Friday, December 17, 2004


Today is crisis day for me. I go through this every semester. This is the day I am supposed to turn in my grades, to determine the rating each of my students will receive. I hate this day. It causes me anxiety, even after I've given myself the pep talk that argues, "You're not giving grades. You are recording the grades your students earned." Last semester, for the first time in my career, I handed out failing grades. Damn near killed me. I want students to do well. I want them to be excited and motivated, and, for the most part, they are. If I could, I'd simply tell all of them to keep writing and designing and not let someone judge them the way the university asks me to judge. Maybe it's because my students are all creative types--writers and artists--that I find this so damn difficult. So, here goes. Deadline approaches. If you start seeing multiple blog entries today, you'll know it's because I'm in serious avoidance mode, trying to delay the inevitable.
If you want to see the work my students do, check out NeoVox


CrackerSnacker said...

I can relate to the students who fail on exams and finals, all i can say is my teacher used to say the same thing when having talks with the class "Remember I dont fail you or give you a failing grade, it's you who decides your grade" you are just doing your job and these young people (like myself) arent going to let a piece if paper or a grade hold them back from things in life and they still will achieve great things in life.
Great blog!!

Sheryl said...

Hi Lorraine,

Sorry to hear it's a high stress day. Here's a different way of looking at it.

My mom was an english teacher in the 60s. She told me that she once (or maybe more than once--I can't remember) had a minority student in her class who could barely read and write. The student should not have been in her class to start with, but had been passed through the system. Mom said she worked with the student all semester, and although the student did improve, she still was nowhere near passable. Then the student came to her and begged her to pass her and said that other people had done so. What also influenced my mom decision was that this woman was getting a teaching degree. So my mom had to make a decision there, and she decided that it was not a service to this student to pass her on when she really needed to take the course again.

Now I told this story to a former friend of mine who was also a professor about the same time my mom was, and he said that he passed minority students all the time who weren't on par. That this was a subject of philosophical debate in his department, but that most of the profs he worked with and himself saw that minority students just didn't arrive with the same preparation and that to hold them back was bad for their self confidence and ability to get opportunities and break through that race divide.

So there you have two completely opposite decisions by equally well intentioned people, and I would not want to be in the position of having to make such decisions.

When I was in high school I was tracked in a regular track, and the way our public school system worked, all the good teachers were set aside for enriched classes. For years I struggled with boring classes with meaningless busy work and made lousy grades. I was so bored and the work was so pointless. Meanwhile, my brother was in enriched classes, so everyone in my family knew what I was getting fed relative to what he was getting. And much as I believe in the public school system, that part was bullshit and needed to be reformed. I think it's actually worse now.

But for years my mom would go bitch to the teachers that I was not being challenged. She also complained to the counselors. One time she went in and said if only she could get me into enriched classes like my brother, she'd do anything. The next week was a parent teacher night, and it started with a discussion with the principal in the auditorium, and my mom raised her hand and said to him that my mind was being wasted in the regular tracks. He asks her why she hadn't waiver me into enriched classes. And she says, "hold on....What is this waiver thing?" Turns out that all along she could have signed a form placing me into enriched classes.

So she goes straight back to the same counselor, angry as hell that the lady had not told her her options when she had made her desires so clear, and waivered me into two enriched classes for the next year.

Well, the pace of enriched was about twice as fast as the regular classes, but I was in heaven. Finally school was about learning. Except that in my english class our teacher assigned us papers to write where we were supposed to discuss what different critics had said about some author's literary work. And whereas my friend in the class was assigned Jane Austin, I was assigned Marianne Moore. And the teacher told us that our assigned topics were non-negotiable.

I don't know if you know anything about Marianne Moore, but she was all pseudo-intellectual gobbledy gook. All I can remember is something about pink elephants floating around or something. If I had been assigned something like that now, I would have had the confidence to rip it all to shreads. And in fact if it had been about what I thought, I might have even been able to do that. But trying to deal with what bullshit art critics say about bullshit pseudo-art --coming out of basic classes where everything was busy work, I just was not prepared to take on that kind of assignment. Especially since the teachers at my school probably buy into some of that abstraction=brilliance myth. So I made a D on the assignment, which meant I made a C for that 6 weeks period, and that was the 6 weeks period that they chose to base the teacher recommendations of whether I should stay in enriched. So I know that people do protect the system. I'm sure that is why you say you'd rather not give grades at all.

But now that I have started this story and have gotten completely away from my original point, let me tell you what happened. Rather than waiver me again for the next year, Mom talked to my teacher and found out that one of the regular teachers was making effort to provide a challenging atmosphere for regular students. So she told the couselor to either put me in that class or she would just sign another waiver, so they put me in Ms. Shade's class. After a year of making As in her class, my teacher recommended that I be put back into enriched. And poor Ms. Shade was very upset when the head of the department told her that despite her recommendation that they did not reinstate people back into enriched once they had been removed from it. Ms. Shade was very upset that her recommendation had been ignored, so she called my mom and told her what happened and suggested that she waiver me back into enriched classes.

It was funny because in my senior year we reading Brave New World. My teacher asked us if we could draw any parallels between what was going on in the story and real life, and I raised my hand and suggested the tracking system. She tried to argue with me about that, but it clearly threw her a curve. And of course once things like that are said, it is not as if they are unsaid just because the teacher says no.

So passing or failing a student is a profound question, and I understand why you dread it. But the main thing is to be honest. If my teachers had been honest, then they would have accepted Ms. Shade's recommendation to put me back in enriched. Instead they chose to protect their system rather than the students in it.

Whereas my mom failed her student to protect not only her, but the students she would be teaching once awarded a teaching degree. She knew that if people just kept passing the lady on without the skills, then she might get the degree but not have anything but the paper from it.

My only point is that it's a very complex issue. And just the fact that you dread it and think about it says you have the right outlook. I wish all teachers were that philosophical. :)

lorraine said...

Grading is DONE!
Thank you for the moral support. Great stories, Sheryl. The bureaucracy of the classroom and its resultant politics are difficult to understand. But then again, that's the nature of bureaucracy.

Sheryl said...

Actually what I was talking about was not bureaucracy, but how class warfare is fought amongst teachers in various ways and from various sides. If it were just bureaucracy, it wouldn't be such a philosophocal question for me.