Centre County Teacher-Writers | Challenging students to grow makes the grade

September 4, 2013 

“Experience is a brutal teacher, but you learn. My God, do you learn.”

C.S. Lewis

Editor’s note: Centre County Teacher-Writers is a group of teachers who gather to write about life in the classroom and the issues that concern them as educators. The group includes pre-K-12 teachers and teacher educators from the Centre Region who support each other as writers. Columns by members of this group run on the Views page on a Wednesday each month.

As an experienced teacher of adolescents, the most meaningful lessons I’ve learned about working with teenagers have come as a result of a brutal dose of reality.

To this day, when I run into a student from my first class, albeit 10 years ago, my instinct is to apologize profusely for my clumsiness.

Luckily, experience is also a lasting teacher, and over the years those hardest-to-learn lessons have stuck with me as daily reminders of what matters.

For better or for worse, the bottom line for most students and families is grades, and with the more recent accessibility of grades online as a 24/7 view into teachers’ gradebooks, concern among parents and teachers invites us to look into what matters most and how grades fit in.

This year, I read Superintendent Bob O’Donnell’s community book club pick, a research-based look at what traits prepare young people for success in life.

“How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character” by Paul Tough essentially focuses on character as a set of skills that can be taught, and homes in on those skills mentioned in the title of his book that can propel us to success.

O’Donnell assembled a panel of local experts to facilitate discussion. The talk among parents, teachers and community members led to concern related to obsessive grade checking and an intense focus on points and percents.

Interestingly, the way I learned the most about grading as a teacher was through failure.

Early in my career I felt uncomfortable when it came to grades — mostly because of students like Jeffrey.

Jeffrey would arrive to class like the Tazmanian Devil, a whirlwind of pencils and papers scattering in every direction. When asked to produce an assignment, textbook or pencil Jeffrey would dig and sort, only to come up at a loss.

Jeffrey struggled to maintain passing grades.

Despite his lack of organization, he could recall and analyze the subject better than most students.

Jeffrey loved literature. He could relate what he was reading to modern TV shows and news stories, and often came bouncing into class with a new connection to share. How could I justify his failing grade?

I couldn’t.

When I heard about an opportunity to go to a conference about grading, I put myself in the principal’s office pleading to go. The presenter opened the day with an eye-opening exercise: “I want you to write down every letter grade you assign, and next to it, a definition of what that grade means.”

I knew my definitions would be wrong, but what were the right ones, and how would this matter to Jeffrey?

Turns out, it did.

When I returned to school, I revised my gradebook so that students’ grades reflected growth of specific skills. Jeffrey became an A student. We worked on his organizational challenges, but they were the focus of a series of conversations, apart from his grade.

Instead of using grades to hold students accountable, I used them to make sure they learned. Students who were naturally adept at “doing school” were no longer easily riding through, but were challenged to grow.

What I learned about grading, about what to place the most value on in the classroom, stays with me today.

What exists today, however, that didn’t those years ago is the instant access to grades and scores online, which for some has been one step back in the journey to focus on growth and persistence.

We may need to ask ourselves as a community how grading helps or hinders our goals for lifelong learning.

Can we address character methodically and authentically in school, so that resilience, optimism and curiosity are at the forefront — persistence right up there with points and percents?

Succeeding means more than a collection of A’s. Students who have collected A’s without developing skills to respond to challenge are not prepared for reality.

It might be time for us to have a conversation — about character.

Mary Lou Manhart teaches ninth-grade English at State College Area High School.

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