Let's Change Education

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A Realm of Possibility: Project 180, Day 100

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –
~Emily Dickinson
     Each classroom a world. Each teacher a creator. Each student an inhabitant. Each door an entry–a step into a realm where, for most things, the difference between possible and impossible is a teacher’s decision. Incredible power. Incredible responsibility.
     As I have often remarked, teachers have a great deal of autonomy. And with that autonomy–that power, that freedom–we each create a world, a culture in which our kids must dwell as they journey forth in their educational experiences. Incredible power and responsibility–indeed, both of which make us alone responsible for the experience kids encounter in our respective worlds. It is a hat we must wear.
     Oh to be fair, there are certainly factors that we cannot control. We can neither control what happened before our kids entered the room, nor can we control what happens after they leave the room, but when they dwell among our four walls, when our policies impact their lives outside those four walls, we have to wear it; we have to own it. After all, we made it.
     I tell my college kids that they are not to become managers of classrooms. To be sure, they are to become creators of culture. They are being given an awesome power, an awesome responsibility. And as they prepare to build worlds in their own little corners of the universe, I tell them that it begins with a simple question, “How do you want kids to feel when they cross the threshold into your world?” And I go on to tell them that it continues with what they bring as they, themselves, walk into the room. What beliefs, convictions, and ideals do you harbor about education? What do you believe about kids? What do you believe about yourself? Unavoidably, inevitably, all this and more will play a part in creating the landscape. Oh, I go on to give them tools and guidance, but I cannot build it for them. It is their own world, and they have to own it. All of it.
     Of course, each quarter, our discussions lead us to the topic of grading, a component with significant classroom-culture implications.  And though, here, it is neither necessary nor expedient to share all the specifics, in our conversation, we always generally arrive at the truth of who’s in charge of grading practices, and most, if not all, are always taken aback by the fact that they are.–at least the degree to which they are. No one hands them the manual on day one. It is sparsely covered in college. They pick up pieces from their master teachers during student teaching. They remember and employ practices of teachers in their past. But beyond that, their grading practices become their constructs. And it is for that reason alone that they must wear what they make. Their hats of autonomy and shoes of responsibility, regardless the stage in their career, must fit, for they made them.
     Of course, wise teachers know this, and as they grow, they adjust, making the necessary alterations along the way. Wise teachers know they have to own it. Wise teachers know they create the world in which their kids exist. And wise teachers know–own–that their decisions separate possible and impossible. I want my young, aspiring teachers to reach an early wisdom in this regard. I want them to be the teachers who create realms of possibility. But I do not want them to be me. That is not the goal. To be clear, I am quite adamant about this. I only share stories from my world–stories fraught with failure, stories with only sprinkles of success–to reassure them that though we, indeed, wield “otherworldly power” at times in our positions, we are mere humans after all. We fail. We learn. We grow. We succeed. All to fail again. But if we hold true to our threads, if we perpetuate the possible, then we will rise each time, and continue to be stewards to those we would hold, to those we would host in our realms. And each time we fall, we must rise quickly for the time with our young spirits is but a blink. Let it be that after they blink, they see, they remember we did ALL within our power to make possible their dreams. Make choices that make possible.
     Happy Friday, all. Dwell in possibility.

Set to Idle: Project 180, Day 99

Morning, all. Slept in a bit. A slow day today, good day to charge the batteries. Kids are registering for classes next year. At CHS, kids register during their LA classes, so there won’t be much going on in 211 today. Next year, already? Crazy. 100 days into the journey tomorrow? Even crazier. See you in the morning.

Happy Thursday.

Heads Together: Project 180, Day 98

Of all the things I do as a teacher, the most rewarding for me is collaborating with kids on their writing. And in terms of learning, it is perhaps the most effective thing I do for my students. There’s power in the face-to-face, head-to-head, eye-to-eye moments that I share with my kids. I get to see them and they me as we work through the truly tough but terribly important skill of writing, a skill that will follow them far beyond the walls of the school house. Effective communication skills will not only get them through doors but also help them climb ladders. But honing these skills takes time and support. I have found that the best support I can give is conferencing with kids one-on-one, where I believe I can accomplish more in two-minutes during the process than I can with five-minute written comments after the process.

But this takes time, a great deal of time. And that is not always easy for kids when they encounter my approach. Accustomed to the hurry-up-get-done-and-move-on approach, they don’t always readily or easily adjust to spending weeks, sometimes months, on a writing task. Currently we are on week 3 of our argumentative letters to the school board, and it is likely that we will spend at least three more. Oh, we don’t work on it every day; to be sure, we are only able to devote Monday and Tuesday to this task, but during that time, we immerse ourselves in the task, in the process. And that is the key to the long-distance, endurance approach: the process. Though we in education know the power of process in writing, it often gives way to the product, and in our rush to the end, the learning often gets neglected. I know some of my kids care not for the pace I set with writing, but I believe there is nothing more important that I will teach my kids, and so I am willing to give it the time it deserves–the time to struggle, the time to grow, the time to triumph. Together. Eyes forward. Feet pointed. Heads joined. We journey forth. Together.

Happy Wednesday, all.


Change the Recipe: Project 180, Day 97

Though this recipe may not bake everyone’s cake, it captures what is often missing in the compliance-based classrooms that our young find themselves during the pivotal, formative moments of their early lives. And though I get–to some degree–that we need to fold some compliance into the mix, it is too frequently the first and thus primary ingredient in the conventional-cake mold that we attempt to place all kids. And, sadly, by the time they reach us in high school, they have been cast in compliance, with only a sprinkle of creativity to be found, and most of the time it is so sparsely sprinkled that one wonders if it ever made it into the mix at all.

And so, in an effort to rescue, to remedy the recipe we try to work creativity into the mix, but it’s often too late, and we settle for some cheap frosting on the surface, unable to break through the baked-on crust that has enveloped the still-young, but harder to reach spirits that we encounter. With 180, I am trying to breach the crust, to revive within what I believe exists in each, an innate desire to be creative, to be free, to learn, to grow, a desire that has been suppressed by the assembly-line molds in which we place our young as we rush them down the line towards a “real world” that accepts compliance but desires creativity.

And it is here where I believe we miss the mark, where we bake the wrong cakes. We are so steadfast in our belief that things “are as they are” and “will be because they have been” that we cannot see the potential in other paths and possibilities, summarily dismissing them as craziness when and if they do present themselves. And I get it. I think. But I no longer accept it. I took a risk with 180. I changed the recipe. And while it disheartens me that it does not present a cake that is palatable to all, I want to believe that it is the necessary nutriment for those starving for far too long on a compliance-only diet, a reality highlighted by the fact that kids have been so conditioned to eat the compliance cake that when a new item from the menu is placed before them, they deign not touch such a thing so foreign.

And I am not okay with that. I am not okay with a reality where kids only do out of compliance, and I am far-less okay to be a part of a system that perpetuates such an existence. So I changed the recipe. And though some kids still push their plates aside, I figure that whatever compliance I am withholding from their diets in room 211 is being more than made up for in their hourly feedings as they move from room to room, on bells, sitting in seats, looking forward, paying attention, not talking…complying, starving while eating the only diet they’ve ever known. It’s time to change the recipe.

Happy Tuesday, all. Change the recipe.

A Look Inside: Project 180, Day 96

Tradition is hard to change. The status quo is familiar and comfortable, and the silos are hard to penetrate. But that does not mean that we should simply accept this as “how it is.” We can and should challenge convention, for if we don’t, then we find ourselves static, lethargic, and apathetic. We should seek, instead, the dynamic. We should seek to find new and better ways to push our kids beyond customary compliance, to push them to the outer reaches, the outer edges to help them discover the power of commitment. That is a central goal in the 180 classroom, and to that end, things have to be different.

Last week, an outside “observer,” called into question my teaching, seeming to suggest that I simply set 180 in motion, so I could sit back in the easy chair and let the kids sink or swim, that I was remiss in my duties for not teaching. I wonder if that would still be her view if she became an inside observer, actually present, seeing firsthand what my teaching looks like. As I also mentioned last week, the Smarter Balanced Assessment is right around the corner, and the kids will have to pass it to graduate. And this event will certainly place 180 beneath the microscope in June when we get the results. At present we are preparing for this significant landmark in our journey, but I am not scaring the kids with the fear of failure; in fact, I have merely remarked that the Performance Task we are currently working through is a vehicle for me to introduce argumentative writing so they are familiar with what they will find on the test. I want them to be prepared for the test, so we are working towards that end.

So what’s different then? Well, for one kids are working hard–very hard–towards something without the threat of grades to get them to do the practice. They are doing the practice out of commitment, not compliance. They are wholly engaged in something for which there are no points, no grades waiting on the other side. Yes, there is the “test,” but I have merely presented it to them as a part of their reality, and I am doing what I believe is my duty as a teacher in preparing them for that reality. So  what am I doing? Beyond what I am doing behind the scenes, I am cast in a supporting role as I confer with each kid about his/her work, supporting and challenging them along the way, so that they may succeed today and tomorrow. Last week, I met with every kid amidst the buzz of brains and whir of fingers on keyboards, in an environment with not a grade on the horizon, only commitment to a better self.

The door is open. Always has been. Always will be. Inside you will not see perfection, but you will see a dogged commitment to making kids’ educational experiences better–today and tomorrow, a commitment that shies away from “past practice” and “it’s always been,” a commitment that, instead, seeks to disrupt the silos. In the end, it may very well be that I am tilting at windmills, but until then, the end, I will persist. Windmills beware.

Happy Monday, all. Disrupt your silos. Change is possible.



Why Do You Hate Me? Project 180, Day 95

Snow day to sick day. I swear winter hates me, and it knows right where to hit me: time. Lost days are hard to get back, but I guess it is what it is, not much I can do about it. So, back at it Monday. Sorry, all.

Started the week with nearly a 3,000 word post on Monday to barely a word yesterday and today. Thanks for all your support this week. To “An Observer,” thank you for the opportunity to reflect and express on 180. Everything is an opportunity, even if it doesn’t seem it at the time. The journey continues.

Happy Friday, all. Have a great weekend. Be gone, dreadful winter. Be gone.

Enough Already!

See ya, tomorrow, all. Ugh.


Sometimes They See the Thread: Project 180, Day 94

Been a roller coaster of a week. Admittedly, I got blind-sided and a bit rattled by an unexpected drop with a couple of loops. I allowed “An Observer’s” anonymous attacks on 180 and me to seep into my spirit, distracting me from the goal. But as I moved forward, I was able to accept it as an opportunity to reflect upon and continue with my journey, my vision to help improve education.  Her attacks persisted (if you care to see her latest rant, you can find it in the comments of the following link  http://www.letschangeeducation.com/?p=1504).  Another opportunity to reflect.

In her attacks, she suggests that I am all alone in my selfish universe, on an island with little support, suggesting, too, that I hide the negative to project a shiny facade for 180. I am sorry that she sees me that way. Those who know me, know differently. Those who see my thread, see me–support me. And it is that which keeps me plugging along. I know I am not alone. And while few do comment on my actual blog, (Mom comments all the time, but she’s my mom…), many of you let me know in various ways through Facebook, Twitter, email, and face-to-face conversations. You are there. Sometimes overwhelmingly so. The 96 comments on the FB post this weekend offering support and love was incredibly uplifting and heartwarming. Again, thank you. And while I do not think it is either feasible or necessary to show them all, I do think it is necessary and fair to share some. I want to share the support that exists within the walls of the “shiny facade.”

  •      Syrie. Just so you know, I am in complete support of what you are doing in your classroom. You responded to those not very nice comments very well in today’s post. I thank you for what you are doing in education, and I hope people continue to question you so eventually they can see how great your approach actually is. BECAUSE IT IS GREAT. It is what is best for the kids. You are not taking any experiences from them. You are giving them the most important experience a teacher can offer: OPPORTUNITY. As you said, we get out what we put in no matter what grade we end up with. I was a 4.0 high school student because I was really good at turning in extra credit and turning in my assignments on time. Yes, I had A’s, but those grades did not represent what I had learned academically or what I had learned about myself. Your classroom is a place where students can learn about themselves as they struggle, take risks, reflect, grow, and succeed all on their own (with your guidance). They have to care about themselves, not a grade, and in the end it makes them a stronger person and independent learner. I apologize for ranting. Again, I thank you for what you are doing. Have a wonderful rest of your week. Stay positive! The kids are worth it.
  • Mr. Syrie,
    I hope this will be a surprising blog post for you to read. Surprising not so much with regards to content as with some of these posts I’m sure, but to the sender. I posted once to a blog in 2007. I literally have 10 things more meaningful and productive that I could be doing while I type this. I don’t know why I decided to post on your blog which looks well sorted out by the way. Maybe needed to say a few things. My initial reaction when reading your post on your blog was “wow he’s actually making a difference, that’s really great!” Reading along I found the comment revealing the wrinkle in your plan-namely giving each student an A. Wait a minute. That did not sound like the guy I remember. Mr. Syrie as I knew him was one of the hardest working, most dedicated, driven and inspiring people I had met at the time. You inspired me many times to push on, literally push myself further up those hills and through the challenges that life hit me with.
    I kept reading a few posts and it all made sense-perfect sense! Grades are indeed often handed out in school. If a 4.0 is the best-100%-how can a kid get a 4.2?!? What does it mean? What’s the point? The point is public education in most locales is absolutely broken. Grades don’t mean much anymore. My class had 14 Valedictorians 20 years ago. They all had “perfect grades”. What a joke. I had the urge to reply to the Observer who had quite obviously missed the entire point of your approach. A response from me was unnecessary. Reading further, your responses could not have explained it more perfectly. Do you remember a saying “If I have to explain it to you, you wouldn’t understand.”? Bingo. Not everyone will “get it” That’s OK. You care too much, perhaps. Is that a bad thing? Good?
    If there is one thing I am made acutely aware of every day, it’s that you can’t help everyone. Not that you wouldn’t if you could. You simply can’t. Some things aren’t fixable. Trying to fix things that aren’t can break you. Some people don’t care to understand and some simply cannot. Those are tough lessons to learn. But that’s OK because you have helped by this time, a couple thousand students. I suspect many would have never found their thread without having someone like you step into their classroom and give them the “opportunity” to find it for themselves. Whether you continue with your current grading system or not, the student experience in your class will undoubtedly be the same or better that parents pay tens of thousands annually to send their kids to “the best of schools” to receive.
    I remember talking to my Dad in my mid-twenties driving through central Washington. He asked me “whatever happened to Monte?” I told him you’d gone off to Royal City to teach English and coach Cross Country. I never really understood why-I mean, I knew what kind of person you were. We both kind of reflected on that and agreed that you could’ve done anything for a career and been hugely successful by any measure. Now I know why you went into teaching. It’s what you were destined to do. You’re a great motivator.
    So how’d I find Mr. Syrie? By accident, procrastinating work, on a whim while looking to see if JW was still coaching in Cheney. I saw his picture and saw yours as I scrolled down the page. Ahh the power of the Google! It’s good you are in Cheney. Good peeps there. Throughout life, there will be times when the only thing that will keep your students going is their thread. If there is anyone who can help them find it, and motivate them to hold onto it and follow it, you can.
    Strong work, Pal.
    Maybe we’ll get together when we’re retired for an easy spin.
  •      …even though I wasn’t fortunate enough to ever have you as my teacher, I know that you have incredible passion for learning and for each and every student. Heck, I still tear up thinking about that post you made about my sister and her singing in your class. These comments were obviously made by people who are upset about something in their lives, and they’re anonymously lashing out on you. I just went through something similar recently. Please don’t take this to heart though! Honestly, you are a huge inspiration to me as a future educator, and you touch so many lives with your love for teaching and students!
  •      It takes courage to post the challenges and not just the support. There’s almost always both and often little we can do to please everyone (except not give up!). Examining our practices takes courage and you do it publicly, taking the risk and being a leader and learner…keep it up! **And yes, I’m at school right now as well, preparing!
  •      Monte, this is awesome! You’re getting out there AND getting anger and resistance? Fun! Bring it on– the timing is perfect– you spent last week reviewing, revising, and recommitting. You are ready for the naysayers! (And if you don’t want a piece of them, I do! Lemme at them! Guest blogger? 😉 )
  • Your approach to education is founded on fostering intrinsic motivation. By removing the big, extrinsic motivator of grades, you reinforce students’ innate curiosity and love of learning. The research supporting this pedagogical approach is longstanding and overwhelming, of course. Those attached to the culture of extrinsic motivation have a difficult time recognizing the value of instilling the love of doing something for its own sake as the deepest, most enduring aspect of education. But never mind. Take heart in the independence and strength of mind you are helping young people to find in themselves.
  • I find it interesting that the second comment mentioned that this was a selfish project to be doing, and yet in all of my education courses where I have to write forty page finals, I have to use empirical and peer reviewed research to back up my methods and ideas for teaching in a classroom. Research like that starts with projects like yours. Research has to come from somewhere. I feel that your project is a reflection that you want to find better ways to inspire and educate future generations. This is how growth in the field of education works.
    There are more important things in life than working for a “reward.” Being self inspired to be better as an individual and as a community member is one of them.
    On a final note, you absolutely were the catalyst for my passion to be a teacher. I often refer back to your methods when I think about the way I want to teach. Educators that want things easy for themselves don’t make positive, life long, lasting impressions like that on their students.
  • I do have a son in your class. I allow my son to make his decisions towards his education choices. He wanted to continue project 180. I told him i didnt believe he had enough self discipline to handle it. I said, this project is for kids who are ready to be mature enough to want to earn that “A”. I said project 180 in my opinion is for kids that are self motivated, that are driven to show off their knowledge or their determination to gain more knowledge without the prodding of the teacher or parent. Ill be honest, i wasnt a FAN of project 180 but I believe in it. I think youre being innovative in your teaching methods and i appreciate that. My son has had a ton of stress in his life, i do my best to help lessen it but im sure i probably just add to it. Being his parent i did tell him, he needs to start taking a more active roll in Project 180. He said he would and i hope he is.
    I have faith in your project Monte Syrie, i think many do.
    There will always be those that disagree and may say hurtful things. Change is hard. Change is scary and can be very confusing to those not willing to allow change in their life. Control is another thing people have a hard time letting go of. Believe me…..i know!
    Stay strong, hold your ground, youre the teacher, not them.
    People may believe your giving kids a free pass, i believe youre leading kids to find their own way to a Pass that works for them. Some it may take a bit to embrace the change, but Rome was not built in 1 day, let alone a school year. Keep up the good work Monte.
  • Hey Syrie, I haven’t been reading your blog so i don’t know by what means you’ve been implementing this experiment. I do, however, know the motive is not laziness. You’re teaching style has always stressed the idea of student motivated learning, and that led to my proudest moment in my student career! To be honest it’s still one of the proudest moments of my life. Whoever these skeptics are clearly don’t know who you are. Keep being the teacher students deserve!
  • See how much love and support you have?? You’ve made such a huge, crucial impact on so many lives. This is a learning curve for both you and the students, and these people who are insulting you and your style of teaching clearly don’t have the slightest idea of the type of person that you are. I think what you’re doing is great, Sy, and obviously a lot of other people agree. I hope you have a little more peace of mind with all of these positive comments and don’t lose too much sleep over the couple of haters. 🙂
  • Interesting Syrie. I must say, considering my own cynicism, that I find your approach motivational. Grades are a disappointing social construct that I never cared for. I would have sought exploration in such a class, however I am keenly aware of individuals who would not have, and it does rub my impressions of merit the wrong way. Frankly I think the problems with grades is the rigidity it imposes on the system and lack of mobility for students. Up or Down. I entered kindergarten at above college level reading. By the time I reached college i’d stopped reading. I hated public school, but despite calling you third graders, I loved your class. It is the thread you speak of that I loved. Not so much the content but the way you taught was what the instruction was about. An openness. I find your experimentation thoughtful from my perspective 1100 miles away getting my masters. Cheers
  • I usually do not chime in on such posts. However, I am very grateful to have such a teacher as passionate as you Monte Syrie. When I had you as a teacher you were so much more than just a person who shared knowledge with us. You were someone who challenged a student in ways that could maybe appear “non-conventional”. Someone who received joy from empowering and encouraging students to see within themselves how great they were or could be. And with that you helped form difference makers. I believe that is how you have impacted so many lives of your students. You taught me things that go far beyond the classroom. You were teaching me valuable lessons. Things that actually prepared me for the “real world”. And with comment #2 I think the premise behind your whole idea is great. A student given responsibility within a safe environment (your class) is an example of what life is all about after school. Well played! Keep being you Syrie. I appreciate all that you have been and all that you have helped me be.
Alone, indeed. Thanks, all. Thank you for seeing my thread. Thank you for helping me through a rough spot in the journey.

What a Mess: Project 180, Day 93

Success is rarely a straight, easy, or expedient line from start to finish, and if and when it ever is, it is success shallowly gained, shallowly achieved. Success–real, I dug-deep-and-fought-for-it success–is a mess, a circuitous mass of dead ends, restarts, and reroutes. Success without some mistake, some setback, some failure is not truly success.

And this is what I try to instill in my kids. I want them to see success as much a struggle as a triumph.  And, more often than not, this manifests itself in my work with them during our writing experiences.  I tell them I want to see their beautiful messes. I tell them that they may not erase or backspace on drafts, as it destroys the evidence of their toil, the trail of their paths. I tell them that if it was easy, it’s probably not good. I tell them that success in writing is series of intentional accidents until they find the right words. And I say this over and over until it sinks in. And that is not easy, for they have learned that–been conditioned to believe that–success happens in a straight expedient line from one lesson, to one chapter, to one unit after another, ever-forward in a linear fashion as they are rushed headlong through the coverage model that we so perpetuate in education. And consequently, they–I believe–experience too many shallow successes because we don’t give them the time to live and breathe and struggle in their messes. Learning takes time. Success takes time. A lot of time. Through the 180 experience, I am able to give that time, that opportunity, that important first step for kids to embrace the mess of success. Today, the mess, the long road to success continues. Love making messes with my kids.

Happy Tuesday, all. Take the long road today. Make a mess. Give yourself that gift, that freedom. You deserve it.

The Thread We Follow: Project 180, Day 92

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

~William Stafford

There is a thread I follow, a thread I latched onto a long time ago, and while that thread has gone in and among things over the years, it has not changed, and I have not let go. Can’t. Won’t. I cling to it desperately as I make my way day to day in a world filled with the young whom I serve, pledging my best to help them on their own ways. And as I go about my days, I encounter those who do not see the thread, and I have to explain. This past Saturday, I encountered two who do not see the thread in my ways, so I have to explain. I must. The thread brought me to them; they, then, must serve a purpose in my journey. And so, I will explain.

Comment #1

A looks better then a C😂😂😂 bro are u serious? No kidding ? U expect 16 years olds to do work when u promise them an A ? How is a child supposed to learn anything when they don’t have to care ? All you are is a stupid liberal. You clearly have no brain cells.

This comment was in response to my saying in the “Making Sense” post from last week that perhaps one reason some chose to remain with Project 180 is that it was a “free” A (I will speak to how free the A really is below). It was my attempt to provide an honest analysis of the results. As for, “How is a child supposed to learn anything when they don’t have to care?” Well, it is troubling that we perpetuate a system where we have to give kids a reason to care beyond the opportunity to learn and build oneself. If we have to give them a reason to care, then do they really care? Is compliance really a better sign of caring than commitment? I am not convinced, so I push my kids to care for their own sake, not for the grade carrot that I dangle in front of them. As for your final comment, I doubt I can get you to see my “liberal stupidity” any differently, so I won’t try.

Comment #2

I have been reading your blog with interest and skepticism. It sounds like this project is more for your benefit than that of your students. I am also surprised that a school would even allow a teacher to give an automatic A to every student in the class. You made it very clear that this was a project to see what the outcome would be, like a test of a teenager’s mind, instead of actually teaching them. Maybe you did it to make it easier on YOU, so you wouldn’t have to work so hard and give a test to see how good you actually taught them. You are angry at a student because he chose the A and now you want to start grading him? This is what YOU wrote: I told him 4 months ago when I gave him the A, I was giving him nothing. So if you are admitting to giving ‘nothing’, what makes that child interested in doing ‘something’? He hasn’t been given a guideline as to what you even expect if you are giving nothing. You as a teacher, are not doing this in the best interest of the student. You should be teaching them that hard works get the rewards, it doesn’t happen automatically. And then to change it midstream? Really? How will you teach a class where some want a grade and some don’t? What will the students with the automatic grade do while the others are being tested? In this life, there is no job, anywhere, where the boss says, I will give you a wage to come every day to work. You just decide what to do with your time, because I have nothing to tell you that I expect of you. That is ridiculous! You did not earn a teaching degree by winging it and the collage just passed you. You had to work hard to earn that degree! That is what you should be teaching these students. That is what they go to school for. Otherwise, they could stay home. You would not be needed. People pay taxes and expect their children go to school to learn.

Given the length of this comment and the variety of concerns raised, I will attempt to present my response in a point-by-point manner. Here goes.

  1. “It sounds like this project is more for your benefit than that of your students…Maybe you did it to make it easier on YOU, so you wouldn’t have to work so hard and give a test to see how good you actually taught them.” Easier on me? This has been by far my most challenging year of teaching in my 20 years of service. It has been incredibly difficult to step away from a traditional approach, where I could wield the power of grades to extrinsically motivate kids, trading it instead for mere influence to inspire kids to be intrinsically motivated. I have not taken the easy road, and I have not an easy destination. “A test to see how good you actually taught them”?  The Smarter Balanced Assessment is right around the corner, an assessment that all students must pass in Washington State to graduate, and while that is supposed to be a shared K-10 responsibility for all teachers with whom a child has come into contact, in reality, the finger gets pointed at he/she who stands at the end of the road. I am at the end of that road for my kids. We will see how well I have taught them then. Ironically, I was at school preparing a model introduction on a Sunday to help with a performance task when I read your comment. Sunday. Day off. At school. Typing in my coat because the heat is off. Easier on me indeed. The “test” is coming. And though sadly some will not pass, those who do will be the ones who have committed to learning. Each kid is leaving a trail behind him, a record of what they have done or not.  At the end, those who do not pass probably will be the ones who have not left much of a trail.
  2. “I am also surprised that a school would even allow a teacher to give an automatic A to every student in the class.” So glad you raised this concern. Part of my motivation for doing Project 180 was to expose a dirty little secret in public education. I did 180 because I can. I say that not out of arrogance, but rather, I say it out my own astonishment that there are no real checks and balances to a teacher’s grading approach. In essence, we can do what we want. As a default, most teachers employ the traditional percentage-based approach, but they do that mostly because it’s what was used with them. Teachers take a 3 credit course on assessment in college that deals very little with grading approaches. So, as a default, teachers employ the traditional percentage-based approach to grading. We use it because it exists. There is no evidence base to support its effectiveness. We cling to it for its familiarity, not its wisdom. Unconvinced that the approach truly fostered real learning in the classroom, I abandoned it. I got tired of playing the grade game. I may have swung the pendulum too far the other way, but it had been stuck for far too long on the other end. So, I took an extreme approach. I did it to get people talking. I wanted people–mostly my colleagues–to raise objections, so we could come to the table and have a serious discussion about grading practices, a discussion that is long overdue. Hopefully our exchange will nudge us closer to that reality.
  3. “You are angry at a student because he chose the A and now you want to start grading him? This is what YOU wrote: I told him 4 months ago when I gave him the A, I was giving him nothing. So if you are admitting to giving ‘nothing’, what makes that child interested in doing ‘something’? He hasn’t been given a guideline as to what you even expect if you are giving nothing. You as a teacher, are not doing this in the best interest of the student.” At this point, I will offer that you are a parent of a student in my class. That said, I will take you back to the first day of school this year where I sent two letters home. One to you. One to your child. I will let them speak for the nothing that you speak of in your comment. As for angry, I am not sure you know me very well. My post last week expressed my confusion and concern over a student and family opting to stay with something of which they were so critical, confusion and concern over not choosing what I thought would be a preferable option. I wonder how many other teachers out there are willing to provide personalized options?
    (from the parent letter)Imagine, for a moment, that in my class you and your child will not have to play the grade game. You will already know the grade for the rest of the year, so now instead of asking about the grade, you can ask about the learning. And that is the essence: learning. An old teacher adage suggests that “grades are earned, not given,” but that is simply not true in the vast majority of classrooms. Grades in many cases and in many ways are given, and so I am doing as most do, giving a grade–granted it’s an A, but a grade is all I can give. I can’t give learning. Learning truly is earned. I really only provide the opportunity.
    Dear Learners:Welcome to Honors English 10. I am beyond excited to begin and share this journey with you. And while I am not certain about all that we will encounter and experience along our way–or even where we will land at our journey’s end, I am certain that it will be unlike anything we have experienced in the past. As you entered the room today, I handed you a wooden letter A. It is my gift to you. It is your grade for the year. No, I did not misspeak, I am giving you an A…for the entire year. It is yours to keep. I will not take it back. Promise. Cross my heart.But, my young adventurers, take heed. For, after all, what I handed you is just what it appears to be: a wooden letter A. It is nothing. Oh, don’t worry. I am not going back on my promise. I will type the A into your transcript at the end of each semester, but even that is merely a digital character, a mark on a screen. It, too, in reality, is nothing. So, before you sit back and relax with your gift and chalk me up as your “best teacher ever,” consider the following.In truth, I gave you nothing, but I did that, young traveler, to give you everything. When I handed that A to you as you came aboard today, I really gave you ownership. I gave you the keys to your learning. I gave you choice; I gave you freedom. I gave you responsibility. And that is the essence. In the end, young friend, you are responsible for your learning. I cannot give it to you. In this arrangement that we find ourselves, I am responsible for providing opportunity and support, and I can and will give that freely and abundantly, but I am not responsible for your learning. You are. This reflects, then, the terms of our agreement for our journey.So, we set out. 180 days from now we will set anchor in some unknown harbor. But before we set sail, pick up your A. Look at it. Feel it. Right now it is an empty gesture, a simple symbol. It won’t mean anything until you give it meaning. Months from now, as we look back on the calm and storm of our journey, and you hold this symbol in your hand, what will it mean then? I can’t wait to hear about your discovery. Thanks for letting me join you. I am honored. Welcome aboard.~Syrie
  4. “How will you teach a class where some want a grade and some don’t? What will the students with the automatic grade do while the others are being tested?” Actually, rather easily. The content and teaching approach remains the same, regardless the choice for the grading approach. For the three who have opted for the traditional approach, I have met with them, and we have created a personalized grade book to help them keep track of their grades. The assignments will be the same, the assessments will be the same, the tests will be the same. The only difference is the grading preference.
  5.  “You should be teaching them that hard works get the rewards, it doesn’t happen automatically…In this life, there is no job, anywhere, where the boss says, I will give you a wage to come every day to work. You just decide what to do with your time, because I have nothing to tell you that I expect of you. That is ridiculous! You did not earn a teaching degree by winging it and the collage just passed you. You had to work hard to earn that degree! That is what you should be teaching these students. That is what they go to school for.” Okay, I lumped this all into the “something-for-nothing” concern that you have raised. Of course, I hope that the letters above address this to some degree, but I will offer more. No thing is free. Nothing on the other hand is freely and cheaply given because it is…well, nothing. But the thing that I offer is an opportunity for kids to learn the value of commitment and responsibility, a thing that cannot be faked or copied from a peer’s assignment, a thing that is not defined by some teacher’s arbitrary approach to grading. As products of the public education system and the traditional-grading approach that comes with it, we have all played the grade game, sometimes getting A’s for nothing learned, sometimes not getting the grade we think we deserved based on the subjectivity of the teacher. And in the end, as we look back, and if we are honest, and we take the “grade” out of the mix, we got out of school what we put into school, just as we have gotten out of life what have put into life. I have not taken that important life lesson away from my kids. I have taken away the pretense that too often exists in their formative years. In reality, in my class, they can only get out of it what they put into it. For I only offer opportunity. And with that opportunity comes an abundance of support and encouragement. But I cannot do it for them. Isn’t there a lesson in that? Yes, I worked very hard in college, but only because I pushed myself. In reality, the “real world” allows too many opportunities for us to skate along and take the easy road. I could have skated through college; I could skate through teaching, but I don’t. I can’t. I won’t. And that is because I have learned to push myself, for myself. I cannot trace it back to a grade, but I can trace it back to the people who instilled self-worth in me. That is what I want for my kids. A real opportunity to discover their own power, real power, not the artificial, compliance-creating, short-term power that comes with grades.
  6. “People pay taxes and expect their children go to school to learn.” Yep.  And those people who pay taxes need to question–they have the duty to question–what is going on in our schools. As a taxpayer, you are doing your duty. But I hope that your questions continue. I hope that as you begin to take a more critical view of your child’s education, you ask the same questions of all his teachers. I am on your radar because what I offer is different, because I make public–EVERY day–what goes on in my classroom. It’s too bad that that which is familiar seldom comes across the screen, and it is accepted as fine because it’s always been there, but I wonder what lurks beneath. I wonder if one dug what she would find.

2861 words later and sadly the thread is likely no more apparent than when I began. But it is there. I feel it. Always have. I am sorry that you cannot see it.

Happy Monday, all. Follow your thread.

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