Bell Work and Daily Oral WTF

In 1st grade, and sporadically seen later on, there were these horizontal books that were nightmare fuel for us Eagles (the collective term for us kids… school pride, something something).  Sometimes we would show up and either on our way indoors or passed around immediately, we were given these yellow or orange books. (Between this and Holey Cards, I think a lot of us were permanently molded to associate those colors with petty nonsense involving low-level mathematics.) Yes, there really was a textbook called Bell Work that was intended solely as busywork fodder, “seat work” as it was called. After all, it was the accepted opinion that if you don’t stick us kids with this academic pacifier, we would, of course, start chattering, and this being West Heritage, talking was the ULTIMATE SIN. To paraphrase Barbatos Goetia from Tales of Destiny 2, “NO TALKING, EVER!”

So these books, about as tall as a half-sheet of paper, were filled with these randomized, lowball math problems. No context to these Bell Work assignments, just “here you go, do this and that and you’d better not talk!” I don’t know about you, but I was one of those who needed some sort of context to whatever you were about to impose on me. Alas, I was so intimidated by then-shouty Mrs. White that I didn’t dare ask why, but I’m assuming this was part of the whole ill-fated operation to impose silence upon the classroom.

The daily WTF didn’t end with RANDOM MATH PROBLEMS, either. Most of the time, we were actually greeted by either a dimly-lit classroom and the overhead projector, or some grammatical mess of a sentence scrawled upon the board that we were expected to copy down, correct and then rewrite again in its fixed form. I took issue with how many times we had to recopy each instance– it would have made more sense to only copy the initial mangled sentence, perform the edits on that, and then write out the corrected form. Personally, I would have been fine with solely writing out the corrected form– why waste my time doing copy editing on the mangled form when the original writer was never going to see it anyway? This daily exercise was only marginally more useful than Random Encounter mathematics (boo, “Bell Work”) since, after all, this is how you breed your next generation of proofreaders and copy editors… but my huge beef was with the name.

Why the hell was it called Daily Oral Language, when you were actually writing this stuff? There was nothing oral about it– any discussion didn’t take place until afterwards, in which we swapped papers with peers (the ultimate work-saver for the teacher and our first experience with crowd/outsourcing!). Why couldn’t this exercise have been named “Daily Proofreading” instead? Daily Oral Language. Worst busywork name EVER. And I had to deal with this crap until 7th grade!

Sometimes the above two were also coupled with the “Journal,” which wasn’t even a journal in the traditional sense. You didn’t actually get to write anything of your choosing, the “Journal” was more like you write verbatim the string of copy on the board, usually about something expected to happen that day or later in the week. Ah, another case of poorly-named busywork. It was more “write this statement legibly.”

Obviously I hated all of these, but I have since learned that if I hate something and was going to complain about it, I would be wise to have potential and workable alternatives in place. As someone who was slanted in favor of languages and visuals, I would have preferred to begin the day with reading or, better yet, being able to sketch a simple object. If you’re going to stick us with busywork at the start of the day, at least allow us to pick our poison.

I wonder what would constitute start-of-day busywork today, with things like the iPad and what-have-you making their way into classrooms. “Listen to this podcast and write the timecodes for when you hear these specific words” or something along those lines? Who knows. Actually, I might have preferred something like that…

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