When bad pineapples happen to good students

… recently, I was on the receiving end of an insult that ripped apart my wall, tore though my defense and took a deep bite into my self-esteem. My worth was questioned, not by a peer, but by a teacher.

Nick Giulioni is a college-bound high school senior in Los Angeles. He writes for the Los Angeles Times education blog, The Homeroom: Southern California schools from the Inside Out. This week, he wrote – How a pineapple ruined my day

Nick writes about a recent class period spent graphing points and connecting them to form a picture of a pineapple. This was in a math class years past algebra.

…I found myself graphing this morning because my teacher was absent for a day and got behind. So instead of doing what a rational person would do (not assign busy work) this teacher decided to give some of the most degrading busy work I have ever experienced.

Just overblown dramatic teenage hyperbole? I don’t think so. Kids get assignments like this all the time, and are expected to silently complete them. Don’t complain, just connect the dots, solve the world search, and color in yet another family crest for a fictional character. Of course this will help you get into college!

Nick’s outrage is only unusual because we rarely hear such talk from students, much less successful students. The wonder is that more kids aren’t enraged. Maybe they are checking out, both mentally and physically, because there is no way that their voices will be heard if they speak up. Degrading? Yes, it is degrading to be just considered an annoyance that needs to be kept quiet for a class period–not a learner and certainly not an individual.

What about the teacher? Maybe he or she really was busy, stressed, or having personal problems? Hey, everyone has a bad day, but really, that doesn’t matter in the long run. Whatever the teacher’s excuse might have been doesn’t change the way the assignment impacted the students. It was a clear message of power. You do what I tell you to, no matter how inappropriate, and do it quietly and without thinking.

Perhaps I’m just more apt to get upset about this because I tend to keep myself very busy, but I felt as if my time was being disrespected.

So I spent 40 minutes working on a pointless assignment that I can’t possibly gain anything from. I decided to neglect exercise to fit this busy work into my schedule. But, hey, at least I got to draw a pineapple.

Even Nick feels he has to apologize, as if he only has the right to be upset because he’s a busy guy. At least he’s amusingly snarky about it. But I don’t think that he should have to temper his anger at being the target of a remedial assignment randomly tossed his way. Lucky for him, he has an outlet at a blog run by a world-class newspaper. I guess every kid should have one.

10 Replies to “When bad pineapples happen to good students”

  1. Last night my son finished his day of doing nothing but school work at about 11:00 PM. He only had time to eat and do his assignments, which he finished this morning before going to school. One assignment was to copy definitions from the glossary in the textbook to his notebook. No changes, no interpretation, just 50 pointless definitions.

    I would challenge the teachers, which I do from time to time on my blog, but my son doesn’t want me to rock the boat at school. It is so frustrating.

  2. Harold,

    I don’t know how old your son is, but if he’s in 8th grade or beyond, he’s the one who should be rocking the boat.

    Blogs are good things, but they aren’t a substitute for real action. One should blog about something during or after real, substantive action – otherwise it’s just ineffectual complaining.

  3. Yes, Matthew, but the pressure to conform is very strong, and my son has to spend every week day in the classroom, where a teacher can make his life miserable in many subtle ways. The only option is go the home schooling route, and then a teenager doesn’t get to see his friends every day. Our whole society is geared to supporting schooling. The price of opting out is great and I would not force it on my children, though I support them in all they do.

  4. I have to agree with Harold – you have to pick your battles and help your kids learn how to pick theirs too. Everyone is going to pick different ones.

    I support Nick’s right to complain. That’s a valid action, even if he didn’t confront the teacher or challenge their assignment. He did his assignment and moved on, and decided to spend his time writing about it to a wider audience.

    He made a choice not to confront the teacher about how to teach. I probably would have done the same thing in his shoes. He didn’t indulge in name-calling, he stuck to how the assignment made him feel and I respect that.

  5. Thanks for sharing this example of where we have come in the last few decades. Here you have an example of how youth have become thinkers and users of knowledge while, unfortunately, some teachers have not and the resulting impact that this has on those youth.
    Now, I agree with Harold and Sylvia about choosing which battles to wage. It’s just unfortunate that such an act of questioning would result in a problem, especially if it was done in a respectful manner. Questioning is part of learning and, when someone questions me about an assignment, I had better have a good reason for having chosen the assignment other than busy work. No wonder so many of our youth disengage when they arrive at school. So much of what they do isn’t allowing them to question and grow, learn and improve.
    The use of the blog by the student is a great example of how new technologies are allowing people to see why many of our students are checking out.

  6. Sylvia,
    I remember working with an elementary school in the early ’90’s that was using an individualized learning system for 4th grade math. Students moved through the system at their own pace. (please put all judgments about these systems aside for now) If they mastered a skill, it moved them on, if they struggled with a skill, it moved them to a prerequisite skill.

    The good math students ,moving at their own pace, started to really push through the different levels of math skills quickly. No longer were they going at the teacher’s pace or the middle of the class’s pace. They were excited.

    When they started asking questions in class like “What is this “%””? Teachers got really upset. I had one teacher tell me “I don’t teach percent until April”, then promptly moved the student back to where they had started on the system to keep them busy with the “old” stuff and keep them away from the “new” things they were starting to encounter.

    As you stated, it was just busy work. What a shift it would have been if the teacher had taken a moment to explain % to the student who wanted to learn about it. It was all about teacher control, and doling out the information when they felt it was time to.

    This happened to so many students that I had to take it to the district leaders. Their reactions? … a story of dysfunction best told at another time.


  7. Hi Pete,
    Your story illustrates the point well. But I am going to jump in on the use of the “learning system.”

    The act of purchasing such systems illustrates the “quick fix” mentality that we have for schools. We all want the magic wand, the learn-o-matic. I’m sure that system cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Such a waste when there was no commitment to real change other than writing the check.

    For some reason, actually doing what we know works is just too hard. We love to spend money on doo-dads and we all fall all over ourselves when some new book is written about how the world is flat, or schools are like businesses, or learning is like an elephant in Poland. Ok, I made that last one up.

    But the hard work of looking kids in the eye and really knowing who they are is too hard. It’s too hard to create working conditions in schools that respect teachers and students as learners. It’s too hard to turn off the intercom that interrupts any chance of really thinking. For some reason the bell and bus schedules are as important as the flag and motherhood as symbols of our civilization.

    What it will take to wake us up?

    I don’t read Nick’s story as “bad teacher” – we all know this happens everywhere. It is only a symptom of our refusal as a society to change of our educational systems in the face of overwhelming evidence of dysfunction.

  8. I apologize for taking so long to finally respond to your comment Sylvia; I took a little time off from the Times, and just started checking my email.
    First of all, I cannot believe that my post could have a wide-spread effect like it has, and I would like to thank you for continuing my tirade (making it less emotional, and more factual.) As a high school student, it is unusual for my voice to be heard and responded to by anyone other than my peers, so I am actually stunned.
    Now, onto the actual content of the article. I agree with you adamantly, because this is not the only time I have experienced something like this. In fact, it is very common in the high school scene, but I was trying to focus on one specific instance. And, unfortunately, I cannot completely blame it on the teacher. Class sizes are increasing, making it that much more difficult to teach with the wide variety of past math/historical/science experience. There is simply no “cookie-cutter” way to teach everyone.
    I was angry when I wrote that post, but with time, my anger has mostly subsided. This gives me an opportunity to look at the situation in a much more rational way, and I have to say, your blog is exactly how I feel. I am not mad at the teacher, but at a system that encourages such a pointless assignment.
    Thank you once again for not just listening, but continuing my point. I appreciate the time, energy, and you put in, and look forward to reading your future posts.

    Your friend,

  9. Sylvia,
    Agreed…there’s a refusal to on the part of society and our educational leaders to make the changes that need to be made.

    I also beleve that our educational ystem is made up of individuals that have to step up to the plate to make things happen. Students can’t wait for their teachers, teachers can’t wait for principals; prinicipals can’t wait for superintendents, superintendents can’t wait for state ed departments, state ed departments can’t wait for the feds…and we certainly can’t wait for society to catch up to what we already know to be true.


  10. Harold,
    If you have questions about a series of assignments that seem worthless, why don’t you call the teacher and discuss your concerns. One or two odd assignments might be the teacher experimenting with a new strategy, but if you have questions, just call.
    I’m a teacher and a parent, so I know the hesitations involved in questioning your child’s teacher. My children also wanted to take care of things themselves, and not have me go over their head, so to speak. But I did call a teacher who taught the same subject I did when I knew the assignments and methods were not helpful. I asked questions, I gave my concerns, had a civilized conversation. It didn’t fix the situation; he just wasn’t a good teacher. But he did change some things, so the year wasn’t quite a waste. And there weren’t negative feelings on either part, at least as far as I know.
    Teachers and parents are in this together in trying to support students and teach them. We need to be able to talk to each other honestly, without being offensive or defensive.

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