Tuesday, November 12, 2013

How are you defined?

Really, what defines who you are? 
  • Your work ethic? 
  • Your perseverance? 
  • Your character? 
  • Your fight for justice?
  • Your accomplishments?
  • Your success?

And when you decide those things, then how do you know you’re doing well?  What’s your barometer?  What’s your intrinsic motivation?  What helps push you onward to attain more, overcome a challenge by working in a different direction, and persevere to become a better person?  Of course we all have bad days, but most days we do our best putting as much effort, heart, and soul into something and hopefully approve of our work at the end of the day or make a plan to do better the next. 

Can I ask then, how would your image of yourself change if you were graded on it?  A number, a score, a parameter on what you pour yourself into.  You know, each day your principal parades around your room holding up a sheet of card stock with a large, red D stamped on it?  Hour by hour your teammates write on your door window in bold, blue vis-a-vis a bubble letter grade.  It’s so final.  A done deal.  No going up or down, no mention of perseverance or progress.  Pretty absurd, huh?

In posts before I’ve talked about Dear Boy – such a bright kid who has more knowledge of history and world events than anyone I know (other than his grandfather!) and like his Momma he’s been “blessed” with an “out of the box brain”.... well, blessed as long as it didn’t come to grades and school.  I can’t tell you how many ugly scenes have been played out, turning our home into a battle ground, about grades and how they defined him negatively.  His ideas and “design” for learning was very different and was almost never acceptable in the “boxed” parameters of learning which didn’t play out well on daily papers or a report card.  Grades have defined who he believes he is as a learner and truthfully, what he believes couldn’t be farther from the truth.  But day after day, year after year he was defined simply with a number – a standard of how he measured up to 100.  What did that number tell him?  What suggestions for improvement were made through two digits?  How were his accomplishments and small successes acknowledged through two characters that prominently faced him each time he received papers back from teachers?

When I began teaching, I worked with two veteran teachers who were like an old, married couple.  I liked them very much as people, but it was hard to be the black sheep that didn’t agree with their VERY traditional ways.  I did the daily tasks because it was “what we do” and I was the rookie.  All the while I writhed watching the kids who didn’t “get it” the first time, or kids who had sensory issues and struggled to function in the typical setting, or the multi-modal learners who were forced to sit still in one chair and complete a task with rigid parameters.  I’ll never forget teaching one of my guys about angles and distance through the layout of a football field (hello?  This is me.... YES, it was painful, but I had to get my guy to learn this!).  He needed multi-modal learning and immediate feedback, but I felt like I was performing some type of taboo ritual just to avoid the other teachers seeing me or discovering what I was up to.  ONE LESSON with “football talk” and the kid got it!  It used to kill me to put the required grades on papers – the kids who did their best, but just didn’t do well on paper were slapped upside the head defeated by their score and the kids who sailed through everything and didn’t care about much else cheered themselves for a grade earned with very little effort.  I watched kids define themselves with a number that I was guilty of placing prominently on the top of each paper.  That number I so easily tossed down became a badge of honor or one of horror.

I’ve said before, but I have to gush again and say I can’t ask for better teammates.  Although we do get down with the overwhelming demands on us, being slammed into high stakes testing and Common Core, other challenges that pull us down, and the increasing needs of our kids, at the heart of teaching our beliefs are the same.   We wrestle each marking period with “putting kids in a box” – it’s just so defining and truthfully at times can be obsessive for children and parents, causing them to lose sight of what was accomplished, overcome, or improved.  We focus on our kids’ strengths and bounce ideas off each other about improving their struggles.  We peer coach and give each other suggestions and feedback; not numbers and scores.  We focus on insight and reflection and ask our kids to do the same.  There are many days when I watch the kids’ faces to see the understanding of and connection to what my notes say with suggestions to make improvement or congratulations on making progress.  It’s a similar to a dancer, an artist or a craftsman – they’d NEVER receive a score, but instead specific, immediate feedback on their craft to become better at what they do.

We’ve spent the past few weeks on owl research; so many topics that have been tackled through this inquiry unit.  I’ve watched some kids take on unbelievably challenging topics and others struggle through the simplest.  But, how I approach either student is what makes the difference.  For me to give one student an A when they reach their minimum is just as much an injustice as writing a D on the student who has reached his/her maximum, but is completing his job and putting his heart and soul into it, doing the absolutely best job he can and being pretty darned successful.  The kids pull out their projects, find a sticky from me (I write directly in journals & learning logs, but not on final projects) with specific feedback and work incredibly hard to improve and make changes or sit back and smile with self-satisfaction knowing they’ve done their best and pushed themselves to do things that didn’t seem possible. 

Just today I asked my kids if they knew how they were doing in third grade.  It was a 50/50 split of who did and didn’t – those who didn’t said it was because they didn’t have grades.  I am heart sick to tell you that at eight years old they equate their learning, their worth to a number.  A long conversation ensued and I told them if they wanted a grade I would give them a Z, an L, or a J or if they’d like a number I’d be happy to assign a 364, a 497, or even a 1,467.  They giggled and started to realize that learning isn’t about a number and in fact how little a number can tell you.  One sweet kiddo said, “You know Mrs. W, learning is about making your best even better.  It has nothing to do with numbers or letters”.  Ah, child.....your wisdom is beyond your years!

Yes, it takes time.  Yes, I often struggle not to spill my lunch on their work while writing notes.  Yes, I get behind.....sometimes VERY behind.  But every student gets the same thing, feedback; some cheering on and specific suggestions for making changes & improvements or a reference to a learning log to look back at previous work and learn from their own work.  They’re at the point now, only 8 weeks in that they crave feedback and look forward to reading the notes – now that is pretty cool.  

As a kid, I can remember getting work back and feeling the largest kick in the gut, stomach in knots as I was about to lay eyes on my grade, that defining moment, the badge of horror, being put in a box that I had little choice about.  It’s not what happens in my room.  The hours I pour into writing feedback, it’s worth it.  Explaining to parents why I won’t focus on a number, it’s worth it.  I’ve seen a huge change in the effort my kids put into their work and the pride they take in it. There has been a different level of learning in my room because the kids are always pushing themselves toward being better – not a better grade, number, or score, but a better self.  They ask each other for suggestions or give each other rave reviews or specific critiques; they’re in this for the learning, NOT for the number.
Yes, it is AWFULLY hard to have to think about putting a number, in a box, on a paper, concretely defining each student, knocking down any belief in themselves as a learner, in a few weeks – I’d love nothing more than to accidently drop them all in the burn pile, but I’d even settle to X out each grade and pour myself into hours of narrative notes.  I’ve had MANY conversations with my teammates and principal about how much I dislike report cards (did I mention that one time I didn’t read Beezie’s for two months?!).  Thankfully, we are having Student-led, parent conferences so the students can proudly define who they are, address the struggles they are working to overcome, and celebrate their strengths and achievements.  The report cards will, unfortunately, come later after our conference.  It’s my hope that they don’t extinguish the pride the kids have in themselves as learners; the belief they have that they are achievers.

All the time, all of the extras, all of the piles of notebooks are worth it to me; I need no affirmation other than the looks on the faces, the seven/eight year old comments, questions, and smiles, the drive for more and for better.  These little people are counting on me to move them forward and push them to reach for something they never dreamed of reaching. 

They really do believe the stars are waiting...

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