Thursday, September 26, 2013

Day 23: Grades Make Baby Jesus Cry

With progress reports going out on Monday, our grades have to be in by 3 pm tomorrow.  As a result, I have to actually grade some stuff.  I have two geometry projects and a quiz in each of my classes, but not much else.  So today is quiz day for everyone.  The math 8 kids will also have their homework checked in a clump.

During the geometry quiz, I commented on how these kids, the elite matheletes in the school, don't own calculators.  Really.  So I passed some out.  One girl who does good enough work but refuses to really acknowledge my existence or make eye contact asked for one.  I made her give me a fist pound AND blow it up before I gave it to her.  My demands that she do so got increasingly loud and boisterous while she laughed, embarrassed and refused.  She told the kid sitting next to her to do it, but I told her that wouldn't be acceptable and took that kids calculator until she hit me up!

I used to be convinced that I shouldn't be myself in front of my kids.  I was worried about crossing the line into having too much familiarity so I gave them nothing.  My first few years, I didn't tell them I was married or where I lived or talk about my life in any way.  It was exhausting.

This year, I will tell them all sorts of things and I have been silly and fun and interesting and it seems to be paying off.  I am getting better interactions with my students and they know that I'm an actual person.  It was very scary at first and left me feeling vulnerable, but now I'm having such a great time, I can't imagine going back to how it was.

It was suggested that I write a post about all of the ways that my educational worldview has changed and I would like to.  Well, here's the first bit (second, I guess, if you count student interactions.)

The scores on the geometry tests were not great.  It was an open note 20 questions quiz.

The kids were VERY upset.  I don't blame them.  We've been having a great time in class, learning a ton of stuff so a crappy test score feels like a huge blow, to me as well as to them.  We talked about it after I graded them.

Me: "Does a low test score change what you've learned? Does it make you a bad person or a bad friend?"
S: "No."
Me: "Does it make you stupid?"
S: "Yes."
Me: "Really? Were you stupid two hours ago?"
S: ""
Me: "But the test MADE you stupid since then?"
S: ""
Me: "Right! People can do poorly on tests for any number of reasons, not the least of which is carelessness.  You are bright enough to be here, or you wouldn't be. Up to this point, many of you have been able to get by with a minimal amount of studying and work because you were smart enough to coast.  The same thing happened to me.  I was a straight A student until about 7th or 8th grade (it was actually 5th) when my brains alone couldn't carry me.  At that point, I had to learn how to do work and study, not just be smart.  (I didn't even do that until college) I will help you with all of this.  Never EVER let a test upset you.  It doesn't change your worth.  All it does is gives you information on your strengths and weaknesses.  Take that information and learn from it.  Improve and be stronger."

In line with my new philosophy on grading, I made them a deal.  I told them that I would put the grades in (although I might forget until after progress reports are due) and they would spend the weekend working on the tests.  When they come in on Monday, there will be a new score sheet on their desks.  The warm-up on Monday will be to transfer their answers to the score sheet and I will replace their old scores with the new ones.  I also told them that I would expect them to show all of their work as well.

I have such high hopes for this group and I know that they will rise to the challenge.

When I offered the same deal to pre-algebra, half of them said that they would just keep the score they had, even the girl who got a 50%.  What do you do for kids who think that failing is good enough?  As many times as I try to explain to them about how bright they are and how much potential they are wasting, I can't seem to get the point across.  I know that my mom and my own high school teachers are screaming about irony as they read this.

This right here is why I didn't want to put in grades.  Kids who would work hard to get the right answer suddenly settle for a 70%.  How do we combat this as an institution and how do I combat this as an individual teacher.  My kids were doing well with just my encouragement.  Well, maybe not "well" but they were working and improving.  Now, because it was decided that we have to give them grades every 4.5 weeks, they see their situation as hopeless or "good enough."

I find it horrifying, but not surprising, that grades actually have a de-motivational effect on students, especially students of traditionally lower ability.


  1. This is FANTASTIC! I really, really, REALLY like how you dealt with the quiz grade issue and reinforced everyone's inherent worth as a person! You are developing a restorative classroom, and it's paying off for both you and your students.

    As for the students who are accepting failing or poor grades as acceptable, I do have a thought for you to consider. This may work if your classroom community is sufficiently developed and comfortable. You can ask the girl questions that require more than a yes/no answer regarding why she's in school and how doing well will help her achieve her goals. Then, when she presumably doesn't really answer or says it doesn't matter, you can pull out the secret weapon: her friend.

    Ask a friend of hers in the class to tell her their hopes for her future. What would they like to see happen for her? What does she have to do to make her dreams come true? How does her performance in your class and in school relate to her future? You might even do a go-around with everyone in the class sharing a thought about how smart she is, what they want to see her do with her life, etc.

    Because this process involves some emotional risk-taking, you can't do this on the first day of class. But you've been creating a caring and supportive environment, and the students are trusting and liking you. So this -- or something along these lines -- may help to connect struggling students with why they're here and to help motivate them to do the best work they can do. They can at least feel good knowing that others like them, care about them, and believe in their future, which may create a powerful effect, whether or not it has immediate results in the work they do in your class.

    There have been some teachers who have had other students write notes of encouragement to a struggling student. Then they get the message in a form they can keep with them.

    Keep up the amazing work! I'm so proud of you and inspired by you!

  2. You're so thoughtful, Justin. It's great. Have you read Embedded Formative Assessment? There is a bit in the book where Williams describes research that shows that between the three options of (a) giving feedback on an assessment, (b) giving only grades on an assessment and (c) giving feedback with the grades on an assessment, giving the grades and giving the feedback + grades have the same null affect on student motivation. Somehow that score just sucks the wind out of everything. It's great that you were able to turn the situation around in one of your classes, and you should be proud of that. I'm not sure what the answer is in the other class, but your reflective practice, I am sure, will yield positive results. Change takes time - and if we change only a little each day, we will make a lot of progress over the months and years.

    1. I haven't yet, but it's on my list, along with Teach Like a Pirate and Punished by Rewards.

      I'm not great at little changes, which is something I need to work on. I'm going to end up burning myself out this year simply because I'm changing SO much. I'm alright with it because it's serving the students better and I'm SO much happier at work.

      The online community has been amazing as a resource and support so, hopefully, I'll be able to do this for many more years!

  3. I recently had a conversation with a colleague about the topic of of grades and motivation. We both read Dweck's Mindset book and started to gather growth mindset materials/activities that could be used with students. We are thinking of using reflection journals and a variety of teacher feedback models (without grades) to improve motivation and help our students instill a growth mindset. It's still a bit early to see the benefits, but I'm hopeful that what we're doing will play dividends throughout the year. Thanks for sharing your story.

    1. Please keep me posted on how you implement that! I would be VERY interested to see how it works!


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