Go to Start

    It isn’t usually about a student’s learning style or a professor’s eccentricities. It’s generally unconnected to too much work or too little resources. And it often has little to do with a student’s inability or an assignment’s difficulty.
When my students fail to complete their assignments or don’t do them well, the one commonality at its root can be summarized in a single word: procrastination.  

That isn’t to say that there’s not often a whole lot of other stuff that gets in the way of their start-to-finish. The roadblocks to the boys I know often come by way of a party; with the girls, it’s the drama.

    But for all of them, they get caught up in it. And often to the exclusion of all else.

Instead of buying the supplies or starting the research or making the phone call or doing the interview or drafting the outline, or any of those many tiny steps that could set them on go –they don’t. They stay still. 

Well, not still exactly.

    They’re generally moving, just not in the direction of the project or the paper.

    They’re battling in video worlds or chatting on Facebook walls. They’re making it to Zumba class and Wings Night. They’re taking road trips and pizza runs and pit stops to the mall. Going out to lunch or dinner. Heading to the gym, going for a run, cleaning their rooms. They’re helping friends through crises. Taking time with families.

    But in all that doing, what they’re not doing is that small pile of work relegated to the back corner of their desks or hidden in untapped files on their computers. And the longer they tap past it, the more the pile grows. Until eventually it seems to expand with the rate of a Youtube post gone viral. Out-of-control and unavoidable.

    And so they finally begin the assignment in crisis mode. 

    Not the best way to do one’s best.

    There’s a price to be paid for the putting-it-off. Not just in a ditched assignment, shoddy work, or a bad grade. There’s actually a point to most of the work their professors assign. And they’re missing it.
hat isn’t to say that sometimes it’s not worth it. That in the throes of  procrastination, they might not discover rewards of another kind.

    My student may better remember the time she had with her friends than she will any real-world benefit she got from that one botched Research Methods paper.

    But then, maybe not. I’m not sure how much she actually remembers from that particular  night.

    That’s not the point.

    The point is that they procrastinate at the peril of their accomplishments.

    But we all do it.

    I’m doing it right now. I post to this site at the sacrifice of the should-dos and have-tos in my real-world life. And that’s a bad thing.


    In another way, I’m doing what I am supposed to do. This is an exercise of sorts. A means of keeping a finger in a craft where my whole hand should be. Because at least it’s a finger.

    But I am doing this instead of a whole lot of other stuff. Like my students.

    Many years ago I took a pause from my to-do list to join my uncle on his boat pulling lobster traps from Boston Harbor. The crazy cousin who regales with his stories and spends with a generosity that contradicts his ability to pay offered a philosophical take on the day. 

    This is the kind of day that is immeasurable in its value. You couldn’t give me a million dollars to take a pass on it.

    For all its aura of inaction, sometimes procrastination is exactly the right action to take.

    And the pile grows.


From the time Michael was in first grade, he and I have had an ongoing battle over homework.


In elementary school, he would literally spend an hour seated at the kitchen table telling me all the reasons why homework was unfair. The gist of his argument was that after having spent the whole day working at school, he thought it was unreasonable that he was required to do even more work at home. As well-honed as his debating skills may have become over the years (180 days of school x 10+ years), I wondered how this seemingly intelligent young boy couldn’t see the disconnect between effort and results. The hour –long tirade against homework was to forestall ten minutes worth of busy work in those early years. If he had just shut up and done the work, he would have been off to play before supper and sunset had him stuck indoors for the night. And I would have been granted a modicum of peace from the continual chatter that was the white noise of my life until he turned 14. Instead we did this back-and-forth dance -every day.


I was one of the few parents I knew who didn’t meet the return of school with relish. The kids and I enjoyed our summer days –beaches, parks, museums, mountains. Lots of together time, very little scheduled time. Summer was fun; school was not. It returned us not only to a crazily overscheduled family routine, but also to the afterschool argument.


When Michael was headed to middle school, I committed parenting mistake number 418. As I had for his sister, I allowed Michael some independence with regard to his school work. I wouldn’t be checking and nagging. At least not until his first grades came out. In the played-out scenario in my brain, Michael would put minimal effort in and receive the corresponding lackluster grades. I would then swoop in with documented evidence of his missteps and shower him with all my grade boosting knowhow.


Now that I think of it there was way more than one parenting error here. First, Michael is not his sister. They don’t act alike, think alike, learn alike. I think Alex was six when she correctly pointed out to mommy and daddy that we were walking in the wrong direction of the huge Disney parking lot if we wanted to find our car. She’s a visual learner.


Michael, on the other hand, never successfully found his way back to the beach blanket after he stepped from the surf.


He’s auditory. Which is good thing in a classroom setting. And a bad one. Because he could learn simply by listening, he could get good grades without much effort. Actually, without any. And actually really good grades –honor roll. I knew we were in trouble when his history teacher offered a heads-up phone call when Michael had studied the wrong chapter for an exam. During the conversation she also alluded to Michael’s poor organizational and notetaking skills.


He got a 95 on the test.


Again, not a good thing.


The evidence I was trying to gather to support the hypothesis that poor effort equaled poor grades was proving pretty elusive.


I knew it would catch up with him. I was just hoping for sooner, rather than later.


It did catch him. But it was later. In some ways, too much so. Having gotten away with negligible effort for so long, the notion of now spending hours on high school level homework is pretty far out of his mindset.


Last week’s homework conversation threw me back to first grade. Rather than doing his homework, he presented a well-built and articulately delivered treatise on why he didn’t want to do it. In fact, why he shouldn’t have to.


I’m serious. This is the way he actually thinks.


He presented a list of cons -no pros- the last salvo of which was that it simply wasn’t worth the effort because grades are unimportant. Unfortunately, this one might be mine. In rebuttal to his oft shouted claim that all I care about are grades, I have often said that I don’t. And yes, I’ve used that word with regard to grades: unimportant.


How many parenting mistakes are we at?


More to come.


After kicking him and his debate out of my room, with threats, bribes and a bottom-line answer that yes, he had to do his homework, he retreated.


Battle weary perhaps, but not war defeated.


After days of consideration, he came up with a compromise.


He agreed to do all his homework in all of his classes. Except for two. I’ll leave out which two, just not to offend the teachers of those subjects. Let’s just say he didn’t choose Photo and Band. Think the important ones.


The interesting thing in all of this is that Michael actually likes to learn. Was a sponge for it when he was younger. With some subjects, still is.


Battling a cold and a low grade fever a couple of weeks ago, Michael stayed home from school. Don’t ask me why, but he actually doesn’t like to miss school. Go figure. However, when we talked that night, he told me he’d had what he considered a perfect day. He slept until noon, then woke up and composed two songs.




The blog’s title should affirm that I do not think my kids are perfect. I can’t excuse Michael his stubborn streak or his oft-skewed way of judging the world around him. But on his legitimate sick day, my son was free to text, facebook, twitter. He could have spent the day watching movies or playing video games. Instead, he made music.


So I have to question a school system that uses high-stakes testing and hours of homework as barometers of quality. And I wonder about educational constraints that are so narrowly constructed as to exclude a vibrant learner with a still inquisitive mind. And I worry about a success that defines intelligence more for its conformity than its ingenuity, gives credit for good grades over real grasp and understanding. And makes a kid look at September and the start of school, as Michael told me on his first day this year, as the season of the year when he stops learning.