May 06, 2009

Miracle Grow?

The most important lesson I teach my students is time management, and I’m afraid I don’t teach it very well. Most classrooms in most schools are very structured and organized palaces of instruction full of meaningful and complex coursework assigned and submitted on a regular and reliable schedule. Vocabulary words on Mondays, definitions due Wednesday, spelling quiz on Friday. New chapter on Monday, lab time on Wednesday, chapter test on Friday. It’s a schedule ballet that teachers and students have danced for years. If students can keep pace with the teacher and tender their completed work on time they pass.

But what happens when the structure is loosened up? Have you ever transplanted a plant from a smaller to a larger pot, or into the ground? When my father taught me to transplant I was shocked by what he did to the roots. My dad would pull the plant out of its happy and comfortable home and then “massage” the base breaking up most of the dirt and loosening up the roots. As my dad put the plant into its new home he explained that by properly preparing both the roots and the soil the plant had a better chance.

The plant did not look happy in transition, in fact it looked more like it might die. The exposed roots were tangled and twisted. Dad explained that was because they were “root bound,” the old pot was now too small for the growing plant; If the plant was left in the smaller pot, it would die. We needed to provide a larger space, with looser dirt in order for the roots and the plant as a whole to continue to grow. And he was always right. Whatever plants we transplanted always came back bigger and healthier. Miracle Gro helped too.

What does transplanting plants have to do with teaching and time management? I wrote earlier about how I handle late work. I always take late work, and I rarely assign makeup work. When the students ask what they can do to improve their grade, I tell them to do the work that I have assigned, and if they didn’t like the grade they earned, then to go back to the assignment, redo or finish it, and then resubmit for a re-evaluation. Returning to unfinished work forces the students to reflect on their efforts, make needed improvements, and complete the assignment.

Offering students the opportunity to return to their work does not fit the schedule ballet experienced in most classrooms or into most teacher’s idea of proper time management. But students who are doubling up on assigned work must manage their time appropriately to complete all of the requirements by their scheduled due dates. This forces students to do two very important things: spread out their roots, and find fresh dirt to grow in. The transition may be ugly and uncomfortable, but the end result will be a student who is learning and growing into a better and healthier human being.


  1. I agree and I allow my students to redo essays and test grades for a better grade during the first 5 marking period. We have 6 six week marking period. During the last six weeks they are not allowed to do so. They know this from day 1 and I remind them on a regular basis. This gives them a test of 11th grade AP because it is even more rigorous than my class. Project and daily grades do not get redos.

  2. It seems to me that when the structure is loosened up, they have the opportunity to create their own devices for time management. For example, I give them a rigid structure at the beginning of the year for projects, but by the end, they have a loose structure and can adapt their time management as a result.

  3. I love the way that you write and the connections that you make. Reading you is always like going through the action sequence in a movie to find whatever fantastic twists and turns you have in store in the end. I am a huge fan of loosening the reigns and allowing students to grow. Giving them time to find their own structure is much more real-word preparatory and there is great value in learning it early on.

  4. I also allow my students to re-do assignments and hand in work that is late. In September I start out very structured but as time goes by and I get to know my students better I loosen up. By loosening up a bit students learn on their own how to deal with the time that they have been given to complete assignments. I have also noticed that students begin to hold themselves more accountable and work hard to meet the deadlines that have been set. I always encourage them to learn how to manage their time to meer their due dates.

  5. I learned an important lesson from a wise mentor years ago: Let the kids redo it until they get it right--otherwise they don't really learn it. Thanks for reminding me of this lesson.

  6. Wonderful metaphore! I couldn't agree more, students need room to grow and develop their own good habits.