Spreadsheet Paradise

I’m about two-thirds of the way through my first semester teaching US History and Geography to 9th and 10th graders (mostly). I’ve discovered that one of my favorite activities is grading papers. This week in Geography we finished the U.S. and I required each cadet to fill out regional maps (five maps in all) and a fill-in-the-blank worksheet (three pages). I have 23 cadets, so that’s 184 pages that trickled in this week … well, more like 150 with another 30 or so still trickling in, or more likely stuck and moldering in the drain-pipe of adolescent procrastination … but that’s another story.

Actually, it isn’t another story. If grading homework is one of my favorite activities, collecting homework is probably my least favorite activity. The homework harvest has to be one of the most futile exercises on the planet. Between sports, sick call, disciplinary action, and special trips where the administration shows off the star cadets, it’s rare to have a whole class present at one time, so trying to actually collect homework on time, and sorting out the legitimate and bogus reasons for late homework ranks right up there on the futility scale with trying to choose Sunday worship service hymns that a congregation actually likes. Nigh impossible!

But back to grading homework: It started with a hodge-podge … actually it may have been more of a gallimaufry of crumpled, stained, and torn papers, some in scribble and some in cuneiform, and one or two in laid out in artistic splendor. I will admit that the initial heap was intimidating, so it seemed wise to let it set a day or two, like a soup or fine ragout, to let the flavors marry. (Or maybe I was just procrastinating.)

But once I got on task, the pages were soon in order and within a few hours were graded, and then the grades written in the grade book, and transferred to the school database and by 10:00 a.m. I had a stack of nearly 20 sets of papers, smoothed, stapled, in alphabetical order, and clipped together (to assure no residual gallimaufering could occur), another small stack of orphans, no-names, and half-dones (and one particularly puzzling bit of cuneiform that I’ll probably have to run by the resident Egyptologist), a computer-generated sheet with a list of names of those students who are no doubt spending the week-end dreaming up even better excuses for why their homework remains as stubbornly unfinished as Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, and a spreadsheet that has distilled those 150+ pages into four parallel lines of 23 numbers, with a semester average on the far left side, demonstrating with undeniable clarity who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.

There is something remarkably satisfying about transforming a grocery-sack sized gallimaufry into a 23×4 grid of numbers. Maybe it’s the nascent engineer in me, or maybe I’m just a bit delirious, but that movement from anarchy to symmetry is just plain glorious.