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24 April 2009

What do I do with seniors in the spring? Exemptions.

Ah, this time of year the faculty have the annual moan-fest about the lazy seniors. They’re into college, they don’t want to work, they are rude to the underclassmen, they caused the stock market crash, and so on. What’s to be done with them? Here’s an idea to keep them working: the exemption.

First, some background. I establish the homework routine in all my classes from day 1: we have homework every night, which usually consists of one or two problems whose solution must be communicated thoroughly. A student is allowed two extensions per five-week marking period, no excuses necessary. I collect homework during the beginning-of-class quiz, picking up papers from each student personally. If you don’t have homework right this instant, for whatever reason – don’t tell me about it, just take an extension. The extensions are due two days later for full credit.

What about the student who has already taken both extensions and doesn’t have homework? I can assign him to a special afternoon study hall. He has to leave his afternoon activity or practice early, and he reports to a proctor to work for 45 minutes. Problems completed in this special study hall can only earn about half credit maximum. And, all problems must be done eventually in order to earn a passing grade in the course.

By the spring, this routine is ingrained in my class. My seniors, like all seniors in the country, want to slide a bit. I want them to continue to work diligently on a nightly basis. Where do we compromise?

I give in a good bit by virtue of my yearly plan. In AP physics, I don’t present new material after April 1. It’s easier to convince seniors to practice problems on topics they’ve seen before than to learn something from scratch. In general physics, I cover optics, astronomy, and circuits in April and May. Optics is easy; astronomy is not, but it piques curiosity; circuits are easy and involve lots of hands-on lab work with a reasonably high wow-factor. I would not try to teach conservation of energy and momentum in the spring.

I still assign homework according to the standard routine. There’s no question in anyone’s mind that a failure to do homework will result in both a grade penalty and a loss of freedom due to the special study hall. So, work gets done. My seniors slide not by avoiding work, but by putting very little thought or attention into their work.

How do I fight this passive-aggressive approach to senior slide? I offer incentive for strong work in the form of the exemption. A student can use an exemption when he doesn’t have the previous night’s homework; unlike an extension, though, an exemption means that that night’s work never has to be done at all.

On a whiteboard on the side wall of my classroom, I’ve listed every student in my class along with two dashes representing their two allotted extensions per marking period. I put red checkmarks on the dashes each time an extension is used. When a student earns an exemption, I use a blue marker to make a large box by that student’s name. Everyone in every class sees the blue mark, and everyone without a blue mark is jealous. They all want exemptions.

Exemptions must be EARNED, and I make them reasonably difficult to obtain. In AP physics, a perfect fundamentals quiz earns an exemption; I award exemptions for perfect quizzes in general physics, too, when the quiz is based on the assigned homework. At the end of each week, I award an exemption to any student with an A homework average for the week.

I overheard some general physics students talking the other day. One gentleman had acquired his graded homework from Monday and Wednesday. He noted to his friend that he was off to a good start for the week… he and his friend actually calculated how well they had to do on the rest of the week’s homework in order to earn an exemption. I’m fine with that… they did five days worth of awesome, diligent homework in order to earn one night off. I’ll take that bargain with a senior in the spring.

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