In the world of school, grades are supposed to represent where a student is at in relation to mastery. A = spot on, F = far from it. Well, that's the idea, anyway, but I have a hunch that's kind of rare.
My guess is that it's more likely grades are used as leverage, lorded over students as a form of academic "justice"; rewards go to the high-achievers while punishment is doled out to the offending slackers who didn't get the work done.
When it comes to what we know about the nature of learning, though, letter grades fall short in fostering, within our students, a willingness to think about, discuss, and reflect on their learning. For the most part, there's no solid sense of the why behind them or what was learned as a result, so it's no wonder that high-achievers are hyper-focused on them and struggling students avoid them (and the loser-tag they exact).
Learning is a process that needs choice, voice, reflection, timely feedback, and opportunities to revise in order to grow, but points awarded for simply completing tasks (we'll call them giddyap grades) convey the opposite. They're more about getting things done so they likely represent a student's level of agency rather than where they're at with the content. The problem is that no one would really know for sure, including the student, who sees an A, and thinks "success!" and sees the F and thinks, "Oh dang, no cell phone for a month."
Dan Pink makes the case that the carrot and stick approach motivates people when the work is menial, rote, or mechanical. In other words, if the task doesn't require any specialized knowledge or ability, rewards and punishments increase motivation and productivity. But when the tasks require even the most rudimentary cognitive challenge, increased incentives have the opposite effect.
Pink's target audience is the tech industry, so he pushes to dispel the myth that innovation is driven by monetary incentives. Money is a motivator in that if you don't pay people enough, it's likely they won't be motivated. However, the best use of money as a motivator, the studies suggest, is to take the issue of it completely off the table. Pay people enough so that the monetary reward is not perceived as conditional. When this happens, three factors emerge that seem to drive people toward increased productivity, innovation, and satisfaction around the work they do. Those factors are autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
Autonomy = the desire to direct our own lives
Mastery = the urge to get better at something that matters
Purpose = the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves
Now, take money out of the equation and replace it with grades. Notice how Pink's definition for mastery jives with growth mindset, where all endeavors are viewed as practice, and where failure is merely an opportunity to learn rather than grounds for punishment. If I can make mastery the focus of the work we do, but do so within contexts that are meaningful to my students (purpose), where they set their own goals, work at their own pace, and assess their own gains (autonomy), then yes, I can make that almighty letter grade work to my advantage by challenging students to give themselves the grades they deserve. They'd use their body of work, feedback, and their reflections to make that case. That would be the only time grades would come into play and it would be on their terms.
My gut and my experiences tell me this is possible and it's the right direction for me to move toward. It's already being pioneered by teachers who are generously sharing their journeys and inspiring others to do so (see Starr Sackstein here and Mark Barnes here).
I don't call this blog EduNut for nothin'. I'm obsessed with teaching, and so a lot of my personal time is spent striving to build on what I know. It's a weekend morning and I'm wrestling with pedagogy on the pages of my blog, obviously driven by a sense of purpose and a desire for mastery of my craft. Pink's ideas resonate with me because I can easily see how they play out in my own learning. I want to replicate that for students.
I'll be transitioning to as close as I can come to a "no grades" assessment plan for next year. I still have to ultimately place letters into that grade book at the end of each term, but at least I can do so in a way that honors my students' work and progress more authentically than not.
Beginning in late-May, I'll be blogging and vlogging to make it all transparent as best I can (Sackstein-style). I'm excited and nervous at the same time. In the past, those two feelings together have always preceded the crossing of a meaningful threshold in my life or career. 'Tis a good sign.
Each year, I've tried to impress upon my advisees that they must stay mindful of the digital footprint they've made. Instead of the usual talking to, this year I decided to make it "for reals" and stalk their social media profiles to collect potentially-incriminating items they never thought were public, where prospective employers might find them, should they do a simple search.
The idea was to spend no more than five minutes searching for each of my twelve advisees, so that when it was time to show them (privately) what I'd found, I could say, "And this (points to compromising picture) was only after five minutes of searching!"
Don't worry, it never got to that point.
I set out to search and I braced myself for shock and/or alarm (we're talking members of the teen species here). It was very easy to find them, especially the ones with unusual names, but finding potentially embarrassing stuff was a whole other matter. There wasn't anything to find except the usual and mostly-innocuous shared stuff of adolescent lives.
But as I was searching those first few minutes, reading through bad jokes, glancing quickly through pics of friends making faces, getting distracted by cute sleepy kitten videos, clicking through all those awkward selfies, something started happening.
I started seeing my students-- seeing them in ways they wanted others to see them, I could see hints of insecurities, their frustrations, their fears, and their aspirations. It was both humbling and deeply moving at the same time.
Jason, a student new to our school, is quite the artist with a gift for portraiture. He seems able to hone in on whatever it is about his subjects that reveal their humanity. I wanted to see more of his art than what was on his Tumblr.
Then there's Mona, whose anti-authority persona at school is tough as nails, and yet her Facebook stream was chock full of Buddhist quotes and messages of inspiration. "How you make others feel says a lot about yourself," says one of 'em. Indeed, Ms. Mona, indeed.
I got lost in Lena's joyous collection of photos, including that of her recent quinceañera (a rite of passage for Latina girls). She looks incredibly happy in each picture, surrounded by loving friends and family. There is so much pride in her heritage, and in all the pictures of celebrations, she's surrounded by children looking up at her, adoringly. She's shared with me how incredibly anxious she is about her struggles with reading and writing and getting into college. Now I can see a little more of that story; how she may be taking her family with her on that dream, and how she may fear letting them down should she fail. Suddenly, the role I play in her life takes on more weight and possibility. I can help her. I will.
One hundred students a year; that's one hundred beautifully-flawed, sad, joyous, lonely, witty, hopeful, and complex human beings under the same roof with me every day and yet, I don't know much about them aside from a few surface facts and their reading and writing needs. That's okay, they're teens and so they have secret lives that even their parents don't know about. I'm good with that, and honestly, I don't want to know everything.
But a lot of what they shared was public for a reason, and if there's any take-away from that ill-fated search for potentially-embarrassing photos, it's that (just like me, doing what I'm doing at this moment) they're all reaching out in the hope they'll be seen on their own terms. As a Humanities teacher, I can do more to make room for that in my classroom and at my school. I can and so I will.
I end with this last little find: It's what one student tweeted about the project we were doing (Pan-African music analysis):
The truth is out there, and it ain't always pretty...and-- invariably, someone will retweet it.
Today's question: What's our most important professional responsibility outside the classroom?
Initially, I was compelled to shoot off a litany of professional badass-erisms starting with staying up to date on what's happening in the world of education and making our instruction transparent, as I'm gearing up to do with these daily blogs. That's wholly due to the culmination of a 30-year anti-public ed movement and the groundswell of discontent parents are finally becoming a part of. I'm fired up!
But then I remembered a lesson whilst parenting: Take care of yourself first so you're in better shape to take care of others.
I'd guess that's true for teachers, too. If we take care of our health and well-being, it pays off in all other aspects of our lives. I struggle with sustaining that. When I don't eat breakfast, exercise, or sleep, it impacts my energy and brain power, not to mention my justifiable outrage and my willingness to get out there on the street and fight!
So, eat your Wheaties, boys and girls! A kale smoothie is probably better. Just do it so we have the energy to save public education and then get back to our usual business of saving the WORLD!
Disclaimer: I do not endorse consumption of said Wheaties.
I remember the moment I chose teaching as a career. I was two years into college and had to declare a major. Among the choices, teaching offered the greatest potential for positively impacting others. That was the clincher.
I'd love to be able to think pure altruism was what has sustained my desire to teach these last fifteen years, but that would mean I would've expected nothing in return for my time and energy, and that was just not the case. I'm hardly as selfless as that. Sure, I've depended on the paycheck, but ultimately, I've expected at least the sense that my time as a teacher meant something to others. I didn't need to see it, I just needed to feel it. I didn't even need to know that others saw it. I just wanted to be sure for myself.
Fortunately, I have been, and here's why:
1. The odds were pretty damn good! I've taught close to 100 students each year, which meant close to 1500 students passed through my classroom. Given there are 180 days in the school year, that would mean I had 180 days with each student where there was a very good chance of having impacted them in a positive way (since that was what motivated me).
2. I've had some great teachers whom I quietly admired and even revered. They impacted me in ways they could have never known (well, okay-- some do know now thanks to the modern-day magic of Facebook, where everyone you've ever known somehow finds you). If even one of my ~1500 students took a piece of me along on their life's journey, in spirit, it'd be pretty cool. I've been fortunate enough to be told this was the case by former students.
3. Lastly, there have been those moments where I sensed it; a personal connection that was made, a mutual understanding, a shared experience, time, patience, and honesty acknowledged. Even if they didn't get it, I did. Maybe some day, they would, too, the way I could only do in retrospect when thinking about my own teachers and how they quietly left their imprint on my teacher-being.
Interestingly enough (to me, anyway), I care less about all of that. What sustains me as a teacher has shifted quite a bit. Where before it was about using my "superpowers" to inspire and to help students become self-aware (that being the "positive impact"), now I'm more inclined to want my experiences and my knowledge to be of value. If there's an impact to be made, it's on their learning, and I feel much more equipped to do that given the depth of knowledge I've acquired. It's a quieter impact, but one that's more likely to endure and have a direct & positive impact on their self-concept.
Also, there's no denying that all this time, I've been impacted by my students on so many levels; as a parent, a learner, a teacher, and as a fellow human being. For that reason, I have a sense that in a few years, even legacy will cease to be a factor in what fuels me. If it's anything like parenthood, what will mean the most will be the sum total of those quieter moments where we all ran outside under the first snowfall to catch snowflakes on our tongues (high schoolers, these are), or all the times we found ourselves in mutual awe of things serendipitously stumbled upon, or that made us appreciate the mysteries of our own human nature.
I feel the start of that shift, and I embrace it.
A couple of decades ago, while learning how to spin a clay pot, an art instructor told me about wabi-sabi, a Japanese art form that conveyed the beauty of impermanence and time's impact on objects. Picture a sculpted piece of driftwood along the beach, or a smoothed-over river stone; both are wabi-sabi-ware, organically worn and shaped by nature's geologically-slow hand. The instructor applied it to the imperfections in my clay pot noting that it gave it a wabi-sabi feel. I didn't think too much about it, except that I felt relieved she saw the asymmetry of my piece a thing of beauty rather than a newbie flaw. It was a natural part of my process as an artist, she said, and that's what made it special.
When I first started teaching fifteen years ago, I could've used someone like that art teacher to tell me I didn't have to be perfect right out the gate. We enter into our first classroom with a head full of theory and meticulously-constructed "units of study", and it doesn't take much more than a spit wad hurled across the room to realize we're going to have to adapt to survive. When it happened to me, the sense of fear and urgency was strong enough to put me into overdrive.
As a result, I would spend a good amount of time and energy those first years trying to reach edu-nirvana, that state where all those rock star teachers in the movies were at. You know who I mean, the ones who stood and delivered atop desks and, at the risk of life, job, and limb, challenged students to positively disrupt their lives using education as the way to do it. I wanted to be that teacher, as many young teachers did. It wasn't hard to shed that myth after a year or two of experience, but the motivation for impacting others and the passion for teaching remained.
Now that I'm at the mid-point of my career as a teacher, I find myself thinking about that clay pot. Teaching is a craft, like ceramic art. There is no higher place to be than where we are when we're knee-to-knee with students as their mentors and guides.
We can embody wabi-sabi, not only in our aesthetic (gray hairs and the wrinkles of a smile), but in our ways of "being", too. I see it in artists and teachers who value process over product. I sense it in those who accept their own finite natures with grace and brevity, making sure they're "present" for their students; honoring their learning journeys with patience and compassion. It's in anyone who seems to be in sync and at peace with nature's rhythms.
This is what I wish to remember as I embark on the second half of my journey as a teacher: that I am that stone, newly-aware of being less jagged in all the right places, and I embrace all that which makes me beautifully flawed.