First Marking Period Blues

True learning

I put in the grades for the first marking period today. Our school year is divided into two semesters, each with three marking periods. The marking periods last for roughly 6 weeks. Once the grades are in, parents will come down this coming Thursday and Friday for parent-teacher conferences. This is one of my least favorite times of the school year.

There is no way to put a number on teaching and learning. Trying to do it six weeks into a semester is an exercise in futility. One can say that the grades should only be based on the work a student has done up until that point. That is theoretically the purpose, but I do not see things so simply.

There are students who have been trying, but struggling through the material. They may not have earned a passing grade based purely on the work they have done up until this point. How can I fail a kid who has been trying but just not getting it? This is a potentially devastating proposition. They will think that all of their work is in vain, stop trying and then there is little hope that I will ever get that student back.

Since my school is annualized, I have been with the same students since September. There are some who are not doing so well, yet they are doing way better than the end of the previous semester. Again, giving these students a failing grade is potential disaster than can have long-term consequences.

On the flipside, there are students who are doing very well. Some are the bright students that do well with all material, in all subjects with all teachers. Others are doing well because they like the particular subject matter we have covered, or find the work at this stage particularly easy or have buckled down and promised to turn over a new leaf. For these students, too high of a grade would give them a false sense of success. Yes, they have been successful up until this point, but it might just be a stage. What happens when they start to struggle with the harder stuff a few weeks down the line? They will get the next marking period grade, see that it has gone down and that puts them in the same demoralized boat as any other student who has been trying but failing.

I am sure most teachers can sympathize with these things. Parents, on the other hand, are much less sympathetic. There are generally two types of parents who come to parent-teacher night: the ones who accept everything I say about their children and the ones who act as their children’s advocate. The latter parents assume that I am short-changing their child’s grades and will harp on every little detail in my grade book. It is understandable that they want what is best for child’s future. For me, it is a fine line to travel between sympathizing with their concerns and dismissing them as much ado about nothing.

The first thing I tell parents, as well as my students, is that these first marking period grades mean nothing. They do not appear on any permanent record and they are not used to determine any grades for future marking periods. The only grades that “matter” are the grades for the end of the semester. Some parents understand and some plain do not buy it. They think I am blowing a bunch of hot air.

What I really want to say is that the concept of attaching a number to the way a student learns is ridiculous. I want to tell them that their children need less television, less designer clothing, less internet access, more reading, more quiet time and more guidance. I really want to tell them that the best service they could provide is to be a guide for their children. Going for my jugular because they perceive that their child deserves an extra 5 points on a silly piece of paper does nothing but send the message that the learning process is all on me. How can I reach a kid whose brain is so pickled in pop culture that as soon as they hear the term “Hundred Years’ War” or “Mongol Empire”, they tune right out? How do you reach a kid who is thinking of the latest Justin Bieber chorus all of the time while sitting in my class?

There are ways to reach them, for sure, but my job is much tougher because I have to dig through layers of corporate brainwashing to get anywhere. I see these parents, many coming in their work clothes, looking exhausted and exasperated, and cannot find it in my heart to excoriate them for helping turn their children’s minds into mush. Many of them work well over 8 hours a day and have other responsibilities as well. Many are single mothers barely holding things together. Now, this middle class jerk is sitting there in his tie, telling me that my kid should read more? Who does he think he is?

This is another argument in favor of unions, worker rights and an increased standard of living for all. How can parents raise their children when they have to work around the clock to put food on the table?

So, I keep my mouth shut about these things, patiently hoping that they will see that school is not about grades. Every parent-teacher conference reminds me why I have so many students obsessed with their grades. Their parents are hoping beyond hope that this school is a ticket to a better life for their children. They want their kids to get those grades, get that diploma and go off into life with the tools they need to succeed.

Unfortunately, high school diplomas and college degrees are a dime a dozen, although they do not cost that little. What is rare are people who are active and engaged citizens. What is rare are people who can think about the world around them and figure out that not everything is the neat, clean and just system that it pretends to be.

Just once, I would like to get a parent angry about something other than a low grade.


3 responses to “First Marking Period Blues

  1. I concur with your thoughts on grades. They are only one way of many components to evaluate learning. And, one grade does not reveal everything about a student.
    My peers and I have often discussed what is truly being graded. For example: If it is a homework assignment not turned in, am I grading responsibility or lack of knowledge or a poor job of explaining the assignment?
    I look forward to reading more of your thoughts and how you deal with your struggles. Thank you for blogging!

  2. Providing grades on a regular basis (every few weeks from the start of the year, before you even know students properly) is about measuring teacher performance: if X is below their target grade, what are you the teacher doing about it? We pay lip-service to formative assessment, then undermine it with grades. Students protest if they are not given a grade for an assignment, but fail to see it as work-in-progress. I am the grade I’ve been given. As though fifty years of labelling theory never happened.

  3. Grades need to be de-emphasized as soon as possible. This is something I have believed since my days as a student (which, I warn you, are not over). I am currently a student teacher, which is part of the reason I am browsing the “education” tags, reading your article, and trying to discuss changes. The educational system we have now, as long as it is based on grades, will not work. Replacing the natural motivations behind (pushing) education, we are taking the actual ABILITY out of learning: students need to be intrinsically motivated which is to say interested in the topic. If the information is wanted, it will be taken, pondered, and used. Attaching artificial rewards or badges or report cards to something that only works because of its ingenuity is an impossible educational system in a democracy (which breathes and eats education)… unless you are one who wants nothing but to please and be praised. Students end up wanting something that has no real-life meaning behind it: grades, honor roll, gpa. In their world, in this world, education is a means to an end. The end being the grade.

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