Questionable Grades

Some questions about grading that come from a discussion I am having at my school:

Questions of Diversity (are all grades the same):

  1. Why do some teachers use percentages of right answers, others use letter grades, some use Pass/Fail, and still others some other measurement of grading?
  2. What are the differences in grading by individual, by group, or by independent standards?
  3. Should all students be graded in the same manner? In what cases, if any, would there be differences?

Questions of Gestation (by what means are grades brought into being):

  1. How do grades differ when gathered from test data, performance, participation, or simply put, from what students know versus what they do?
  2. How do the limitations of a teacher’s knowledge, experience, assessment forming skills, and opinions affect the assigning of grades to a specific assessment? In other words, can a grade be objective despite the subjective nature of a teacher and teaching?
  3. How does a teacher grade self-expression (art, poetry, music, etc.)?
  4. If grading by percentage of correct responses, should a teacher expect all students to arrive at the “right” answer in the same way, or allow for creativity and imagination, only grading the result and not the path to the answer? What would this imply for science and math grades?

Questions of Communication (what does a grade imply or speak to):

  1. What does a grade measure?
  2. What does a grade communicate to the student and parent?
  3. What should a grade tell a teacher?
  4. What should a grade tell a future institution of learning that receives a student’s grades?

Questions of Action (what should be done with grades):

  1. What should a student do with his grade?
  2. What is the importance of grading?
  3. How accurate is a grade in demonstrating mastery of a subject?
  4. Should a student who has, say, an 83% mastery of Algebra be allowed to pass into a Calculus course?
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After the boys of summer have gone…

It is summer time, so excuse me if the blog gets weird.  During the school year, my thoughts stay pretty focused on the direct aspects of my teaching, but summer lets me take rabbit trails.  In fact, this is about my thoughts of education and Summer.

harvest-time

  • Summer vacation in schooling is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it is nice to have time off, but on the other, it flies in the face of good teaching.
  • Having summer off has not always been a thing. It derives, as best I can ascertain, from an agrarian culture long since lost in America.  You had to give kids time to help their families get the harvest in.
  • So why have we held on to it after its purpose has gone? I think it is correlated to the rise in the factory school system right as we moved from farms to town.  So while we no longer need time to get the grain in, we need time to recuperate from the increasingly difficult and repetitive work we now call school.
  • School, schola, used to mean leisure. I wrote on this already, so I won’t repeat myself, but leisure is different from work.  Leisure is revivifying, work takes it out of you.  Leisure may not need two and a half months of the year for recovery; something like factory schooling may.
  • Given the cultural perniciousness of having summer off from class, it would be good to use it to further our lifelong pursuit of truth rather than to waste it. I do this through reading, writing, thinking about school, the subjects I teach, meditating on the nature of things, etc.  I would invite others to do the same.
  • It is sad that we continue to make school harder with the continuance of so long a vacation each year. It makes a good teacher have to review and remind and cajole up through and into October before they can really attack new material.  Education is a long series of dominoes.  If you place a large gap between any two of the dominoes, you will have to restart it all after the gap.
  • Almost all the reasons given for continuing to have summers off say way more about our poor conception of learning than any positive humane considerations for the teacher or student.

Not sure if these wandering thoughts help anyone else, but as this blog’s readership increases, the comments section is a wonderfully easy way to discuss these things.  Feel free, and be free during the summer break.

Making Learning Happen

horse_water-700x434Somewhat related to my long meditations on motivation is the idea that we can cause learning to happen volitionally.  I certainly recognize that anyone is able to choose to learn for themselves, but as I sit here in the last hour of a school day prior to a long weekend I am reminded again and again that you can lead a horse to water, but the drinking is very tenuous.

So can we cause another to learn?  Is it appropriate to herd souls into lined up seats and then, with the ringing of a bell, in essence say, “Now, learn this stuff?”  As one Freshman recently said to me, “Mr. E, you just sellin’ what I don’t want to buy.  You want me to read and I just don’t feel like it.”  Now in that moment there was certainly the need to press the ideals of discipline and self mastery, etc. to push the young man out of his laziness and into the light, but there is the rub again: if he does not want to do so, the best I can hope for is his faking it enough to pass the class.  But I don’t teach to such ends.

I wish to see my students learn.  I almost beg them to do so.  I prepare great lessons, based on lengthy contemplations, just the right questions to spark their minds, models of great Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, and all the humanity and grace I can muster for the classroom.  And many respond.  But others just sit there.  I seek their soul and it just can’t always be found.

Please don’t view this as a big bottle of whine.  I have been doing this long enough to have gotten past that; I just want to be faithful and find that this issue is at the heart of the temptation toward infidelity.  Just dial it in; they are not listening anyway.  Make a worksheet and call it learning.  Give them work time knowing they will be thinking about a lot of things, almost none of which resemble the work assigned.

I think the appropriate pedagogical approaches best suited to answering these things are found in conversation (two way discussion in the class) and writing.  I give mostly essay tests these days.  It is much harder to “fake” engagement in a written essay than when you are simply guessing the patterns of multiple choice or matching questions.  While some students can try to bloviate their way through a class discussion, and some quieter ones are just as engaged, or more so, this is where the experience of a teacher or tutor comes into play.

I think the best answer to this question is that the teacher must be engaged in the learning process, not simply pushing learning at the student but entering into it himself to have any hope that the student will enter in.  We must be students to be teachers.

How Do You Activate a Student’s Mind?

There is a number you call to activate a credit card.  There is usually some highly confusing route in order to activate an online account, full of questions about my favorite flavor of milk or who my mother’s great-aunt’s husband punched in the nose.  But despite frequently checking the bottom of my student’s feet, and looking under their eyelids and behind their ears, I have struggled to figure out how to get middle and high school students activated.  How do you get these kids to think?

Thinking can be difficult to define.  But we must pursue something akin to a definition of it if we are to break free from the misguided, inaccurate, and reductive definitions that have brought to where we are educationally in our day.  If we wish to see a revival of thoughtful citizens in our land, we must educate in that direction.

And I don’t think what passes for thinking in terms of critical thinking, or problem solving, or the like is not what we used to mean by wisdom.  Good thinking produces good living.  The modern, who refuses to admit of such verities as “goodness” and prefers to opine about what is efficient, or pragmatic, or the like, cannot move toward what he does not think exists.  Many today want simply to produce a great worker, one who can solve problems for his employer or provide great responses to the chairperson’s board room exercises in creatively seeking to sell more widgets.

But good thinking comes from a pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty.  It is disheartening to hear many of my high school students wonder aloud at this assertion.  “Seek truth, goodness, and beauty?  Why?  I can buy such things on iTunes, or find an app for it, or simply create my own truth, goodness and beauty whenever I wish.”  And that, of course, is very poor thinking.

So how does one’s teaching move beyond simple information and indoctrination to truly bringing a student’s mind into active thought?  Well, as an example, look again at the question just posed.  Then consider the question, and notice that your mind becomes engaged.  Questions engage the mind like nothing else I have met.

A group of students recently inadvertently compared two classes at my school, one being my own.  Prior to my class they were in a course (which I am keeping anonymous in case the teacher reads my blog!) that at least that day had been long.  It was the same fifty minutes as mine, but the students felt the two classes were of noticeably differing length.

The first long one had been characterized by the teacher talking a great deal about the subject matter.  They had a text they were considering, but the teacher was in a mode of telling what the text was about.  In their minds, the class did little more than give them material they would be tested on soon.

In my class (and please, this is not exalting my pedagogy I hope, because I can serve up a boring class with the best of them) on that particular day we had been considering a piece of literature that was very difficult for them.  It was a translation into English, it was from a time long ago, and it had lots of phrases and constructs they were totally lost in because it had begun its life as an oral poem.  Because I have taught this many times before, I could easily have simply filled in all the blanks and moved on.

But I was in the questioning mode, and I believe it is why the class seemed much shorter than the previous one.  They came out of the classroom, were transported to a land and time foreign but exciting to them, and watched as a mighty warrior rode a monster’s back till in terror the monster tore off his arm seeking to escape Beowulf, the warrior.  Why did this happen?  Is terror that powerful?  Have you heard about the wolf caught in trap who chewed off three legs and was still caught in the trap (Sorry, poor humor is a main stay of my classroom)?  Very little of the class was more than my asking questions upon questions and the student’s arguing with each other over the answers.

And this is not a discipline specific pedagogy.  Questions can activate any student in any subject.  One Spanish teacher took the notion of immersion a step further and instead of banal “conversation” in Spanish (Where is the bathroom?  Is there chicken on the menu?  etc.) she started asking them questions and making them respond to her questions.  The amount of thought required shot up.  Same in Physics, for sure.  As David Hicks, and many others have suggested, “Don’t ever teach a student what they can teach themselves.”  Questions activate the student’s mind like nothing else I know.  It can be messy, it can be hard to plan, but nothing makes for shorter classes.  And “Teach” often learns something too.

Why is the Goof So Aloof?

Man is constantly producing and reproducing a culture.  The cumulative total of current intellectual, spiritual, and emotional constructs within a nation or people is like unto a flowing river.  Change is its constant.  And as education must occur within a culture, not apart from it, an educator must understand and perhaps withstand the culture in which he is teaching.  For those of us who have a few years of education behind us, we often express to others, “Today’s student is not the same as when I started teaching.”

One such conversation recently put me up against it when the other teacher asked, “When did students start believing they were above all this (meaning school, the classroom, learning, etc.)?”  As he and I talked about his concern, I began to label the current classroom culture with the phrase, “Seinfeld Syndrome” thinking perhaps he and I were on to something new.  But then I did a search of my phrase and found that medical journals have considered this a real psychological effect for years.

Seinfeld Syndrome

A condition—named after the lead, Jerry Seinfeld, in the popular sitcom on the 1990s— which is characterised by self-absorption,nihilism, and superficial relationships with others

Segen’s Medical Dictionary. © 2012 Farlex, Inc. All rights reserved.

So this has been around long enough to be labeled.  And it seems pandemic.  Many of the students I currently teach seem to judge themselves smarter, more witty, and generally above their teachers, peers, and certainly their parents.  This is concerning to an educator because it is the antithesis of an educable mind.  Humility must come before learning.  Being willing to learn is tantamount to being able to learn.  The following are some questions I wrote out upon considering this phenomenon in the classroom:

  1. Is a part of this syndrome the focus by many teachers on knowledge acquisition? If Johnny believes he can find more and better information on his own than what his teacher can supply him in class, then this syndrome seems “logical.”
  2. How does one address the incidence of this syndrome in class? I would proffer that it is the old Socratic form of questioning that seeks to first demonstrate to the mind that it lacks a proper understanding of said study that would bring someone suffering under Seinfeld Syndrome back to their senses and the ability to then learn.
  3. I wonder how much of this is the displacement of the local school with the current ‘federal’ model of schooling? To the extent that educational decisions are reached apart from the local community, it places the family in an adversarial position to the school (those people) and thus encourages through the parent a child who sees themselves not as a part of the school community but rather as a “consumer” who must fight for their own rights, and look down on the “big bad school.”  Maybe I am reaching, but it seems possible.
  4. Some writers, considering this syndrome, find it easy to produce jeremiads against our insolent and pampered youth. But at the heart of such living surely there is a cry, a desire to come out from such insolence and be significant.  So what is the plea at the heart of this syndrome and how can teachers help answer that call?

Education will be a part of whatever answer our current culture gives to our youth about life and meaning.  May we be teachers who show them Ultimate Truth, not give them one-liners.

seinfeld_rect

Bursting Forth (at the seams?)!

Lent always leads to Easter.  Winter becomes Spring.  But what does Truth lead toward?  My Lenten journey this year has focused me a great deal on that moment when all the burden of the past, the sin, the constant waiting, the unfulfilled prophecies all came together and burst forth from the grave.   The cross brought all those things together from the Old Testament and beyond, even from Genesis 3:15.  The seed came to harvest, but the reaping was not the death on the Cross, but the bursting forth from the grave.

Ramblings go everywhere and therefore don’t always get anywhere.  Let me be more concise.  I have been wrestling with the end of education.  What are we pursuing in an education?  Is it to “arrive” or to only find something more to pursue.  Let me sort out the lines of thought here:

  • Education is the pursuit of truth both through direct pursuit and through gaining the tools necessary for that pursuit.
  • Truth is only found in its source, God.
  • God is infinite.
  • Truth is infinite.
  • Truth is as unchangeable as its source: therefore it is not changeable.
  • Truth does not move, therefore the pursuit of it involves my movement toward it.
  • Where is the “center” of infinite Truth?
  • I can never arrive, having no means of either fully acquiring that which is infinite, nor arriving at the center of that which is infinite.
  • Why then is so much of what we define as education couched in terms of “capturing” or “arriving” when the pursuit of such truth is eternal?

We cease to teach when we cease to learn.

“The encrusted religious structure is not changed by its institutional dependents – they are part of the crust.  It is changed by one who goes alone to the wilderness, where he fasts and prays, and returns with cleansed vision.  In going alone, he goes independent of institutions, forswearing orthodoxy (“right opinion”).  In going to the wilderness he goes to the margin, where he is surrounded by the possibilities – by no means all good – that orthodoxy has excluded.  By fasting he disengages his thoughts from the payroll, so to speak.  And by praying he acknowledges ignorance; the orthodox presume to know, whereas the marginal person is trying to find out.  He returns to the community, not necessarily with new truth, but with a new vision of the truth; he sees it more whole than before.”— Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America.

Beachy-Head-Tree

The Bully Pulpit

bully (n.)

1530s, originally “sweetheart,” applied to either sex, from Dutch boel “lover; brother,” probably a diminutive of Middle Dutch broeder “brother” (cf. Middle High German buole”brother,” source of German Buhle “lover;” see brother (n.)).   Meaning deteriorated 17c. through “fine fellow” and “blusterer” to “harasser of the weak” (1680s, from bully-ruffian, 1650s). Perhaps this was by influence of bull (n.1), but a connecting sense between “lover” and “ruffian” may be in “protector of a prostitute,” which was one sense of bully (though not specifically attested until 1706). The expression meaning “worthy, jolly, admirable” (especially in 1864 U.S. slang bully for you!) is first attested 1680s, and preserves an earlier, positive sense of the word. (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=bully)

Where we get our words can be instructive in how we use them today, or it can be completely a lost cause.  In the case of this phrase, “bully pulpit” I think it interesting that both meanings on “bully” (the positive and negative) are still in sight with how we use the phrase today.

theodore-roosevelt

With two of my sons now in the halls of higher academia, and with no desire to state where or other specifics that might then cause them grief if the wrong people read their dear ol dad’s blog, I will no doubt still find much to blog upon in their experience.  This is just the first.

One son finds himself in a class on “criminal justice.”  The instructor in this course has chosen to not once, not twice, but over and over make his classroom his bully pulpit.  To him, no doubt, the positive sense of this is his motivation: he thinks it well and good to use his platform to form the next generation in his own views.  But he also, perhaps wittingly, perhaps unwittingly, uses the negative sense as well.  He believes a recent nationally known court case was not just.  He now seeks to push that view on those who depend upon his good favor to pass the class.  In a real sense he is “pimping” his class, seeking to protect them from evil injustices of the society in which they live.  He, as such, becomes something of a “blusterer” and hurts ultimately his own rhetorical integrity within his class, showing that his own views are paramount, and thus all teaching in his class suspect of this shade of coloring.

All this to wonder out loud, “is the classroom ever rightfully a place for the bully pulpit”?  I am worried that far too many teachers with the best of intentions seek simply to transfer their views to their students rather than teaching them how to form their own opinions based upon a common and real truth that exists, can be known, and can be communicated.  Are we raising yet another generation of sophists?