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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.

8 Comments

  1. 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.

  2. Since I read all of this yesterday, I have been trying to think of how to start my comments with all that you wrote back to me. So I will start here, as you did.

    1. I truly hope that your students learned something from you. I had a teacher that told me, in your lifetime, you will hear my voice many times. I have heard many teachers and my parents voices throughout the years, remembering what they ‘taught’ me, even though it didn’t register when I was young. Point being that you ARE the teacher! Your post: I strictly stayed out of it, resisting my educator urges to give direction, to admonish inactivity, to…be the adult. You are also the ADULT! These are after all children. They have not experienced life as an adult or had to learn ‘adult’ responsibilities. You and other teachers should be instructing them ‘as they will go’. They don’t have the personal knowledge to make those choices yet.
    Should I say, thank you Mr. Teacher for correcting my grammar and spelling? Snarky of you. Tit for tat, Your post : They need help and support to just relax and and learn by making messes on their papers, by making mistakes in their efforts. Day 91 Read it twice or you will miss it.
    Should we feel sorry for you that you had to shiver in a cold classroom on your day off, when the maintenance crews are up before you in the morning in below 0 weather and snowstorms, including days off, cleaning off the buses, scraping the sidewalks and plowing the area where you park your car?
    2. I don’t know how the grading system works, but I DO know this. When you apply for collAge, (Yes, I noticed it after it posted and could not correct it), your grade average is one of the main things checked. Have you applied for any other jobs lately? I have. Most are online now. Before your application will be viewed, you have to take a test, and be graded. In the ‘real world’, and in the future of these children, grades are the difference between getting accepted in college or a workplace. So yes, why would they not have a beautiful A showing up.
    3. I don’t know you at all, except what have read in your blog. You don’t know me either, so you should not assume. You wrote: Yesterday, after reading ‘At this point, I will offer that you are a parent of a student in my class’ I posted that I do NOT have a student in your class or even in your school system. You chose not to let that post show. Why? How many other comments have you received that don’t show? You have been blogging every day with very few comments. Strange. In your reply, you also wrote: I am not responsible for your learning. You may not be responsible for IF they learn or not, but you ARE responsible for TEACHING.
    4. Your students will grade themselves? Really? A for sure!
    5. Your comment: 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, Of course you worked hard in college. Not because your professors gave you an automatic A, but because you know that if you didn’t, you would not get a passing grade. (The REAL world)
    6. You sir, are 1 person, 1 teacher. This is a really BIG world. And the really BIG world doesn’t understand yours yet. I am not sure they ever will. I still stand by my first post. Your ‘project’ is just that. A project for YOU, not your students. You do like that my comments have offered criticism. You have stated in many posts that people cannot learn with stress. You don’t even believe it. Your post: And while science supports the notion that stressed brains can’t learn, I tend to rely on sense more than science. I personally work the BEST under stress. The level of stress is not based on an ‘all person’ level. We all have it for different situations and levels. You love to talk in front of people, that would be highly stressful for others. In fact, you ‘stress’ a lot in your posts, worrying if you are doing the right thing or not with Project 180. You must also stress a lot when writing every day to make sure YOUR point comes across. Even though few comment.
    I don’t think my comments will make any difference to you at all. You have made up your mind that what you are doing is ‘right’. I truly hope for the sake of the children you teach, that you are correct. Hang onto that thread that you talked about. But remember this, no matter how wide or strong that thread is, every thread has a breaking point.

    • montesyrie@gmail.com

      February 7, 2017 at 12:13 pm

      Thank you for sharing your perspective.

    • That should have read: You do NOT like that my comments have offered criticism in # 6. I am not going to correct anything else.

      • montesyrie@gmail.com

        February 7, 2017 at 3:09 pm

        Thank you. My not publishing your comment yesterday was the result of my waiting for your promised response. FYI, you are always welcome to come observe my class.

  3. Interesting, your point of view. First, I have no child in your school system. My children a grown and married. I don’t have time right now to respond to all of this, but I will. I just don’t want to you today to be looking at your students and wondering which parent disagrees with your ways of ‘teaching’.

  4. I remember when you were getting ready to send out those first letters, explaining the 180 program to parents and students and I recall the nervousness you felt. You knew that you would have to build trust along the way. This second round of papers that you sent out is an indicator of the trust parents and students have for you and what project 180 could and can bring about in your students. The love of learning and accepting responsibility. And being proud of what they have accomplished.

    Life is full of trials, but we learn as we travel down these roads, always learning and accepting that we are responsible for our own actions

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