Fall Semester Endeth. Finally.

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It was rather a long haul, I must admit. And when pressed for reasons why, they do not easily come to mind. For the first time in many moons I was teaching a known and familiar curriculum, my class sizes are totally manageable, my life, fairly stable. So, what then? What made this the longest-semester-EVER? It could be that I closed it out with some truly funky gross sickness. Or that the election made it all the more tense. Or perhaps it was the unfortunate placement of the winter hols (not to be misconstrued and unfortunate hols….) I am not knowing.

But I am glad it is over.

Or mostly over.

Now that the window to turn in work has really closed, and my grades are all done and entered, comes the most aggravating part of being a teacher. The begging for grade changes. And these come primarily from able-minded students who chose to coast all semester for various reasons, approaching all sorts of threat levels on the teenage drama thermometer, but rarely from the kids who really, truly, need to speak up.

It gets me thinking about grades: the medium of exchange in the world of academia, and it is a conundrum. How accurately can a grade reflect ability? Hard to say. But a grade certainly can reflect intention and adherence to protocol. And I wonder which might be the more important.

There must be a medium of exchange. Of that we all agree. Just look at UC Santa Cruz where for years they endeavored to do away with grades and offered narrative evaluations at the end of courses. (I weep for those graders). But in the end, they all had to be translated to grades anyhow if a student had designs on graduate school of any sort. So they were rendered moot. Now the professors there spend hours upon hours writing narrative evaluations AND give a grade. Awesome.

Anyhow, since there must be some benchmark, something that says, yes, this student was conscious, this student learned the ‘majority’ of the material, this student made academic gains in skill, this student improved upon their understanding of…. of what? We have grades.

The use of grades is not a new rule. It is not like last week I told my students, “Okay, we are going to give you a grade at the end of all of this so impress me!” All along, students know that the grades are what come at the end and that this will be the measure affords them choices down the road. Or not. Seemingly, if one is aware of all this, then they would make decisions accordingly. Even if they are teenagers who are categorically not renown for decision-making skills, this seems like a fairly cut and dried situation. Recently I was handed my high school transcripts, along with my original college applications (mom has been cleaning out the garages…) and I had a look.

I graduated from a very mediocre school, it seems that should be admitted. We didn’t have too many AP choices (though I took them all) and I took PE every year. I also recall being fairly disenchanted by high school towards the end (par for the course, I think.) This being said, I graduated with a 3.76 unweighted GPA and ranked #16 in my class. I entered UCSD as a sophomore by credit (partly due to AP scores and partly due to an exchange program in Guadalajara.)

What is more striking to me now is not the difference in my grades to those of my students, but the other little things. Like, in a million years I would have NEVER contacted my teachers about my grades. They were what they were. [I think my mom talked to three of my teachers in my high school career about grades… Geometry, World History and Economics…. the first for a cheating accusation – which still stands as one of the most hilariously inept suggestions ever, not because I never cheated, but in this case because of whom I was accused of cheating from (!) – the second for a D on a test that was clearly a teacher sending a message – got it – and lastly for a personality conflict (shocker) with a teacher that had compelled him to lower my academic grade rather than my “citizenship” grade.] In fact, I remember getting report cards and that was how you knew what your grades were – there was no online program where you could track the entry of every grade. The equation seemed simple: do work, get points. Don’t do work, don’t get points. The consequences were also simple. Bad grades, no sports eligibility, or something. This was not within my high school self’s ken. For me bad grades equated to, as my mom often plainly reminded me, limited choices down the road. “Huh,” she’d say. “Well, that will eliminate some of your choices in the future.” I have told you already that she was a master of PsyOps.

Now we are working with kids facing the following realities:

  • Far greater competition to get into college
  • Far less significance for having gone to college
  • Far greater uncertainty about the future
  • Far less cultural and social value on education outside of performance markers like position of status and salary

Knowing this it is shocking to me that some of my students who, with more resources and support than I can articulate, still do so little while having this strangely passive attitude about it all, like, maybe something will miraculously happen at the end and that D- will become a B or even an A. And if this does not happen then it was not their fault and it just is what it is.

Then comes the justifying. My favorite one is the whole, “Oh, I could totally get A’s I am just not into it (the more honest among them will just say they are lazy – though with a disturbing hint of pride.)” There are also the blame shifters: this is not my fault it is… my family, my job, I can’t take tests, I suck at math, I got a concussion, my — died, I got suspended, you don’t grade fair. There’s the bargainers. If you change my grade I will: never be tardy again, do all my work next semester, whatever. The latest addition to the repertoire has been the intellectual entreaty. This I find most interesting. Not just for the semantic two-step it affords, but because of the ultimate irony that it exposes.

As a high school student, grades are not a measure of intellect, it is a measure of the ability to be a student. While these two things certainly overlap and intersect at various points, the reality is that they are very different. In high school, grades are measuring the degree to which you are able to demonstrate skills that will help you develop and refine your intellectual acumen down the road. If you glean some cool information along the way that is awesome, but it is a bonus. As your high school teacher I am looking at your ability to get shit done. Can you be on time? Can you remember a writing utensil…. ever? Do you meet your responsibilities? Do you do what you say you will do? Do you take the steps necessary to allow yourself to succeed? (Assigned reading for homework does not mean you have no homework, FYI.) Do you know how to effectively and appropriately communicate with peers and teachers, and do you realize that unique approaches are required? Do you turn in the work which you clearly think you are above doing in spite of your opinion? Do you know how to find answers to your questions? Do you know what questions to ask? Can you manage all of the above 90% of the time? Okay, then, you get an A. If not, then you did not take care of your business and you do not deserve an A. Truly. It is not a mystery.

And don’t worry, it is the job of graduate school to access your intellect, so that is waiting for you down the road.

That is, assuming you made a couple of wise choices along the way, and remembered to bring a writing utensil to class, at least occasionally.

graduate school

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