We learn best at our tipping point.

But that is an idea that is not sinking in to some parents, these days. When I taught high school for five years, I could count on one finger the number of parents who called me to clarify assignment specifications. However, after teaching 5th and 6th grades for five years, there are not enough fingers and toes on all the teachers I know to calculate this figure.

I always shook my head, stupefied, when parents would call. “But we went over the assignment details in class,” I would say, “Many times, in fact. Does he have his assignment sheet? I saw him writing it all down. I don’t understand why he doesn’t know what to do.” It was a jolt when I finally realized that some of the parents who were emailing and calling were doing so, not because their child did not know what to do, but because they didn’t.

What you are about to read are true stories:

Account #1: A girl came up to me and told me that she could not turn in her project because she had left the flash drive at home. She assured me that her mother was bringing it up to school at lunch, “when the project was done.”

I said, “Wait, wait, wait.  What do you mean, ‘when it is done?'”

“Well,” she said with a casual expression and a wave of the hand, “I told her a few last minute things that I wanted her to do, and she is going to work on it and bring it up here when she finishes our project.”

(She said, “WHEN MY MOM FINISHES OUR PROJECT,” in case you didn’t catch that.)

Account #2: A boy turned in an essay that was only dimly similar to the one he had started in class. It was written in neither his style of writing or speaking so I asked him to tell me more about one of the facts he had detailed in his essay. He did not seem to recognize anything I mentioned. I asked him to explain three of the difficult words he had used. He didn’t know any of them.

I said, “This essay doesn’t really sound like the you that I know, to be honest. These words are pretty grown up …”

“Look, my mom helped me a lot, OK?”

I called and asked her for a conference. I stressed the importance of her son stretching himself with challenging writing tasks–mostly on his own–so that he can become stronger academically. I shared with her the confession her son had made, and that he did not know much of the vocabulary or the basic facts in “his” essay.

She erupted, “Of course I did it for him! I did it! He had football practice and a ton of math and science homework on top of that. I wrote the essay while he did the other work. It was the only way we were going to get it all done. Would you rather he had gotten a zero on his assignment?”

(Honestly, I have no words.)

Account #3: The best project of the 6th grade year is Boat Day. Students work with their math and science teachers for weeks to study displacement and the qualities of a seaworthy boat, and they prepare to build one with only two large sheets of cardboard and four rolls of duct tape. They draft plans, build and test a scale model, and finally build and race their team’s boat at the district swimming pool. Obviously, there has to be a lot of parental involvement to make this happen. On the boat-building day, we have parent volunteers on campus all day long, sweating as they kneel to cut the cardboard according to the students’ specifications. They generously give their time to cut for all of the kids, and they do not pay special attention to their own child. On one of those boat-building days, I escorted my students to their P.E. class after we leaned the partial boats against the walls of my classroom and in the hallways. When I returned without my class, a well-meaning father feverishly was duct-taping his son’s boat all alone in my classroom.

Stunned, I said, “Please go take a break now, sir. Thank you so much for helping us cut, but we ask that the kids be allowed to make their own projects. We cannot allow you to work on the boat while they are gone.”

When he turned to me, his eyes were wild. “But this is going to sink! Their design is flawed! I tried to tell them, but they wouldn’t listen, and now this boat is going to sink! I just have to help them make the tape more secure, and then maybe …” He pulled another strip off the tape roll.

“That is how kids learn, sir. When they sink.”

“But he will fail!”

“No, he won’t fail. His evaluation for this project is not based on whether the boat actually makes it across the pool. All of these boats are going to sink by the end of the day. And then the kids will come back to school and write reports about which parts of their team design worked and which parts didn’t. They will explain what they wish they had done differently and what they learned about mathematics and physics from the whole process. Their self-report– especially of boats that do not make it– is the most important part of learning. It is because the boats sink that the learning sinks in into the student.”

“But …” He looked at me with a pleading brow.

Eventually, he let it be.

I could write more bizarre parent interactions than you would ever care to read, but these get the point across. At times a teacher discovers that there is a sharp difference between projects that are allowed to be taken home and those finished entirely at school. I have seen kids who hardly knew how to use a glue stick properly or plan out a poster all because they never learned these simple skills at the appropriate times; their parents had always done their projects for them. When I was an elementary student, there was this kid in my class who turned in these amazing projects every year. I was always jealous of his projects and wondered how he did it so well. My own projects were decent, but they were always a little wonky. It never crossed my mind to ask an adult for help. And my mom rarely offered; she would just check in to see how I was doing. What a gift she gave me by letting me do it myself! Now, I love nothing more than completing all kinds of projects. You see, I learned how to do them well.

As I teacher, I usually esteem the slightly wonky projects and imperfect papers more than the Martha Stewart projects and the John Grisham papers. I like seeing the fingerprints of a child on his work.

When parents over-assist, they actually rob their children, not only of immediate success, but of future success. What will that child do as a young adult, when they encounter tasks that they never have had to try on their own? My dear friend always says “Be careful to begin anything you cannot sustain.” Parents who begin the habit of rescuing their children will find themselves in a “job” from which they can never retire.

Recently I happened upon a quote that captured me.

“Don’t handicap your children by making their lives easy.”― Robert A. Heinlein

Amen and amen.

I like to guide my students through the struggle of an assignment, and that bothers some parents. Sometimes, I don’t directly answer student questions if I want to see them think their way toward another path or possibility. Yes, I am a teacher and I don’t answer every question that is asked of me. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, there is something right about it. My students are always so proud when they discover something new on their own.

The struggle is crucial. The struggle takes time. The struggle is the learning.

I am not interested in grading a 40 year-old’s attempt at elementary school work. For better or worse, let them do it themselves! You already have a diploma. It is their turn to learn.

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