I Cannot Eat This Homework

Tradition and technology play well together in Carrie Patterson’s high school English classes at the East Bronx Academy for the Future.

Patterson has banished the scourge of all English teachers from her classroom: gone are the stacks of essays, book reports, tests, quizzes, journals and notebooks that teachers have been lugging back and forth from school since the discovery of papyrus.

In fact, she does not use a single piece of paper or a single textbook in any of her English classes.

Everything that was formerly done on paper is now done on student laptops.

All that this English teacher with 17 years of experience has to carry home now is her slim, lightweight laptop that holds everything that reams of paper once held.

The new technology is facilitating the learning of traditional skills and knowledge. Eleventh- and 12th-grade students in a recent class were hard at work on a grammar lesson. They were intent on finding and highlighting, in the colors of their choice, the direct and indirect objects in a series of sentences viewable on their laptops.

The lesson was also projected on a large screen so the class could work on the material together and then individually. As the students worked, Patterson was free to circulate, checking, encouraging and providing one-on-one help when needed.

From the moment that students pick up their computers from the laptop cart, they know exactly what the aim of that day’s lesson is and have all the materials and notes for the work to be done and the homework that follows.

It all can be found on the attractive web page the students open to — Patterson’s Place — which has a picture and bio of their teacher, timely announcements and reminders, helpful links and entertaining graphics as well as the lesson plan.

Miller PhotographyThe "Patterson Place" web page contains all the materials for the day’s lesson. Free access online provides the literature to be studied — short stories, plays and novels.

Using GoogleDocs, students create notebooks and journals. Using school email accounts, they have learned how to attach homework assignments and classwork to send to Patterson. With the help of GoogleForms, students submit classwork via online spreadsheets that allow a teacher to color code the answers to make grading easier.

At test time, Patterson uses Smartsync software to monitor all the laptops so she is able to see what each student is doing and disconnect the Internet with a click if anyone is cheating.

Absence is never an excuse for falling behind or pleading ignorance. And for anyone who wants to review a lesson, it’s all there.

If a student does not have a computer at home, Patterson provides access to a school computer throughout the day.

Although students were suspicious of the innovation, by early October Laura Rosario and Ronnie Carmona said they gave it a thumbs up. Martin Santiago said he finds it a more helpful way to learn.

Miller PhotographyStudents are reminded to be careful as they return their laptops to the cart. The grand experiment began after Patterson attended an Apple-sponsored roundtable discussion about paperless schools. “The idea intrigued me,” she said, “because I hate dragging tons of papers around with me while I’m grading them.”

It also fits with her role as the school’s sustainability coordinator and winner of the New York City Simplicity IdeaMarket Paper Challenge for her “Paper Free School Zone” idea.

With the go-ahead from Principal Sarah Scrogin, whom Patterson describes as “amazing” because of her full support of technology and the arts at the East Tremont school, and with grant money to pay for the computers, she began last year with the hardest part of the initiative — setting up the site.

She makes no bones about it. “To get the site started took lots of hard work,” she explained. She also had to spend a week at the start of the school year to initiate students.

Patterson admits to “some hiccups along the way,” but insists that “with a little bit of ingenuity and a lot of patience, I’ve been able to make a big difference — at least in my classroom.”

By Abby Zofchak

Students have flocked back to campus and classes are underway. Everyone has started the semester well rested and ready to do things again. However, many of us know that this enthusiasm starts to fade as responsibilities and schoolwork pile up throughout the semester. Students start to complain that they have too much to do and not enough time, and even showing up to class can seem like a major effort. While we all seem to understand that going to class is important (see Note 1), we are not entirely sure how much students are actually missing class. Until now, we have not had data to show what attendance really looks like at Denison and how people think about it.

This post is part of a larger project of mine from last semester that looked into how pervasive missing class is, why students skip, and if faculty attendance policies affect student behavior. The study involved two surveys. The first was given to faculty members to understand the institutional framework Denison currently has for attendance. The second survey asked students a series of questions related to campus life, their classes, and how much they miss class and why. In part 1, I review student and faculty beliefs and attitudes about attendance. In part 2, coming next week, I will document how much students are missing and explore why.

What do we think about attendance – how do faculty members and students perceive behavior related to skipping class, and is it a problem? I looked at data collected from the faculty survey in October, 2016. The survey asked faculty members if they thought course attendance was a serious problem on campus. Responses were given on a 5-point scale from strongly agree to strongly disagree. Most of the faculty reported the middle value, which often signals not having sufficient information to choose otherwise. However, Figure 1 shows that more disagreed than agreed that it’s a serious problem.

Figure 1: Do Faculty and Students Think Missing Class is a Serious Issue?

The variance in responses from faculty could be the result of a few different things. Some faculty might think attendance is more important and have higher expectations for students. There is some evidence to support this – those who say it is extremely important that students go to class were more likely to agree that attendance is a serious issue (see Note 2).  However, the difference in perception could exist because no one has really looked into how much students actually miss class before. It is hard to be certain that a problem exists if there is no systematic evidence of it.

What do students think? In November, 2016, about 600 students were asked the same question. Generally, students perceive attendance in the same way that the faculty does. Only 4% strongly disagree that it is a serious issue, while 10% strongly agree, which leave most students somewhere in the middle without strong feelings either way (see Figure 1). Moreover, these results reveal that the student population does not agree on whether or not missing class is a problem. More students than faculty seem to think Denison does not have an attendance problem. However, I suspect that individuals who are likely to take a survey are probably more attentive and more likely to show up to class, which may limit the perspective of the sample. Again, this could also just mean that they do not know much about the issue, making it hard to be sure one way or the other.

We might be able to better understand the scope of the issue if we know why students tend to miss class. The faculty were asked to pick the top three reasons why they think students skip class the most. The top three reasons selected were short term-illness (cold, flu, etc.), lack of sleep/overslept, and commitments for internships or jobs (see Figure 2). Then students were asked, “If you miss class, what are the most common reasons why? Please check the top three reasons for your absences.” Students reported the same top three reasons as the faculty. Although being sick, oversleeping/not getting enough sleep, and having commitments for jobs or internships seem relatively harmless, they can have compounding effects and can be related to other, larger issues associated with lifestyle choices, wellness, and time management.

One important implication of these results is that there are no major misunderstandings about why students skip class. Denison’s faculty seems to understand their students more than they are often given credit for. Denison is all about relationships and in some ways these results give us a sense of the open communication between faculty and their students.

So is there an attendance problem? While there is not a campus-wide consensus on how serious of an issue skipping class is, we do know why students are missing class. However, we cannot be entirely sure with this information alone. We still do not know how often students are missing their classes. Stay tuned for part 2 where I will be looking at how pervasive skipping class is, how they cluster by class, and if attendance policies have any influence on student behavior.

Abby Zofchak is an a capella singer who decided to take a break from swaying on stage so she could use her political science skills to better understand the mysterious “Denison bubble.”


1. The survey asked faculty members, “How important to you is it that students attend class?” 73% reported that they think it is very important while only 4% of the faculty say it is not important. Students were asked, “How important is it to you that you go to class.” 65% of the student sample said they think it’s very important, 27% think it is important, and less than 1% say it is not important.

2. I looked at the correlation between how much faculty value attendance and if they think it is a serious problem at Denison. The results showed a significant and positive relationship between the two (p<.05).

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