When making up is not such a good idea

4th May 2001 at 01:00
I knew when I took my four children out of their American schools for two weeks that I might as well have run over a sacred cow with a yellow school bus and wiped the mess off the hood with their good attendance certificates. Still, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

I understand good attendance is crucial. But a rock-bottom Internet airfare coincided with the high school's spring break and my mother's 75th birthday.

Still, I had four different principals to convince and it was with some trepidation that I approached their schools. Luckily, all four heads thought it was a wonderful opportunity and it was easy to secure their blessing. Both grade school teachers swallowed hard and were also able to wave us off with reasonable good cheer.

"Just have the kids keep a travel journal," was their request, although my daughter ended up with daily maths worksheets and flashcard drill for Japanese. And the high school was no problem: my oldest would only be out of school for a few days.

It was at the middle school that things got stickiest. Although the principal here was another advocate of the travel journal, none of the teachers was biting.

Two wanted all my son's work made up while he was away. Two teachers judiciously selected the odd worksheet and waved him on his way. One promised to work with him after school on his return until he caught up with the rest of the class.

The social studies teacher worried that he would "miss out on the Renaissance". Although Florence wasn't on our itinerary, I couldn't help thinking that, with family visits at both ends of England and a few days in London already planned, my son would be getting rather more history and geography than his mid-western classmates this semester.

We still had to lug his three-pound textbook along. I knew language arts would be tough. Hopefully, I mentioned the travel journal.

"But he'll be missing two spelling tests. How will a travel journal help with that?" the teacher said.

Apparently, life only offers you one shot at learning to spell "literacy" and whoops - there it went.

In America, make-up work is a fact of life. Your child returns to school after three days' illness, still a little wobbly on his fet. If you haven't run into school each day to pick up his work, he'll come staggering home, tired, a little pale and laden with a towering pile of books: every chapter and worksheet he missed, three evenings' worth of homework and all due in the next day or so - oh, and while he was gone he missed two tests, he will need to make them up after school tomorrow.

It's no use protesting, for how will the teacher know what grade to give him if he doesn't do the work? Just giving him a pass mark wouldn't be fair to the others.

I've seen a lot of make-up work over the years and it doesn't impress. I agree it's a shame my child missed the chemistry experiment. But the wordsearch for chemical elements set for homework? I think he could give it a miss. I don't think he needs to read and make notes on the extract from Charlotte's Web to prove himself in English: the class is all on to The Little House on the Prairie now, anyway. He could take a break tonight and fall into step with them tomorrow.

He's already on top of fractions: he doesn't need to do another 20 problems to get a mark entered into a grade book.

He (and I) are sincerely grateful that you have offered to spend 15 minutes with him after class going over the decimals that the class did while he was ill. And this weekend we will read the first half of the unit on electricity so that the second half makes sense next week. Basics for keeping up: great. Busy work: no thank you.

So, to England. Here we are round my sister's dining room table and I've got three grumpy children labouring over their travel journals. Only one is penning anything of real interest. It's all the others can do to get down the basic itinerary.

Outside, a country they hardly know lies waiting. They could be at Sainsbury's with their grandmother or taking an earlier train to London to explore Covent Garden before The Lion King. They could be getting to know the children over the road. They could be watching Blue Peter or reading The Beano.

They could be living life in England instead of writing dull diary entries about it. Still, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Susan Whitehead is a freelance journalist based in Wisconsin in the United States

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