Monthly Archives: March 2011

Are Grades The Devil?

Here’s a provocative thesis for you: grades are the devil. They’re evil. They’re evil because they’re oppressive and overvalued. And they’re dumb, not stupid-dumb (although, that’s kind of true), but rather mute-dumb. They don’t tell us anything. They don’t tell us what we need to know about what’s been taught or how, what’s been learned, the qualitative nature of that learning, or the progress the learning represents. They’re arbitrary and unreliable. And they don’t motivate—and if they do motivate, they do so for the wrong reasons.

Are you fired up? Here’s a true confession: I grade students. In part, because I have to, because parents, students, and administrators expect me to, and because it’s part of the job description, I give grades—although I’m fond of the adage, and I use it hypocritically from time to time on my students, that teachers don’t give grades—students earn them. I give grades in the guise of points for things done or accomplished. These points add up over time. And then, at the end of each quarter, and then again at the end of a semester when the thing sticks like stink on something stinky forever, I translate these points into a letter grade. You earned 90% of the possible points possible in this semester. You have earned the letter A. A is for awesome. A is for axcellent. A is for advanced. A is for abracadabra. A is mostly nonsense. And if you earned anywhere between 0% and 59.999%, you’ve earned the letter F. F is for failure. F is for f***k-up. And, in part, because there is no distinction made between 0% and 59.999%, F is also mostly nonsense, pure foolishness.

Do I believe what I’m saying, actually? Let’s try it out. This is what I believe about students who earn an A in one of my English classes: They completed all of their work thoroughly, thoughtfully, punctually. They followed instructions. They did what they were asked to do in good faith. They were leaders in the classroom. They demonstrated mastery over the skills and core knowledge represented by the curriculum, I hope. And, they worked hard, I think. What’s wrong with ANY of that, you might ask. Aren’t these admirable qualities, all of them? Certainly, they are. But perhaps you’re reading a tone of uncertainty about some of these things. I hope they mastered all of the objectives? I think they worked hard? Don’t I have foolproof assessments that tell me they’ve mastered this stuff and worked hard toward that goal? Does it matter? Is it just, more than anything else, that an A student is a very compliant student and an F student is not? And what’s wrong with that?  Well, to begin with, I don’t want compliant students.  I want students who are engaged.

Here’s another confession: I wish I did not have to give grades. I think the world of education and the world at large would be a better place without them. Let me back up first, and try to clarify some of the accusations I have leveled at the grading process in that opening paragraph.

Oppressive? I sometimes fear that the chief purpose behind the time-honored grading process is simply to sort human beings. It’s a kind of sorting that is distasteful and oppressive, because it essentially mirrors and possibly promotes a social and class structure prevalent in our society at large. It gives kids labels and then sorts them by these labels. It separates the smart from the dumb, the successes from the failures, the beautiful from the ugly, mostly, the rich from the poor. It determines, in large part (but not completely), who’s going to college, who’s finishing a degree, who’s going to be gainfully employed, whose earning potential will reach 70,000 dollars a year, which is, I’ve recently read, how much money a person needs to be “happy.” I find this sorting process to be oppressive. It’s ugly. It seems to me somehow that schools might be, or could be, a sanctuary from such sorting—that, in a perfect world, if we really want the same thing for all kids, and that is, to bring them to their fullest potential while we have them, grades seem counter to this. Let adulthood sort people. Let the job market sort people. Let advertising and corporate interests do that—but if I have done my job creating a classroom that represents the dignity of the individual and the principles of democracy and a place to learn and grow without fear—let adulthood, the job market, advertising, and corporate interests try to sort my students. Maybe they will fail.

Overvalued? Yes, because there are actually colleges out there in the world that don’t care about them. Yes, because they don’t necessarily speak to potential success at anything in the future. Yes, because they are dumb—mute-dumb—as mentioned above. Do you want to know what the student studied? Grades don’t tell you that. Do you want to know what the student learned, grappled with, explored, discovered, loved, hated, found useful or relevant? Grades are silent on that point. Do you want to know if the student made leaps and/or bounds over a period of time? Grades can’t say. All grades can say is that a student accomplished 90%, 80%, 70%, 60% or a lower % of some mysterious thing about equally mysterious subject matter. But A’s are inherently good, aren’t they? They give us a warm, fuzzy feeling. We want them on our transcripts and on our children’s transcripts.

Arbitrary and unreliable? Sure. A student may get a C from one teacher and an A from another in the same subject. A student may earn an F in a class for which he or she has already mastered the core knowledge and skills. A student might earn an A in class for working really hard but not mastering the objectives of the course. In one class a teacher grades participation and it’s worth a certain % of a total grade. Another teacher believes you shouldn’t grade behavior at all, and while participation is important to this teacher, it’s a behavior, and a student could have her hand raised for 18 weeks to chime in to the discussion and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference in her overall performance.

Grades don’t motivate? Listen to Dan Pink. Read or listen to (but try not to watch) Alfie Kohn talk about the studies that have been done on motivation. The jury is in: the higher the reward in terms of money or grades, the less a person is motivated. And this is borne out in my experience as a classroom teacher in almost every conceivable way. The students who fail are not worried. They’re not afraid. The threat, and that is exactly what it is, of an F, forever on their report card and transcripts, does absolutely NADA to motivate them. And most of my A students do what they do because they find value in doing it and would do the same thing if all they got at the end of the semester was a polished stone—or maybe even a lump of coal. Now, with the latter category, the A student category, there are students who ask me about  what they’re “getting” on a regular basis, (but now they don’t have to ask me because they can go on the interwebs and check their own progress, in which case they don’t have to ask me what they’re “getting”, but instead, how they can “get” something better), who are motivated by the actual LETTER “A”, or who are fearful of unrealistic parent expectations, or who are working hard for some other external goody, like a driver’s license, insurance money, extra-curricular activities, an x-box, an iPod—but what we know from the research is that these motivators are short-lived—they do not result in lasting, intrinsic motivation toward life-long learning or toward quality work. So for some people, money and grades work in the short-term. No one who is serious about the education of a child wants any of their efforts toward this end to be short-term.

In conclusion, then, grades are the devil and I wish I did not have to give them.

So, you might be asking, what’s in place of grades, Mr. Smarty-Pants? Another day, another blog.


Filed under Teaching

Difficult Work: It’s A Good Thing They Like Me

Teachers who say that it doesn’t matter whether or not students like them have something wrong with their brains. It seems to me that one of a teacher’s greatest tools, an ace in the hole, so to speak, or, conversely, his greatest deficit, is whether or not his students like, love, or hate him. Here’s the bottom line—Can I relate to young people? Because if I could not, I know that they would have eaten me alive years ago and I would have gone down as one of those statistics: most new teachers drop out of the profession in three years’ time. It didn’t use to be this way. In the 70’s and early 80’s, when I was a lad, there were teachers that students hated that remained in the profession until they retired. Today, students still hate some of their teachers, don’t get me wrong, but unless the professional in question has incredible skill at commanding some kind of respect or attention not simply based on her authority, this person is probably history.

Authority just does not mean the same thing it used to mean. I’m not sure this is a good thing or a bad thing so I will say that it’s both. We used to respect authority because it was authority and because if you did not you were in all kinds of shit. Today, at least in schools, we respect authority because that authority demonstrates a respect for us. That’s a good thing. But here’s the flip side of the coin. Students today will repeatedly and openly bring iPods and cell phones and game boys into the classroom, they will openly defy a teacher, or call him a name to his face, or tug on his pony tail, or slap him on the back in the hallway for fun. They are comfortable doing these things. They’re not always trying to be mean; they just do not see these behaviors as inappropriate in any way. Teachers are their equals. More broad generalizations, I know, but I think it is true from my own anecdotal experience that students do things today in classrooms and in schools that my peers or I would never have dreamed of doing in our teenage school days. Let’s flip the coin over again, however, and we find that today teaching is more about building relationships and less about exercising power over our minions. Now, I have to earn the power over my minions. And I have these four tools at my disposal: my intellect, my passion about the craft of teaching and the process of learning, my general good will toward my students, and for the most part, because of the music or the hair or the shoes or just because they think I’m a pretty good guy, they like me. And it’s a good thing. So, it’s safe to say, and I think the research bears me out on this one, that one thing that motivates a student is a teacher that she likes. But I’ve got lots of students who like me just fine, or even, like me a whole lot, who are, nevertheless, failing my classes. There’s another difficulty.

It’s Not Enough That They Like Me

There is another tool at my disposal; it’s only a question of putting it into good practice—another notch in the list of difficulties around teaching. And perhaps this is the biggest challenge of all, because, while most studies prove it to be the most effective way to motivate, it is perhaps the less intuitive and the more rigorous way to go. All I have to do is CHANGE MY BRAIN, and thus, by an almost supernatural imposition of will, I can change the brains of my students. Carol Dweck, Ph. D., in her book Mindsets: The New Psychology of Success, says we must work to change our own minds, and then the minds of our students, from what she calls a “fixed mindset” to a “growth mindset.” And voila!—all will be well and right with the world. I’m not being facetious. I believe this. It’s just really hard to do. Quickly, let me see if I can unpack this: A fixed mindset sees things as predetermined; skills, talents, special proclivities are meted out at birth and can never change. You are either smart or you’re not. You’re either talented or not. It’s a recipe for stagnation and mediocrity. Fixed mindset people are often encouraged by parents, teachers, and coaches (who may have also been fixed mindset kinds of folk), with the message that they are smart and talented—and maybe they actually are, but because the message that they are already a particular way is pounded into their little brains, whenever they are faced with evidence to the contrary, i.e., a difficult task, they get easily frustrated and end up thinking the opposite about themselves. I am not smart or talented after all. In fact, I am stupid and without skill. And then, rather than risk further failure, they give up, or worse, they don’t try, avoiding any revelation of their lack of intelligence or skill. On the contrary, a “growth mindset” person comes at every difficulty as a learning experience and every challenge as valuable in and of itself. Every setback is an opportunity, and only when these folks are being stretched, not victorious, do they feel successful. And they work really hard at stuff. They were not successful because their performance was flawless and they “got it” right away, but because they labored intensely toward a goal they found meaningful and rewarding. And, in short, Dweck says that a combination of a nurturing environment and high challenge are the key to fostering a “growth mindset” and instilling a desire for success within students and other humans. And she, right alongside my hero Alfie Kohn (Punished By Rewards), says that praise and blame, the carrot and the stick, are ineffective motivators.

Jessica, a friend of mine, recently sent, and attached to a posting on an earlier one of my blog entries, a lecture by Dan Pink which beautifully summarizes the most recent findings about motivation in the workplace. Three elements, Pink says, maximize productivity from workers: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. I’m already beyond a thousand words in this particular blog entry, so I will try to bring this to closure quickly. Can we apply the conclusions of Dweck and Pink to the field of education and the question of what motivates students? Hell yeah. And isn’t this good news? Hell yeah. Because now we know what will motivate students! Let’s see what we’ve got: given a nurturing environment (a teacher who cares for students and in turn is cared for or “liked” by students), high expectations, teacher/student autonomy, and a strong sense of purpose, we ought to be simply cooking with fire. Let’s get rid of unnecessary punishments and rewards. There will be no stopping us then. I’m getting really excited.

Wait a minute. Houston, we have a problem. I feel some air inexplicably escaping from a hole the size of a pin in my big-ass hot air balloon. Do students experience a nurturing environment? Well, as much as you could expect from a 1 to 160+ teacher/student ratio. Are students given high expectations? We do the best that we can, but inconsistently, and some students graduate from high school who are barely or only functionally literate. How much autonomy do teachers and students have? No Child Left Behind and the nation’s obsession with standardized testing has swept a lot of teacher creativity and student choice right under the carpet. What about the punitive aspects of schooling, the punishments and rewards that are part and parcel of the daily, monthly, yearly routine: praise and blame, gold stars and frowny faces, A’s and F’s? Surely, these are receding from their traditional dominance in the motivational strategies of teachers, parents and students—aren’t they? Holy cow. One thing at a time. One thing at a time. Please stay tuned.

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Filed under Teaching

Difficult Work: Oh, Let Me Count The Ways

Teaching is bloody difficult work. And don’t let anyone give you that romantic drivel about the three months teachers have off every year as an argument that teachers have some kind of cushy existence. I’ve seen the sticker, and even though it contains a kernel of guilty truthiness for me, I philosophically abhor the message: “The best thing about teaching is June, July and August.” The summer break is not part of our contracted work year; i.e. WE DON’T GET PAID FOR IT. What is done, though, conveniently enough for those of us who are not great at financial planning, is that the pay teachers receive for approximately 180 days a year is very nicely divided up equally into 12 installments, one for each month of the year. So it appears, and even feels like we’re getting paid for that time. But we are not. We are, through most of June, in July, in August, and through parts of December and March, for all intents and purposes, unemployed. There’s this, though: we know we’ve got a job when the unpaid vacation’s over. You won’t see teachers standing in the unemployment line during their summer breaks, unless they’ve been laid off, which is an ugly reality in our current economic crisis. Even with secure jobs, many teachers find it necessary to work on their months off teaching summer classes or building fences or remodeling bathrooms or painting houses. I don’t do this, as a general rule. I don’t need the money (a bald-faced lie), and without the time away from teaching I would likely go off my rocker. Right now, in fact, I’m paying someone to do the painting (the fact of the matter being, that I need the money to pay the painter, and the mortgage, and the rest of the bills, and the groceries, and the college fund for my five year old son).

Now that that’s out of the way, let me see if I can pin-point just a few characteristics of the work that make it bloody difficult. Let’s first talk about one of the greatest human mysteries, in general, yes, but especially in relation to teaching and learning: Motivation. Here’s a scenario first, a scenario that I experience, perhaps, 60 percent of my time spent inside of a high school English classroom. My students, more often than not, are trying to prevent me from doing my job. My job is to teach them English; their job, as they understand it, is to stop me from teaching them English. I tried to think about this. What other profession experiences this kind of resistance from their ‘clients’? Soldiers in a war–that was my most ready comparison. In the war with Iraq, the soldier’s job was to liberate the Iraqis, but there were Iraqis by the thousands trying to stop them. Thousands of Iraqis who would rather not be liberated, thank you very much. Similarly, there are thousands of students enrolled in public schools who would rather not be educated. And I don’t have any firearms. That makes the job difficult.

I think it’s an important question. What makes young people uninterested in something that can only be a good thing for them, if we accept the premise that public education is indeed a good thing for them? Part of it is ingrained in our youth culture. Let’s begin with some broad generalizations: Teenagers are resistant to authority. They are resistant to adults telling them what to do or what is good for them. They are resistant to working very hard on intellectual endeavors. They would much rather play. They would much rather be entertained or be entertaining. They would much rather watch t.v. or listen to music or text their friends or play video games. They just want to have fun. And somehow, they have traditionally found less compelling this business of learning to use their minds and develop skills of intellect. They are children still, for crying out loud, big children.

Now, I’m betting that many of my top students would find exception with all of the above, and rightfully so. I have students in my classrooms every year who’s intellectual curiosity and drive far exceeds what my own was when I was their age. They are brilliant thinkers and scholars and they are motivated intrinsically to learn as much as they can and develop their skills to the fullest extent. Sitting right beside them, however, are others who do very well in school but are clearly motivated by externals: approval or money or gifts or love from parents, grades, another bullet on the resume, college entrance requirements, etc. We call them “hoop jumpers.” I prefer the intrinsically motivated scholar, and, while I have grave doubts about the efficacy of the hoop-jumpers, I find them for the most part a pleasure enough to have in class. At least these students have found a reason to plug in. But the majority of my students are not like either of these, scholars or hoop jumpers.

For various and sundry reasons, the majority of my students are unmotivated in the extreme, distracted in the extreme, disadvantaged in the extreme, so much so (for an alarming number of them), that their failure in school, or at least their failure of taking full advantage of their education, is almost a forgone conclusion when they come to me as freshmen. I don’t believe it’s a foregone conclusion, but these are the setbacks many of them are dealing with: They can barely read. They can’t write. They have abysmal social skills. They do not trust or respect adults. They don’t respect their peers. They have drug and alcohol issues. They are homeless. They are learning disabled. At 14 they believe they have no memories of their childhoods. They are tired. They have ADHD. Their parents are divorced or divorcing. One of their parents is dying from cancer. They are unhealthy, morbidly obese or dangerously skinny. And looking at them, all 200 of them, it is nearly impossible to know which of these characteristics are true for any one of them, except for those characteristics that I can directly observe or those the special education department or a counselor or a parent or a student informs me of, and even over the course of a year, when one of a teacher’s primary goals is to “get to know students” (really, a kind of joke when you think carefully about it—not the goal but the logistics of accomplishing the goal), I couldn’t tell you with any kind of authority, except for the fact that Peter didn’t do any of the work, why he failed freshman language arts! If you are a caring individual, these things make teaching bloody difficult. I haven’t even scratched the surface.

Let me pose the super-duper million dollar question: What motivates students? And what do you do when students have none of that stuff?

Perhaps, I’ll attempt a response to this question in my next missive.


Filed under Teaching

Try Again, Fail Again, Fail Better

The following is the prologue for a work in progress about—you guessed it—teaching. It may become a real book some day, I hope, or, at the very least, a series of related blog entries.


Imagine, it’s August, and I am in the last few days, minutes, and moments of what we call in the field of education, the summer break. I have four week days and a weekend, plus what remains of this day, a Monday, in which to do all of the things I have not yet been able to do, more of the things I have been doing and would like to do more of, and some things I’m sure I do not want to do, like anything related to going back to work, like planning, or work in general, like painting the house. And yet, here I am at my laptop, about to begin writing about WORK, or about teaching, probably in order to avoid planning or painting. I have wanted to write about my life as a teacher for many years now. I have written about it in a number of ways, in fits and starts, off and on since I began in this career twenty some years ago. I’ve got a lot to say about that twenty years but what I have been searching for over the last five or six years in which I have been actively thinking about a book, is a form, a way of speaking, a kind of writing, an appropriate vehicle for what I have experienced and learned and for some god awful reason feel compelled to share with others. I’ve written some fiction about teaching. I’ve written a number of poems about it. I’ve written op-ed pieces for the edification of my colleagues. I’ve written memos. As I write this, though, I still don’t know what my book will look like. I know what I don’t want to do. I don’t want to write a book for teachers about how to be better teachers. I don’t know the first thing about that. I don’t want to write a book for students about how to be better students. I know a little bit about that but I think it would be didactic and boring. I want to write about what I’ve experienced and what I’ve come to believe about all things educational with a general reader in mind, involved in education or not, one who cares about what teaching and learning is like in an American Suburban High School, one who has concerns about the way education is or is not shaping up in this milieu, one who thinks it’s important to think and talk about these things, a reader who has a head on her shoulders (though she does not have to be a woman), one who simply wants to go on a little exploratory ramble through the heart and mind of one who is, as they say, in the trenches. I guess this is a kind of memoir, or a manifesto, or right now, a blog series. You’re welcome to join me.

Twenty years is a long time. But who’s counting? Ten years ago, I thought no way in Hell would I be doing this same work for another twenty years until I retired. Ten years fly by and I’m two-thirds of the way there, and I’m thinking, wow, that was fast, and twenty years doesn’t seem like such a long time anymore. I could blink right now and when I opened my eyes I’d be 55. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not counting. And I’m not ready to be 55. And I enjoy this work. It’s rewarding. It feels, for the most part, like a good use of my skills and my time on the planet. I’ve flirted with the idea of teaching college students because I thought that that might be a better fit for me, and I’ve flirted with the idea of other careers, both fantasies that are mainstays from my youth, those of being a professional writer and a professional musician. I say fantasies, not because I think those things may never happen for me, but because they are dreams, quasi-practical vocations, extremely compelling hobbies, ones I plan never to give up on and ones at which I still believe I stand a chance of attaining some success. But if I do, like I say I do, enjoy the work of a high school teacher, why all this flirting, then, with college kids and writing and music? I’ll tell you why. Public high school teaching is difficult work. And herein lies the general thesis for the book, or the blog series, on which I am embarking, and of which you are probably reading this minute, god bless you.

While I read them and am inspired by them to a certain degree, I am tired of books written by people who know all the answers, who have a “thing going on,” who pretend to have a great number of issues figured out. Maybe I’m just jealous: I don’t know any of the answers, I don’t have a “thing going on,” I have a number of issues figured out that I could count with two-fifths of the fingers on one of my hands. My feeling has been, no matter how solid their research and how impressive their credentials or how brilliant their ideas, they’re always writing about and recommending something that is just outside the realm of possibility. Why is that? Again, because the work is difficult and the answers to our problems and our prayers, if we pray, that come to us in these manifestos written by Education Professors are not entirely practical in the everyday real life of teachers. We can only flirt with these things, experiment enough to make us dangerous, implement enough to make minute differences in the lives of our students or in the tenor of our classrooms, but not enough to make substantive changes in our field. I understand that reform in education moves at the pace of evolution, almost, you know, like it has taken us almost 4.5 billion years to question the standardized test.

So, here’s what I plan to do. I plan to talk about the difficulty of this work. I plan to describe the fundamental facts of the life of a high school teacher, the facts that make substantive reform and change nearly impossible. But the last thing I want is a piss-fest. I love my work and I hate it. I want, through the course of writing this book or these blogs, to figure out how to love teaching more, how to love it better, how the work might look if we could make substantive changes, what those changes might be; I want to figure these things out, even if, ultimately, this means only that in the end I simply find ways of failing better.

Let’s begin, shall we?


Filed under Introductory, Teaching