Push the Right Buttons

Since my school only has four block periods, teachers often sub for each other during their prep periods. Cheaper than hiring an outside sub, and with an experienced classroom manager running things, there’s an outside chance that the class won’t be a complete waste of time, which is normally the case for all but honors and AP courses when teacher’s not around.

Today I subbed for an economics teacher during fourth block, last class of the day. She told me to go to the library, that she’d put a note on her classroom door telling the students where to go. Ten minutes after the late bell, no students. I wander over to her classroom, where about half the students are milling around trying to get the nerve to leave. No note on the door. (I suspect someone pulled it down.)

“Are you Ms. L’s Econ class?

“Class was cancelled.”

“Yeah. What is this, college? Go to the library and work on your business project.”

“Who are you?”

“I’m the person telling you to go to the library and work on your business project. Come on, move. You’re late.”

(Note to new teachers, particularly you little twenty-somethings bleating about relating to students: it goes much smoother if you expect obedience. Better yet if you demand compliance. And like John Travolta says in Get Shorty, what you’re not doing is feeling about it one way or the other.)

They all trudge to the library and get to work on their project with little fuss; most of the remaining third trickle in over the next 25 minutes.

Last in, half an hour late, are two African American young men who clearly took the opportunity to pick up a second lunch at Wendys, and tried to get out of a tardy by telling me that they’d been waiting by the door “the whole time!” I laugh at them and tell them to get to work.

“We don’t know what to do.”

“Here.” I produce the assignment handout.

“Oh, yeah, the sports project. But there aren’t any computers open, they’re all full.”

“You two?” I speak to two kids on the end row of computers. “You’re not in this class?” They try to ignore me. “Are you in this class?” They still ignore me. “Let me find your name on the class list.”

“Okay, we’re not in this class. But we have homework.”

“Good for you. Do it later. Bye.” They are not happy, but they leave. (The computers are booked for the class, in case you just think I’m mean.)

“Look, guys! Two computers! Put the food away, and get to work.”

It’s a trip watching these two. They try. I watch them page through the assignment, puzzling over it, telling each other man, this is f**** up, she doesn’t tell us what to do. “It’s just a list of things we need to have done! But what do we do, man?”

After five minutes, I see them both paging through search lists, getting “Site blocked” messages. I wander over.

“Please tell me you aren’t googling porn sites in open view of a teacher and librarian.”

“Naw, I’m just finding shoe prices.”

“Shoe shopping?”

“For the team.”

“Oh, so you’re pricing shoes for your business. How much are you spending on personnel?”

“We don’t know how to do that. She doesn’t say how.”

“What are you staffing?”

“We have to staff a professional high school basketball team for $100,000.”

I look at them expectantly.


“Nothing comes to mind?”

“She didn’t tell us what to do.”

“But you’re pricing shoes.”


I wait, to see if enlightenment will dawn. But it is still well before midnight.

“Okay. Who will be wearing the shoes?”

“The players. Oh.”

“Indeed. So maybe start with people instead of shoes. How many players on a professional basketball team?”

“Twelve. And we’ll need a manager, and at least three coaches….”

“and what about a guy to manage endorsements at the team level?”

And now they are cooking with gas, telling me what they need to staff the team, what prices seem reasonable for a “basketball farm team, these are high school players, they’ll be chill with maybe $500 a season”. I walk away, and ten minutes later they come back to me asking if I know how they can put this “in a file or we’ll lose this paper with our notes.” I bring up Excel, they carefully enter all their data.

A bit later, one of them comes over to me and says “I took this class on Excel when I was a freshman and you could, like, add things up?” So I look at what they have, and suggest that they create one column for count and one for price, so they could then change values and automatically change the sums and they caught on and by god if they didn’t have a damn spreadsheet with personnel variables and starting costs entered, ready for tweaking. They were brainstorming equipment and facility costs by the end of class.

Do not imagine, dear reader, that these two boys will come on time to class tomorrow, ready to jump in and pick up where they left off. More likely, they will cut class one day, get pulled out for some activity on another, and by the time they get back to it will have forgotten the file name and where they emailed it. Still, for 45 minutes, these kids did productive work, thinking about what they’d need to create a small business. Count it in the win column, once I pushed the right buttons.

There’s a larger point in this story somewhere, about the degree of scaffolding low ability, low incentive kids need to do any sort of project based work. The teacher had put together a good lesson, too: achievable, relevant, and interesting. But many of the kids would need far more support—leading questions and a project broken down into key milestones, Excel templates for business plans and budgets, and so on. And as always, I am boggled by the gap between the idiots calling for project based learning which is, to their thinking, essential to modern education, and the actual students who simply don’t have the ability or motivation to meaningfully engage in the learning required for the projects as they are currently envisioned.

But it’s late and I’m pleased with the win, so I’ll stop here.

About educationrealist

7 responses to “Push the Right Buttons

  • The Wobbly Guy

    So very true. Too little help with too high expectations. I’ve seen too many lesson plans with grandiose aims, but little relevance to reality in what requisites and knowledge the students need to have in order to start on those tasks.

    At least the stuff in that lesson was concrete numbers and excel spreadsheets. It’s when the grading criteria for a project get subjective that the real headaches appear. How do you assess creativity? How do you determine if a project is ‘innovative, insightful’? If the analysis of the issues has been ‘sufficiently elaborated’?


    • educationrealist

      That’s a good way to put it–too little help with too high expectations.

      And yes, this project was a really good foundation. If I were going to give low incentive kids a project, I’d start with something like this and then give them all sorts of skeleton samples.

      Grades almost have to be subjective based on student ability. A top student should get a low grade for phoning it in, a weaker student might do a similar job but it represents lots of effort.

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