I wasn't prepared for the response. The article was about the frustration of some parents over a word-search assignment. Their students had been assigned to find words hidden on a page of letters. Aside from the fact that the page was difficult to read, the parents weren't sure exactly what the teacher was trying to accomplish with the assignment.
Some of the response was predictable. Students told me that they wanted to copy the article and distribute it anonymously to their teachers. It is understandable that students might not like some assignments, but I could not understand why they would want to place a newspaper article in a teacher's mailbox anonymously rather than simply talking to the teacher about the assignment.The strategy of these students didn't make sense to me particularly in that they wanted to influence the teacher. People don't seem to be moved by a clipped article by a little-known writer from an anonymous complainer. How about a face-to-face discussion?
I must also admit that the student response made me a bit uncomfortable for another reason. Had I somehow undermined the authority of the teachers in the eyes of these students, who now felt they could challenge an assignment, or is challenging an assignment sometimes part of learning?
I was surprised by the response from teachers. It was pointed out to me that it is easy to be critical when distant from the problem and that it is wrong to accuse teachers on the firing line of not always asking the philosophical question "Why am I doing this?"
I expect that most teachers do ask this question when preparing assignments and that some assignments are given for better reasons than others. I also expect that it is not always possible to give assignments for the best reasons. When a teacher faces 120 students in a day, perhaps keeping them occupied for a few minutes is good enough reason sometimes for an assignment.
I can accept the argument that I am distant from the problem and at the same time admit that even at the college level I give busywork sometimes. I also get challenged vigorously when I do.
Students seem very willing to do real work for good reasons, and many teachers are willing to listen to proposals from students for alternative assignments.
I do think that some teachers may have been too quick to defend themselves against charges that were not made. A teacher wrote that she was "tired of being blamed every time students lacked the self-discipline to do an assignment." Another wrote that I "characterized teachers as non-thinkers." Perhaps these teachers are being too tough on themselves. Making a student do a word search doesn't make the teacher a non-thinker.
Some parents who talked to me or wrote to me about the article were concerned that when parents criticize a teacher's assignment, that teacher's authority is compromised. "My child will take that to mean that we can pick and choose what assignments we should do."
This kind of thoughtful ethical question was especially appreciated when listening to the shrill response of a definite minority view. One parent called to ungrammatically accuse teachers in general of incompetence not even implied in the article about word-search assignments. For some reason the mention of this kind of assignment was a trigger for accusations that were hard to understand. To this caller, word searches meant overgeneralizations about all teachers who were "lazy, incompetent, uncaring, etc., etc. . . ." until I hung up because she would not give her name. I sign my criticisms.
Something can be learned about this exchange with students, teachers and parents. It may not be something about word-search assignments because I received no calls or letters explaining what teachers are trying to accomplish with these assignments.
What is to be learned is something about how to give and receive constructive criticism. I hope we all move up a notch as a result of discussion about an assignment that in itself probably isn't that important.