to sign the R2 each week so we know they are aware of their child’s behavior.  The R2 also determines whether or not students can attend special events and end of quarter celebrations. 

Knowing that a signature is coming is often enough to keep kids from willfully forgetting working lunch—-but again, remember that before long, we don’t have a lot of missing assignments.  The desire to connect with friends during lunch and recess is so strong that missing tasks are somewhat unthinkable to kids.

Recess??????  What’s your daily schedule?

Our school has built a recess period into our day specifically to provide a working lunch consequence.  It’s only 15 minutes long and it comes directly after their 30 minute lunch period.  Students are allowed to leave the lunchroom and go to the playground as soon as they are finished eating—so if a kid can scarf down a sandwich in 10 minutes, they can get up to 30 minutes on the playground with friends.

It may not help with digestion, but it certainly helps with motivation!

To create this period, we had to give up some minutes off of our regular class periods.  That was a sacrifice we were willing to make, however, because we needed to create a consequence for missing work that the kids really cared about.  That consequence for middle schoolers is definitely missing opportunities for social interaction.  Knowing this, we birthed a recess period.

The most powerful part of the process, however, was the fact that our administrators found other members of our faculty to supervise the lunchroom and recess so that teachers could be free to provide working lunch supervision to our kids.  No core area classroom teacher does any lunch or recess duty—or any other duty, for that matter—in our building because we’ve made instruction a priority. 

That means guidance counselors, teachers assistants and assistant principals are heavily involved in supervising students during free times in our buildings.  Core classroom teachers are expected to teach. 

That’s kind of cool, isn’t it? 

Not everyone was happy with it, but it is an example of the kinds of non-traditional thinking that is necessary to make non-traditional ideas like working lunch possible.

3 thoughts on “Pushing Back the Flames. . .

  1. Kate

    I’ve never heard about a zero policy (or ending one!) before. It sounds like you work within a school that is dedicated to reinforcing best practices. Your post is food for thought.
    I teach older students (high school and beyond…), and we struggle with students not understanding that a missed assignment is over and cannot be re-created. (For example, a peer review grade for a draft done before the final essay is due…The student will not have a draft on the peer review day and will want to make that up after the final essay has been turned in already.) I’ve always argued that an assignment worth doing is worth doing late, but some cooperative classroom learning is difficult to re-create…

  2. Pat

    I also had a successful homework policy and zero is not an option. If the student does not have homework, they will do it before they start on that days lesson and finish their lesson during lunch. If the lesson is a group lesson, then they finish their homework during lunch.I take 20 points off late assignments turned in so the highest grade they will make is an 80. Finally they learn that if they are going to have to do it anyway, they might as well get full credit. As a special ed teacher, I rarely had a student who did not have their homework.

  3. Dina

    At our middle school we have been directed to end our zero policy as of this year, and amen to that. Check out this article for what I think is the most convincing argument:
    http://www.ncpep.org/sail/Case_Against_Zero.pdf
    At the moment, however, our policy is also is to turn incompletes into zeros at the end of the quarter. I struggle with this; it seems to me to be a half-baked approach to implementing the very solid “no zero” argument. I’m hoping, at least in microcosm on our team, to secure permission to assign an Incomplete as a quarter grade as well.

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