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Distracted: Morning Minutes, March 3, 2016

So, I got distracted this morning responding to a comment on my post on Edutopia.  What’s more, I let my emotion get the better of me a wee bit, but the guy rankled me, especially his comments in reference to another’s post about his son with Asperger’s, so I got jiggy with it.  Sorry, It’s a long read.  I promise to not get distracted tomorrow.

The dad’s post

I am of two minds or more on this. Is the point the learning? Or is it doing assignments? Both maybe.

My son, who has Asperger’s, is a really bright kid. He doesn’t do all of his homework – if he sees a point to it, he does it with pleasure, but if not, he doesn’t. I’ve not been able to change that, no matter how I have tried, and now that he is 15, I accept it. Last year, he got a D in his bio class, a class where he got 95% or above on all the tests. Most of the homework was the kind where you are labeling and coloring things, and he found it a waste of time. He loved the class, and he learned the material, and will discuss it fluently and happily. But his report card had a D… is that fair? He learned the material. I don’t know.

I teach elementary school. I grade kids on mastery of standards, on a 4 point rubric scale. Somehow that feels more authentic, but I don’t know.


The response to the dad’s post

I am truly stunned by the comments here from what I assume are some dedicated and experienced teachers. One teacher/parent actually explained away his child deciding on his own that some of the teacher’s assignments were a “waste of time” – so he didn’t do them. Can you imagine if all of us adults did that in life? Maybe you think filling out lesson plans is a waste of time, so you don’t do them. Or maybe you decide to skip your assigned crossing guard duty? How long would you last as a teacher? What’s worse, it sounded like that parent just gave up having their child do their homework. I realize we’re living in a politically correct world where everyone gets a trophy but come on – a 0 is a 0. If someone doesn’t turn in an assignment, that’s what they deserve. That said, there are ways to build your point system that a 0 on a homework assignment shouldn’t totally wreck a child’s GPA. The total points for my homework assignments never amount to more than 20 percent of a student’s final grade. I also award 20 percent for something I call participation and courteous behavior. They have to be engaged and respectful or that costs them just as many points as not doing their homework. Occasionally, I’ve received push-back from parents until they realize their students are learning real-world skills. I don’t accept “he’s just shy” just as I don’t accept “she thought the homework assignment was a waste of time.” It’s my job as a teacher to create an environment where even the most shy or angry kid WANTS to participate and do their homework. Otherwise, I’d be the real zero – not the kid. That seems to be missing from this discussion – creating an environment that produces good grades – not zeroes.


My response to the response

Hi, Steve. Thank you for joining the conversation. It is obviously a topic that places people on opposite ends of the spectrum, and while it is doubtful that I what I say here will bring us closer together, it may on some level move us less apart.

First, it has been my experience that the folks who tend towards grading reform, are dedicated and experienced professionals, who are reflective and open to new ideas and possibilities that challenge the status quo, not simply for the sake of challenging the status quo, but for the sake of refining practice to best serve kids.  For me, my journey into grade reform stemmed from the arbitrary approach that I believe too many educators take towards grading.  An accusation that I was not above, but one that I was not comfortable with, so I sought to make changes, for if I am honest, I am no expert on grading. I do not know it all, but I want to know more, so I can be better.  And, earnestly, I believe that is where most of us are coming from as members of the “no-zero gang.” We are not the wack jobs that many think us; we are simply educators who believe that there is some sense to this approach.  I first happened upon the notion of no-zeroes from Ken O’Connor’s 15 Fixes. And it made sense to me; it seemed fair to me–enough so, that I thought it was worth a shot.  So, I took it. And so far, for me, it has been one of the best grading-practice decisions I have made in my twenty years, so it is stunning to me that people are so undone by others making changes–like no zeroes–to their grading practices.

Second, I assume that the “parent/teacher” you were referring to is Chris from an earlier comment in the thread. I think it is short-sighted and unfair to dismiss his son’s story as “another kid deciding for himself that his teacher’s assignments were a waste of time, and so he didn’t do them.”  Is it so unbelievable that a teacher could assign work that was not a good use of students’ time or of benefit to their learning?  I can think of a bajillion assignments from my own experience as a student that were of no great benefit.  Their purpose simply seemed to be a transaction that had to be completed for a grade. So, I did them, but only out of compliance.  That is not to say, that I didn’t have another bajillion assignments that were of benefit.  But even at that innocent age, I knew the difference, and though I resented the busy work, I did it.  I wish I had had the courage at that age to make some independent decisions about MY learning.  If Chris’s son can pull A’s on the assessments without doing the practice, then it seems to me that he made a pretty wise choice.  I imagine that that is more reflective of the types of decisions that we make as adults, because we no longer have to put up with some of the nonsense that we did as kids.

Third, you talk about it being your “job as a teacher to create an environment where even the most shy or angry kid WANTS to participate and do their homework.” Sounds great, but based only on the information you shared, I am stunned–appalled–by how you accomplish that.  Let me get this straight, your getting kids to do this stems from punishing them with points if they don’t comply?  “They have to be engaged and respectful or that costs them just as many points as not doing their homework.” Really? And that accounts for 20% of their overall grade? You motivate angry and shy kids by threatening them with points?

It has been my experience that these kids are already disengaged, disillusioned, and disenfranchised, so it’s hard for me to believe that this is really a viable practice for engaging them.  Oh, I am sure, you frighten them into submission and call it engagement, but compliance is not commitment.  Can’t we engage kids without points?  If one has to use the threat of grade reduction to engage kids, I believe that he/she lacks the skills to actually, authentically create an engaging culture in the first place, and that’s too bad, for the kids are the ones who suffer. My experience suggests that developing relationships with kids is a far better recipe for engagement than forced compliance.

You suggest that parents respond favorably to the real-world-skills approach that you take. What world is that?  Let’s take our world: teaching.  Let’s imagine your motivational system being used on teachers, with the principal in charge, and in this world, he/she has the power to deduct up to 20% of your pay, subject to his/her perception of your “participation and courteous behavior” in staff meetings. Would you subscribe to this?  I’m not sure what your experience has been, but my experience tells me that a lot of teachers would be making less money each month.

In your classroom, when you make these judgments on student participation and courtesy, how do you decide what’s okay and what isn’t?  Is it simply subject to your interpretation?  If so, isn’t there a potential for discrimination and abuse?  To be fair, I don’t know you, and I will never visit your classroom, so it may very well be that you are able to be supremely objective in your judgment and kids are never on the receiving end of unfair treatment, so I will grant you the benefit of the doubt, but my experience with human nature suggests that danger lurks with these types of “grading” practices, practices that seem more teacher than student-centered.

And I think that is what it comes down to for those of us who lean towards grading reform in the shape of a no-zero approach (among other considerations); it’s a student-centered, let’s-strive-for-fairness approach with kids’ best interests in mind. We’re not crazy.  What’s crazy is the traditional, I-am-the-teacher, I-do-what-I-want approach that kids have been subject to since the dawn of public education–a terrible truth that needs to be confronted

It’s time for change, and I am sorry that we have to endure tough conversations to get there.  I mentioned earlier, that maybe I could bring us less apart, and I am sure by now I only widened the divide, but I believe this dialogue is a necessary step in the evolution of public education. Discord can eventually lead to harmony.  Again, thank you for contributing to the conversation.


Happy Thursday, all.  Again, sorry I got distracted this morning.


3 Replies to “Distracted: Morning Minutes, March 3, 2016”

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