Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Leap Year 1996- True Story

I was about six weeks into my student teaching experience.  Twelfth grade U.S. Government, so most of my students were either already eighteen years old or almost there.  As class began, we paused for our daily viewing of Channel One.

I don’t know if Channel One is still around or not, but if you’re not familiar with it, sometime in the 1990’s schools could subscribe to this service.  In exchange for wiring each classroom and providing a television, schools would broadcast a short “news” program each day that students had to watch.  That’s just set-up, here’s the story.

At the end of the broadcast on February 29, 1996, the hosts of the show gave an on camera “shout out” to a friend on his birthday.  They said that it was a special birthday because even though he’s sixteen years old, this was just his fourth birthday.

I was happy at least that the class was paying attention, but one of the student’s didn’t get it.

“What are they talking about Mr. Turner?”

“It’s leap year, so this kid was born on February 29.  We’ve only had a February 29 four times since then so even though he’s sixteen, he’s only had four actual ‘birthdays.’”

“What?  How has he only had four birthdays?”

“I’m sure he’s had birthdays, but if his actual birthday is February 29, then it only happens every four years.”

“Why is that?”

“Leap Year, we add a day to February on  leap years.”

“For what?”

“Do you know what leap year is?”


That’s the story.  Remember, eighteen years old, regular education classroom, senior in high school.  I’m not poking fun or belittling this student, but sixteen years later, I still have a vivid memory of this event.

At the time I remember thinking “you can’t teach that.”  Leap year is simply a fact that exists.  I don’t remember when, how, or why I learned it.  If it hadn’t been taught in school, I would imagine that after experiencing leap year at ages 6, 10, and 14 that I would have been expecting it at age 18. 

I started to wonder why this student didn’t know about leap year.  Is there a standard somewhere in the elementary school curriculum?  If so, can we pin-point the right teacher to blame for his lack of knowing about leap year?  If there is no standard, should we create one to make sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen in the future?

At the time, I thought this: if an 18-year old hasn’t had the natural curiosity at some point in his life to wonder why this year has more days than normal, then how can I be expected to generate enough curiosity to make this student care about the government that directs his life in so many ways.  I didn’t have any problem blaming this student for his deficiency of knowledge.  If he doesn’t care enough to learn, how can I be expected to teach him.

I imagine that most people would find one of the preceding two paragraphs offensive—either blaming the system or blaming the student.  I think both of them are flawed.  When teachers blame the student for failure it becomes an excuse to give up.  When politicians and ed reformers blame teachers for failure it becomes an excuse to ignore more critical problems.  In either case, introducing blame sets up an adversarial system that encourages admiration of problems without moving forward into realistic solutions.

Luckily I found this the other day.  So in the spirit of Kahn Academy, there shouldn't be an excuse for anymore American children to not understand the concept of leap year.  All they have to do is log on and watch:


  1. You make an interesting point about blame. I would not be so quick to absolve students of ultimate responsibility. It is their education after all. All this country and our schools guarantee is an opportunity. At least until NCLB. The fact that law exists and changes our dynamic. It is to be expected teachers are to blame. In the end teachers are trying to help them learn. We fall short at times just like our pupils. But we are expected to hold students accountable for their performance and effort. We do so in part by assigning a grade. Current emphasis on holding teachers accountable will do little except to further hinder progress for a myriad of reasons backed by research and enumerated in any number of places. It is that landscape that threatens to create many more students who don't know about Leap Year.

  2. I hear the words Channel One and I still grind my teeth! As a first or second year teacher, I was appalled that the school district I taught for bought into free TV's in exchange for the students being subjected to advertising for 10-15 minutes every day. I still find myself singing, "If I could be like Mike" about twice a week...and it's been 20 years.

    Thanks for the video