Blast from the Past, Part I

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In reviewing pieces I had written many years ago, I read with much interest the exasperated musings of a beginning teacher and the grade chase. On the other side of that hill now as a veteran teacher, I am satisfied that I have made my peace with “the system” without having lost my soul to it. I read my words with a mixture of amusement and surprise – “How earnest and edgy I was!”
Without further ado, coming to you from all the way from back in 1998–
*We learn not for school but for life.
Grades and grading are for me a pest invested with the potential to do some good and great damage. This is my opinion as an adult. As a child, I have very few memories of being graded in school. I think that is because they never meant very much to me in of as themselves. My grades all the way through college are a motley collection of “A’s” and “F’s”. If a teacher or a subject caught my interest, I was like a person on fire. If uninterested, I would stare indifferently into the teacher’s hostile glare without blinking an eye. Perhaps this is why I have such problems with so many of my students who are obsessed with their grades and test scores and want to argue with me over every single point. Such an argument can drive me to distraction like few others can.
By the time I was a senior in college, if I were happy with a paper and thought it fine I could care less past a certain point what grade my professors slapped on it. To look at the unimportant details and minor logical flaws in a term paper and to grade it on a rubric is to have the humor of a scholar, and I mean that in a negative sense. We already, in my opinion, have too much grading of writing and not enough appreciating of it! Yet as a teacher now, I find myself going in the same direction in trying to be “objective” and have “standards.” But I still grade writing at least 50% by gut reaction, although standards are nice to be able to fall back on. If I want to violate my “standards” and throw out the rubric, I hold that as my right. I hold this not as my right as a teacher, but my right as a lover of good writing which speaks to the heart.
If I had my way, there would be no grades. What was Petrarch’s or Machiavelli’s or Cicero’s grade point averages (G.P.A.) in their educations? What was Galileo’s or Einstein’s SAT scores? Did Milton or J.S. Mill, fluent in Latin and Greek before they hit the zenith of adolescence, busy themselves with earning diplomas and advanced degrees? Did William Shakespeare, the greatest writer of English ever to put pen to paper, ever attend university? Did a person leave Plato’s Academy or Aristotle’s Lyceum with anything other than hopefully a modicum of knowledge and wisdom lodged between their ears? The two writers I admire most from this century, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, were not stellar students. Steinbeck dropped out of Stanford University his freshman year to become a writer; Hemingway ran off to World War I at 18 years of age and learned the craft of writing as a newspaperman. Neither graduated from college, but both won the Nobel Prize for Literature. They did not stress over final exams, letters of recommendations, graduating with honors, or impressing their instructors. They had more important goals. So many kids today base their self-esteem on their grade point averages or test scores! Having failed to study for a test or having had a sub-par performance, I have seen students garner a “C” on an exam and then start crying. I did not become a teacher to make twelve-year olds cry! Oh, what a swampy morass of troubles and liabilities is this beast of grades and exams! Parents who put enormous pressure on their children to achieve academic success. Or worse, students who make themselves miserable by being their own worst slave drivers.
I know, I know… how can we hold students accountable for their work without grades or exams? How do they measure up against their peers? Who should we let into the university and not? How can we narrow down the pool of “best and brightest” students who should be admitted to the prestigious professional schools and future positions of power and prestige in society? What promotes “excellence?” What is “fair”?
Although students must be encouraged and given loads of feedback, they also must be told, “Objectively, this paper/test/homework is ranked this way.” A colleague was frank in his summation: “I felt and feel that when a school or a teacher abdicates the important responsibility to give grades, they allow mediocrity to rear its ugly head. We are, all of us, competitive in some way. Hopefully, as we become mature, we learn to listen to our inner voice in order to work to our own standards, but we still can benefit from a kick in the ass by looking at those who are doing more than us, or doing something better than we do.” W. Somerset Maugham described it thusly: “It is a very funny thing about life: if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it.” Children, moreover, sometimes need to be told to do something which is good for them that they might not enjoy at the time. What responsible adult can claim otherwise?
Grades can also be an effective way to motivate teenagers who otherwise do not care about the intrinsic value of learning: legion are the polite and industrious young persons who find pleasure and support all throughout their youth in having their superior work and behavior rewarded in excellent marks. I have also seen many students perform tolerably only because they had been materially bribed by their parents. But I have seen students year after year memorize laboriously and then regurgitate en masse information the teacher wants to hear onto paper without having one original, insightful idea enter into their heads. I have seen students who by assiduously jumping through hoops and barrels earned high grades but learned nothing of consequence which will stay with them over time. I have graded thousands and thousands of bland, bloodless term papers written efficiently and competently towards the goal of achieving a high grade and which held absolutely no passion whatsoever. That is not learning, even if confers upon you “success,” as it is conventionally defined. What brings about real success are discipline, drive, determination, and a dream. Schools do not teach these things, except very indirectly. No test can assess them.
Young people all over the world study and sweat and stress to pass exams so they can go on to further levels of schooling and a more affluent and supposedly successful life. But I was never one of them, and this perhaps has much to do with why I find this aspect of being a teacher so difficult and frustrating. Yet if grades and tests are so problematic, that does not mean they are unimportant. This job – the profession of teaching flesh and blood teenagers each with their own unique individual stories in a real life classroom – has taught me that much. But how dispiriting!
Non schola sed vita decimos!

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