Neatness Counts?

honeybearI was frustrated lately by an assignment my son had to complete.  They are studying ancient Egypt and had to create a sarcophagus for a stuffed animal they were going to embalm in class.  It was a very involved project that included making a box colored to resemble a sarcophagus, in addition to making the four canopic jars, a scroll of some sort, a hieroglyph of the stuffy’s name (Cal Bear), and some other doo dads as well.  We spent maybe 8 hours over the week creating this thing (note the honey bear likeness), and when I say we, I mean we – my husband, my son AND myself. The project was worth a lot of points, and my son really wanted it to look nice.

You probably already know the question I am going to ask.  Why?  Why did my son, diagnosed with ADD and seriously lacking in the “neat” and “organized” categories, spend 8+ hours of his home studying time making a sarcophagus for his history class?  Especially because as we were creating the pieces I kept asking him about them – and he already had the knowledge about embalming, the after life, and other Egyptian facts.  The creation was not solidifying the learning, nor was it helping him learn anything new (we won’t even go into the debate about the essential components of a history education are).  He LOVED using the gold spray paint, and he likes artwork, so that was a good thing.  My problem was that it was a history project, designed to help him learn history, but graded on neatness and components of what was basically an art project.  We are already pressed for time at our house.  This did not work for me!

There is also the fact that to be successful in school – and indeed in life – my son will have to learn to take greater care in things like neatness and attention to detail.  In the meantime, however, he continues to have “disorganized” stamped on his B- and C grades, while “understands the content well” is written in narrative reports.  This experience highlights for me the case for standards-based grading in which my son could have an accurate reporting on his knowledge and skill in the content, as well as in larger “life” skills such as organization and collaboration.  It also highlights the case for meaningful homework that will allow my son do delve deeper into important questions rather than will assess his ability to spray paint a shoe box.

Teachers – even if you think you’re not one of them, ask yourselves this – is this homework I’m assigning meaningful to the deep understanding of the larger goals of the learning for students in my class?  And if it is not, how can I change what I assign to ensure that it is.