Beyond Pain and Punishment, V

If you’re reading this post “live,” it’s report card day in my world.  Students are anxiously awaiting grades, and teachers have been desperately grading papers – because waiting till the last moment is one of those things that never worked, that we promised we’d change, that I mentioned in yesterday’s post.

Many years ago I had a colleague who refused to tell students their grades until the report cards came out.  “That bad, lazy child!” she would say.  “Those grades are their parents’ business and my business, not theirs!”

To be fair, she did tell students their grades on individual assignments.  But she felt strongly about “overall” grades!

We can laugh, but Ms. X’s odd notion intrigues me.  For all the attention that factory-model schools pay to grades and “achievement,” we’re oddly confused about their purpose and their audience.  Who sees the grade, and when, and why?

With report cards coming out, grades were due Tuesday evening.  And when I left that afternoon, I saw plenty of colleagues bent over desks filled with projects and quizzes and tests and journals and notebooks and other stuff to grade.

Why?  If grades are meant as feedback, then surely they should be prompt.  Even if they’re just meant to reward or punish, stimulus and response need to be connected.  Yet year after year, decade after decade, we teachers let those piles of papers build up.  When we “grade them” and return them, students may not remember writing them!  Sometimes we even grade them and enter the grades but never return the graded papers or show the students those grades.

“I’m not giving those bad, lazy kids a detailed report,” said yet another Ms. X.  “That’s a waste of paper!  All they need is their overall grade anyway.”  A few days later she was complaining about how “lazy and unmotivated” her students were.  “They don’t even care about their grades!” she whined.  “What’s wrong with them?”

Who’s the audience for a grade?  And what’s the purpose?

I had actually finished the “stuff to grade” before Tuesday evening, but only because I’ve rethought grading and feedback over the past few years.  I described the new system my colleague Ana and I developed in this post.  Students like it, they feel the grades are fair, and I’ve seen a lot of positive changes.

  • I don’t get frustrated with grading and recording minor, formative tasks anymore.  I record them, but I’m much more interested in the feedback they give everyone and the ideas for improvements and adjustments in our practice than I am in “the numbers” from them.
  • My students know what’s important and what’s less important.  And they’ve been rising to the challenge of the important.
  • Best of all, for collaborative and individual sections of the “major” and “minor” assessment, we score the tasks with simple rubrics.  No piles of papers!  Nothing to avoid!  Students can – and do – rate their own performance, and they know what they need to do to improve.  With the individual responses last week, we even had time for dialogue about specific ways to improve.  No piles of paper to grade at the end of a long day.

Those piles of papers seem bring pain and punishment to the teachers who assigned them as well as to the students who half-heartedly completed them.   “I just hate it, but I have to grade their notebooks,” many colleagues say, “or those bad, lazy kids won’t keep up with the handouts and notes I give them.  Besides, I’m a hard, rigorous grader, so they need those points.”

How to respond?

Why give a test, or give a grade to anything?

Because it’s Friday – or whichever day I always give tests.

Because we finished the unit – or the chapter, or the section.

Because I need some points in the gradebook.

Because I don’t know what else to do.

Because “they” were “bad and lazy” yesterday.

Because that’s what schools do.

Have you ever said or thought any of these reasons?  I have … but I’ve realized they’re hollow and incomplete.  Why give – or grade – a formal assessment?  To celebrate the learning, to focus on the good, and perhaps to help improve on any weaknesses.  Can we do that, though, in a system that was designed to sort and select, not focus and celebrate?  Can we redesign the system around a different core purpose?

quid respondētis, amīcī?

Published in: on October 5, 2012 at 9:55 am  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I will throw in here, quickly, before I start my own school day, that we also need to think about the purpose of our assignments and assessments.

    I think you’ve nailed it on the head with the idea of feedback so students can improve.

    In addition, I find, especially in my current position as both a Latin teacher (with some level of independence in terms of planning and creating assignments) and a Language Arts teacher (with almost no independent freedom due to local and state testing), that most tests seem to be based around showing what kids can’t do, instead of what they can do.

    It’s that filter thing again–we need to find those kids who “can’t cut it” and flush them out of the system. Of course, we now don’t want to flush kids out of the system. So we need to find a way to assess that shows what kids can do instead. No more punishment–just accomplishment.

  2. […] I mentioned in Friday’s post, my students got their first report cards Friday afternoon.  We reported to the new advisory […]

  3. […] have been busy with the major assessment process I outlined in this post  and this one, then described more fully in this one.  They’re finishing their collaborative response tasks today – a film or illustrated, […]

  4. […] Beyond Pain and Punishment, V ( […]

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