Why should pre-holiday school days be wasted?

I wrote this two weeks ago, knowing it would appear in the Local Living section of the Post on Thanksgiving. (It is appearing five days after that on washingtonpost.com because I couldn’t reach my blog entry site from my mom’s house in California.)

Did I have a holiday theme when I started typing? Nope. Then I saw education expert Mike Schmoker suggest that teachers have regular days in which students do nothing but read and write.

That hit a nerve. Many people, including me, have been demanding longer school days and years. But smart educators suggest we first get full use of the classroom hours we have before adding more. The biggest time wasters, I think, are days just before holidays. Not much gets done. Students and teachers tend to fidget and watch the clock.

Why not turn those empty hours into reading and writing days? Students can’t be expected to concentrate on what teachers are saying when holiday fun awaits. Teachers wonder why they even bother to present a lesson. Turn those days into time for individual work, and attitudes might improve, at least a little.

Many students (not all, to be sure, but work with me here) would see the advantage of getting ahead on a long-term project during school hours. Teachers could check on progress and answer questions, and the rest of the time catch up on paperwork.

For this to succeed, every class should participate. Math and science classes could be set aside for reading: No talking allowed. English and social studies would be for writing and editing, with students going over one another’s work and teachers helping less confident writers.

Which days are available? Halloween, of course. Attention spans are short with candy in abundance and students checking out those in costume. Then add the day before Thanksgiving weekend, the day before winter vacation, the day before Presidents’ Day weekend, and the day before spring vacation.

If the administration is particularly daring, it might even address the most wasted part of the school year: the period after final exams and before summer vacation.

On the last week of school, suspend the daily routine. No regular class. No bells. Everyone has a writing project that will end on the last day, with a public presentation. (A few high schools already do this.) Students could be organized by topics and genres: sports writers, short story writers, speechwriters, literary critics, editorial writers, nature essayists.

Educators and parents talk about the need for more writing in school, but it is still not happening. I am with those teachers who want every student to have a required research project. But we know what happens to such grand schemes. They are discussed in faculty meetings and PTA meetings. Long proposals are written. The assembled plans sit forgotten in the deeper reaches of a principal’s computer.

Why not use the dead days before holidays to just do it, one class at a time, and let the reading and writing evolve? An English teacher announces no homework for the Thanksgiving weekend, as long as students spend the last day writing a 500-word essay on the most important day of their life. She hands out paper, waits five minutes and then calls up each student to her desk in turn, two minutes for each.

She sees what they have in mind. She make suggestions. She checks what they have written. Students who finish early edit one another’s work. The teacher collects all of it and promises prizes when school resumes. A bag of cookies or a slice of pie for the most original essay, the funniest, the most moving, the most surprising.

Everyone goes home happy, with no homework. (Okay, the poor teacher still has to read them, but not grade them.)

Reading and writing days could, of course, prove to be disasters. But that’s not much different from the pre-holiday doldrums we have now. Writing could break the spell. To teenagers anticipating a few days for sleep and food and more sleep, it would have to be better than listening to a lecture by a teacher who doesn’t want to be there, either.

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