Tag Archives: public schools

No Grades? No Carrots or Sticks? Then What?

Not cookies and pokes in the ribs, I presume.  No, we can’t just replace one set of rewards and punishments for a different set, although, most people would rather have a cookie than a carrot and would like even less to be poked in the ribs than slapped with a stick.  I don’t know about that one.  Pokes and slaps seem equally unpleasant to me.  How about cookies or ten minutes on the rack?  Yeah, that’s better.  It’s better on the one end and worse at the other, but still really really bad no matter which way you go, because, as I’ve already established, rewards and punishments are bad in education–as they are bad in most other arenas: child-rearing, workplace motivation, innovative thinking, creativity, and relationships.  And, please, for crying out loud, don’t take my word for it; do some reading, look at the data, visit a school, or talk to some kids.  This is all a long preamble to answer the question, if no carrots and sticks, no grades, then what?

Full disclosure:  this is a thought experiment.  I cannot claim to have solved this issue in actual practice–only to have come to a conclusion philosophically, long ago, that grades, high ones as carrots, low ones as sticks, do not work, are, in fact, detrimental. I award grades because it’s part of my job expectation–and I suppose, although I have not tried it, that if I refused to award them I might be disciplined somehow–ten minutes on the rack, maybe, or worse.  So, my goal might be to come up with an alternative that would satisfy me philosophically and satisfy administrators, parents, and students that they weren’t somehow being short-changed because the carrots and sticks disappeared, but rather, felt like they had been finally presented with something like the way education ought to go, forever and ever, amen.

There was a comment to my last blog entry from another blogger named momshieb, and it was brilliant.  Here’s what she said about grade schoolers, but I believe it applies to all schoolers: “In a school with no grades, kids would recognize and measure their own progress because they would take pride in what they are achieving. They would NOT do the “bare minimum” because they wouldn’t know what that is. When children are studying or thinking or creating because they are curious or interested, they keep going until they are satisfied. When children are not being presented with external judgements about everything that they do, they stop trying to do just enough to please the judges.”  So this is just more strong argument against grades and what might happen in their absence–which seems to me obviously and infinitely better than the hoop-jumping and grade-grubbing that goes on when kids and their parents are addicted to external motivators.  And parents are often the most culpable parties.  I can count on maybe one hand how many parents have called me over the course of my entire career to ask what their children are actually learning in my classroom and not about what they’re getting.

One of the things teachers can do immediately, even if they have to award grades in order to avoid the rack, is to do everything they can to deemphasize grades.  They shouldn’t talk about them.  They shouldn’t  dangle them.  They shouldn’t use them as a threat or as a treat. They should avoid putting point values  on assignment sheets.  After awhile students will stop asking.  They start thinking instead about what they’re doing and why, about the learning, and ultimately, they will do the work because it is meaningful work.  And if they can’t find meaning in the work, teachers can help them as long as they are looking. If they want to “pretend” to find meaning and fake their way through, they might be successful, but are nevertheless TOOLS, and this behavior will some day catch up with them.  No skin off their educator’s nose.  Another group of students will refuse to look for meaning, will be unmotivated no matter what kind of dancing monkey you place in front of them, will not do anything that is asked of them.  And these are the ONLY kids, without serious intervention that is beyond what a classroom teacher can do, who will either FAIL or be forever IN PROGRESS. Our public schools do not serve these kids well and something should be done about it–but that’s another topic and another blog. But here’s another possible perspective on those kids who will not play.  Perhaps, they find no meaning in what they’re being asked to do because there is, after all, no meaning to to be found there.  I suspect that classes in which grades and points are heavily emphasized are classes for which meaning and purpose might not be clear or even existent for students and their teachers.  Recalcitrance in these situations is likely a kind of silent protest against a dumb curriculum.

I know my colleagues often worry about rigor, they are loath to think that students might think their class is “easy.” If grades go away, and a whole range of work then becomes acceptable for a PASS, from the mediocre to the truly brilliant, why should students at the top end work hard, and why wouldn’t kids doing mediocre work just become satisfied with their own status quo? First of all, we have to accept as a given the inherent differences between individuals, differences in interest level and in readiness for particular kinds of academic work.  Kids who truly love and excel in a particular discipline will continue to do so whether grades are given to them or not, and kids who hate a  particular discipline may warm up to it or at least feel less threatened by it if the fear of failing is removed and they are allowed to work towards excellence in their own way.  We never let them off the hook and we don’t poke them in the ribs.

So would it be possible, though, Mr. School Smarty Pants, to eliminate grades altogether?  In short, yes.  Read Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards or The Schools Our Children Deserve.  He’s done his homework in a big way, and he can give you names of schools that are doing it and he can tell you that it has had no adverse effect on the futures of children–that colleges accept them, businesses hire them, and people love them. No negative effects.  What are the positives? The ultimate goal is that they become intrinsically motivated, curious, healthy, balanced, joyful, critical thinking, independent, interdependent, fearless young humans.  They’re not afraid to fail because they know that’s where the learning happens and that they won’t be punished for it. Can you see it?  I think I can.

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An English Teacher Does The Math

Teaching is like this:  I can never get it right.  I will never feel like I’ve mastered the craft;  I am always learning it.  If I think for a moment I’ve mastered it, I’m a fool.  There will always be days when I feel unstoppable and totally effective followed by days when I am sure I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.  There are more days like the latter than the former.  What I learn if I am paying any attention at all is that there are smart things to do in a classroom and dumb things to do in a classroom.  I try to avoid doing the dumb ones but for some reason I do a certain number of them over and over again.  I believe the following statement:  teaching is one of the most complex social interactions ever undertaken by a human being.  Think about the sheer mathematics of it, and thus, come to understand the profound opportunities that exist for making mistakes.

At home, you have a relationship with your roommate or your spouse and your units of children.  In your job you have a relationship with your boss, your coworkers, and your clientele, which, for the most part, you deal with one at a time.  These are all complex social interactions, don’t get me wrong about that, and I know, these are gross simplifications.  But consider this:  I have interactive relationships with my teaching colleagues, a close relationship with my two teaching partners who share students or curriculum with me, and with the department of English which number about 10 more individuals, say.  For ten of the twenty-two years of my tenure in my high school, I was a member of a committee called a Site Council, an elected but voluntary position which put me on a panel of about 18 individuals made up of an equal number of teachers and parents, an administrator or two, a few classified staff (secretaries, assistants and the like), and a couple of students, whose charge it was to meet a couple of times a month, a few hours at a stretch, and to facilitate staff development and school improvement for a facility serving about 1400 students and staffing about 50-some teachers.  Working closely with this group over a three year commitment, our job was to make the school a better place and to make everyone in the building happy.  In short, considering only my peers and colleagues, already the job is chock full of extremely complex social interaction.

Okay, then there is the issue of these 200 students of mine, which, truth be told, has always really hovered for me between 150 and 170 (the day has passed when contractually English teachers were limited to 125 students—that language that was dropped from the contract altogether).

All of these kids have parents or guardians, sometimes multiple sets of them.  This potentially creates another 300 to 400 relationships to negotiate over the course of my work year.

But when I walk into a classroom, 6 times over the course of my teaching schedule over two days, I am faced with about 30 warm bodies and the expectation on both my part and theirs, not to mention the administrators who hire me or the taxpayer who pays me, that I will make something happen.  Now this is where the real complexity begins.

I have a body of knowledge with which I am supposedly conversant.  Let’s see, we’ll call it the literary survey of the United States of America and the United Kingdom, from, say, about 800 a.d. forward, all major periods and movements, current trends in contemporary literature, the new research in that field to include oppressed and suppressed literature (from women and people of color) throughout history, and a general knowledge of the ever mutating multicultural cannon from around the world.  I should also be conversant in the current trends in educational theory and practice and be able to incorporate those into my classroom work.  Oh, and then there’s this simple matter of teaching young people to write well, or, at least, competently, which, after 22 years in the profession, I’m still not convinced is even possible.   So the first part of my relationship with these 30 kids (x6) is to communicate to them somehow something of what I know and what I believe they need to know in a way that is engaging and meaningful.  If that were it, teaching would be a piece of cake.  But every kid in that classroom has his own agenda.  Much of that agenda is usually counter to mine.  Additionally, every kid in that classroom has a unique perception of who I am and what I’m about, as I have of her, as she has of the kid sitting next to her, and that kid has of her and of me, as all kids have of each other and the group as a whole and of me, and as I have of the group as a whole, with all of its various and sometimes contradictory needs and desires and levels of skill and academic readiness.  It boggles the mind.

Ultimately, as I believe I am teaching the whole student and not just that part of him that writes or decodes symbols on a page, something of a relationship is an important part of the mix.  But what happens in a room of 30 (x6) students is that I end up getting to know only a few of them well and sometimes for the wrong reasons.

I get to know the names of the trouble-makers and clowns first by necessity. And then I continue to devote far more than a fair share of my time and energy to their shenanigans.  There are two or three of these in any given class in a good year, but it’s important to note that just ONE of them can cause monumental disruption in a classroom.

I get to know the ones that are socially really needy, who want to talk to me or have my attention as much as they possibly can and tell me things I don’t want hear about their mothers and their aunts and the boil on their grand daddy’s ass.  I get maybe two of these in every class.

I get to know the ones that are precocious and sharp and outgoing, the ones I can always count on to speak when no one else will speak or who are just highly motivated and play the game of school very well and turn in all of their work.  There might be four or five of these in a group of 30.

I’ve counted 10 students there in a class, generously, that I will potentially get to know much better than the other 20 in the room.  Of course, there are skills that we pick up or intuit to prevent these 10 kids from totally derailing our attention and hi-jacking or dominating our classrooms, tools for drawing out or getting to know the silent majority.  But they are subtle skills that require a masterful handle on the management of large numbers of adolescents in a single room that I wager not very many human beings and not a large number of teaching professionals ever get a handle on.  So it is a constant battle to avoid ignoring the vast majority of the students in my room, let alone get to know them all in any significant and meaningful way, let alone allowing them to know me in any significant and meaningful way.

It’s not very sophisticated math, I’ll admit, but the most difficult things about teaching in a public school setting have to do with sheer numbers—numbers of relationships, numbers and various kinds of interactions, the complexity and unreliability of human behavior times 200, numbers of preparations, numbers of names to learn, numbers of minds and lives to access.  And next, in another blog entry, I think, because it has its own set of mathematical and pedagogical and philosophical problems, I’ll try to deal with the most difficult number of all: the number of papers to grade.

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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.

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