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When a Maryland middle schooler walks on snowy paths, one teacher is not sympathetic

Recently, we posted contributor stories about times they'd walked in places where most people don't. A reader who is in middle school, Leo from Maryland, posted this comment which we think is worth highlighting:

Students (not Leo) walk to school. Photo by Dan Slee on Flickr.
I am an urbanist, stuck in suburbia. (I'm in Middle School, so "stuck" isn't exactly the right word.) Anywayyy...... I am an urbanist, right? And I also like walking, biking, public transit, etc.

So, I bike or walk to school almost every day. I live about a mile from my school. People are SHOCKED when they hear I bike or walk to school. The school doesn't bother salting the ped. walkways to school, so they are covered in ice the day school reopens after a snowstorm.

I was walking to school, and I fell and slipped twice due the the ice. My HW was soaked, b/c my backpack fell in snow. 1st period teacher wouldn't take my HW even though I did the work correctly, and you could still see my answers. I tried to explain the situation, he wouldn't listen.

His solution to my problem? Tomorrow, have your parents drive you to school. Lol, my mom's left for work already when I leave, and my dad works till midnight, and is asleep when I leave.
Perhaps Leo and his school could work with an organization like the National Center for Safe Routes to School, which focuses on providing students and parents with options to get to school on foot or by bike. (Update: Locally, there's also the Safe Routes to School Regional Network.) It may be too late for Leo's homework assignment, but it's never too late to improve walking conditions in all of our communities.
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What a jerky teacher. I hate when teachers and schools actively discourage active and sustainable lifestyles, such as walking and biking to school.

Also, I love that a middle schooler identifies himself as an urbanist! I don't think I knew what that was when I was in middle school.

by Shannon on Mar 25, 2014 2:27 pm • linkreport

Any chance you could ask Leo to name the school and ask the school (and the county safe routes to school coordinator) to comment?

by JimT on Mar 25, 2014 2:38 pm • linkreport

This school needs to be persuaded to do the right thing

by Fred on Mar 25, 2014 2:47 pm • linkreport

Jim: Leo does not feel comfortable sharing that information.

by David Alpert on Mar 25, 2014 2:49 pm • linkreport

Actually, this could be the best thing that happened to this kid ever. It's an illustration of an opportunity for cognitive dissonance and arbitrary, capricious authority. So instead the kid will start to think for himself and question authority more.

Something analogous happened to me in 3rd grade. I had really bad handwriting. I moved from one school to another. In the new school, I started getting B- grades instead of A's because of the quality of my writing, not whether or not the information was correct.

It was one of two key incidents in 2nd and 3rd grade that significantly shaped my outlook on life in ways that fostered independence.

fwiw, the likelihood is that the teacher is a committed suburbanist with as narrow a mindset as my 3rd grade teacher about life outside of that experience.

by Richard Layman on Mar 25, 2014 2:50 pm • linkreport

The old "I'm an urbanist and my homework got messed up when I fell in the snow while walking to school" excuse. Heard it a hundred times. Just kidding. Stand up for your rights Leo and keep biking/walking.

by likedrypavement on Mar 25, 2014 3:09 pm • linkreport

I can understand the teacher not wanting to deal with wet and barely legible homework. That's no way to provide a deliverable to a client which is kind of what homework is.

However, the teacher's response was totally dismissive and unhelpful. A much better response would be to allow the student to copy over their homework to a clean piece of paper. Then tell the student to do what I do when I walk in the rain or snow with important papers. Put them in a plastic bag and double bag it. Walking in the rain/snow is totally compatible with providing client-ready deliverables.

by Falls Church on Mar 25, 2014 3:14 pm • linkreport

My eight year old son bikes to school most days (including 25F) by himself (about 3/4 of a mile) the teachers are very disapproving..

by roland on Mar 25, 2014 3:15 pm • linkreport

fwiw, the likelihood is that the teacher is a committed suburbanist with as narrow a mindset as my 3rd grade teacher about life outside of that experience.
I'm not sure that that's the most likely explanation here. I taught in a public HS, and students would have pretty outlandish explanations for homework that was in poor condition or not turned in. Presentation is important, since you can't exactly hand out wet documents at work, so it's reasonable for teachers to expect that homework be in somewhat decent conditions.

Also some teachers (like me) may respond sarcastically. While I wouldn't tell a student to be sure to drive next time, you can imagine that being a response to "my homework is practically illegible because I was walking."

by Gray on Mar 25, 2014 3:24 pm • linkreport

I don't think all is necessarily lost for Leo's homework. Leo, I've been in the teacher's position, and I'm going to offer some thoughts from that perspective, as well as some suggestions for what you might do if you decide to approach your teacher about this again.

Teacher's perspective:

--Wet paper means I need to keep it separated from other students' papers so they don't all get wet, drippy, and stuck together.

--Is the paper going to be illegible or nearly so by the time I look at it? I have 120 other papers to grade -- will I have to spend a lot of extra time on this one?

--The bell has rung and I'm trying to get class started as there's so much material to cover. Meanwhile, there are 2-5 students trying to tell me long stories about why they don't have their homework or it's in poor condition. I've heard so many of these that I've started to assume these are all variants of "the dog ate my homework".

I'm not saying the teacher is *right* to think this way in your case, but I'm just trying to give you a sense of the context in which the teacher is hearing your story, and why the initial reaction is to reject your homework. I suggest you try some of the following if you want to try one more time to get the teacher to accept your homework:

--Copy your homework over on a clean and dry piece of paper.

--Write a note to the teacher explaining that you realize that a wet piece of paper would create a hassle for them, so you copied it over on a clean and dry sheet, because it is important to you to complete your assignments/learn the material (or whatever is true for you) and apologize for the lateness

--Ask to schedule a short meeting after school or at another time that might be convenient for your teacher to reiterate what you explained in your note, and also explain your commitment to urbanism and what it is that drives you to walk to school even under adverse weather conditions.

I can't promise you that your teacher will change their mind but if it were me, I *think* this approach might have gotten through to me, and I would surely have respected the effort and commitment it reflected. Your teacher isn't perfect, but try to give them a second chance in a moment when they aren't harried by collecting papers, taking attendance, and trying to get class started. The comments from Falls Church and Gray are also on-point here.

In the long-term, this one homework assignment isn't important, but what can be important is making an effort to understand other perspectives and trying to move things forward even if a first attempt doesn't work. Good luck.

by Mary on Mar 25, 2014 4:08 pm • linkreport

All of the above (particularly Mary) but also:

Concede what the rest of us urbanists have had to concede - walking, biking, bus, rail - whatever your mode of choice, they all require preparation. Get yourself some kind of sealable waterproof bag for inside your backpack. That way you can avoid this kind of issue in the future, and still enjoy your commute the way you want to do it. AND, you won't have to hear unhelpful suggestions from teachers, bosses, or random people.

by 17th Street on Mar 25, 2014 5:06 pm • linkreport

I'm also a teacher, and Mary and Falls Church hit the nail on the head. Students are totally responsible for their homework, including not only completetion but delievery. That includes, in this case, exercising due caution on ice, and protecting important documents. My boss would never take a document in such condition from me.

Of course, let's be clear that the blame here falls with the school for not clearing its walkways. We can certainly say the school deserves some blame here, without saying the teacher is being unreasonable.

by Rob on Mar 25, 2014 6:30 pm • linkreport

The car-dependent suburb ate my homework.

by aces on Mar 25, 2014 10:58 pm • linkreport

Perhaps Leo should ask the teacher why the school thinks it is appropriate to have unsafe conditions for its students.

by SJE on Mar 25, 2014 11:00 pm • linkreport

The school has at least some minimal responsibility for kids getting to and from school. Perhaps Leo should ask the teacher why the school thinks it is appropriate to have unsafe conditions for its students getting to school, especially when there are laws and policies about pedestrian paths, safe routes to school etc.

by SJE on Mar 25, 2014 11:05 pm • linkreport

From the way it sounds, the teacher was right in refusing to accept the homework. The teacher was wrong in suggesting that the kid's parents should drive him to school. The school is wrong in not clearing their sidewalks.

by Froggie on Mar 26, 2014 7:30 am • linkreport

The idea that homework assignments are like work products is kinda fantastical. Unless there's some consistent standard (which, in what I've seen of schoolwork, doesn't exist) than it's just arbitrary capriciousness.

by Mike on Mar 26, 2014 7:56 am • linkreport

I think GGW was pranked. Backpacks have zippers. But Leo and Sasha Baron Cohen probably have a great future collaborating together.

by Dan on Mar 26, 2014 7:58 am • linkreport

There are local resources to help with Safe Routes to School. The Greater Washington DC Safe Routes to School Regional Network works in the region to make walking and bicycling to school safe and fun. There are two local coordinators in the region in Maryland depending on the school district. Several other organizations and parents are working on Safe Routes to School too. More information and my contact information can be found at

by Christine Green on Mar 26, 2014 10:37 am • linkreport

Agreed Mike, all this comparison of middle school (!!) homework to deliverables and products is bizarre.

by nbluth on Mar 26, 2014 11:16 am • linkreport

@nbluth -I agree! the learning process is not a deliverable or a commodity. Shoveling the walk is a deliverable!

by Tina on Mar 26, 2014 12:40 pm • linkreport

Below is the definition of "deliverable" from wikipedia:

Deliverable is a term used in project management to describe a tangible or intangible object produced as a result of the project that is intended to be delivered to a customer (either internal or external).[1][2] A deliverable could be a report, a document, a server upgrade or any other building block of an overall project.

Homework is both a work product (work that produces a product) and a deliverable (an object produced as a result of a project). I guess it's debatable whether the homework in question was the result of a "project", although projects are certainly common at school.

Shoveling the walk is a deliverable!

Shoveling the walk is not a deliverable. A deliverable is an object and shoveling the walk is a service.

by Falls Church on Mar 26, 2014 1:35 pm • linkreport

@Falls Church: from your definition: "Deliverable is a term used in project management". This is a middle school, not a business school.

by Mike on Mar 26, 2014 2:29 pm • linkreport

What might help is putting your work in a folder inside a binder, it'll help keep it from getting wrinkly. And maybe a tougher backpack? I don't know.
I'm impressed about you going a mile back and forth (two miles!) every day while you're in middle school. (My own had a long, long bus ride)

by asffa on Mar 27, 2014 8:37 am • linkreport

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