The ‘A student’

“Labels are for filing. Labels are for clothing. Labels are not for people.”                                         -Martina Navratilova

Over the years I have encountered the label ‘A student’ in a variety of situations. Students identify themselves with it, parents use it, even teachers talk about students by using this label. When I was younger I thought of myself as an ‘A/B student’. But what does it really mean?

Let’s start with the multifaceted composition of an A. Does the letter indicate that the student achieves at a high academic level? Or, does it connote that the student is compliant and follows all the rules? Could it be that a student has shown so much growth over a marking period that the teacher wants to reward it? Grades get muddied so often in the educational world that many times we don’t know what has elicited an A.

Letter grade labels can become tied to students’ identities. The label is a part of who they are and it can define them both in and out of the classroom. For these students As are what should appear at the end of every marking period for every class. But what happens when an ‘A student’ gets a B? or even a C? This is a crushing blow and can feel like they have failed. How do ‘A students’ react to struggle, frustration, and failure (which to them does not necessarily mean a grade of F)? For true learning to happen, these are part of the process. Learning is uncomfortable at times. Often the process begins with making mistakes, having misunderstandings, and working over time to develop proficiency.

Parents attach an ‘A student’ label as a source of pride. They at times talk very openly about their children’s grades and put the label out as a sign of excellence. But is it a sign of excellence? And if so, what type of excellence? I go back to the idea that an A can represent so much more than academic achievement and we may not know what has contributed to it. This also creates stress for students. When they hear how proud their parents are about the As, they feel as if anything less would be unacceptable. Don’t get me wrong, there is reason to be proud as a parent when kids are successful, but we need to move away from labels and focus on student learning.

Let’s consider the converse situation. If a child is labeled an ‘F student’, how do they feel? Do they believe they can move up? Letter grade labels have the impression of being fixed and in turn, hinder motivation. The ‘A student’ perceives they are doing just fine the way they are, and the ‘F student’ feels as if there is no way to move up and grow. Have you ever tried to remove a mailing label from a magazine? They don’t come off easily and it is the same for our students.

To turn this around, learning environments need to be safe places while students progress to proficiency. This journey has potholes, bumps, wrong turns as well as an achievable destination. A safe environment sans labels with one goal – to meet the learning objectives. A safe environment with a teacher who models growth mindset and sets high expectations for all students.

For me, it took a long time to break away from my label of ‘A/B student’. It defined me and I’m sure I could have gotten more out of my classes if I didn’t rely on being ‘good enough’. Let’s remember that labeling files or clothing is acceptable, but labeling people is not.  We all learn, we all strive for growth, and we are all capable of success.

 

I’m worried about my grade…(on my video game)

One evening, I was watching my two sons play a video game. They are busy elementary and middle school kids with sports, music, friends, and family obligations, so an opportunity to do this was exciting for them. They chose to play a basketball game and got started. I watched them, encouraged both sides (much to their chagrin), and reminded them that they should consider the other brother’s feelings before bragging about a great three-point shot. It was in the middle of their game that I noticed something… My boys were being given letter grades on their free throws by the game. Wait, what?!? Each time they completed a free throw an A, B, C, D, or F appeared on the screen. There was feedback to accompany the grade, albeit in a much smaller font. And there was definitely a mismatch between the grade, the feedback, and whether or not the shot went in. Wouldn’t it be enough to know whether you made or missed the shot and why you missed it? Does the additional layer of a letter grade add anything to the experience? My sons quickly answered the second question with a resounding ‘NO!’, according to their reactions. They were raising their voices at the screen with comments such as:                                                                                       How can I get a D on a shot and still make it??                                                                                                     Wait, I got a B- and missed mine…how is that fair?                                                                                           I got an F on my free throw???

I was shocked. The boys finished their game and we had a quick conversation about how the letters weren’t helping them improve, so maybe we should read the feedback next time rather than pay attention to the grade. They couldn’t find a rhyme or reason for how the grade was determined, and it was not explained in the game manual (Yes, I checked, even though no child would look for that). How eerie this felt… As I work relentlessly to refocus schools and teachers on learning through healthier grading practices, I was surprised to see that grades had infiltrated another part of my children’s life. I work hard to move grades to the background and here they were rearing their ugly heads again. I want grades to be a meaningful and accurate piece of communication, but this experience reminded me of an arbitrary, traditional letter grade. I started to reflect and wonder how many places grades appear outside of the educational world and what purpose they would serve. I am consistently reminded that the journey to grading reform has begun, we are moving forward, yet we have so far to go!

Balancing two worlds

An interesting situation has developed this year…I seem to be living in two worlds with regard to grading and assessment in schools.

World number 1 – my professional domain

I have the honor and privilege of working in the business of education. I am blessed to work with teachers to grow their instructional practices, provide professional development on a number of important issues facing educators, and have been given the space and support to promote healthy grading practices. Learning always seems to be this chaotic process no matter whether it is for adults or kids, but I get to be a part of that wonderful experience for both.

I work within my district as well as with other districts to change how we look at assessment and grading. We discuss the purpose of grading and work to make it meaningful, accurate, and non-threatening for students. It is a huge shift in paradigm for most, but really important for kids and how they view school.

World number 2 – my parental domain

I have two children, one in elementary school and the other in junior high. Let’s just put this out there…it is virtually impossible to walk the fine line between parent and teacher when we consider our children’s education. I do my best to find that line, yet there always seems to be a gray area. At times I feel like I know too much with my background, but I refuse to discontinue my pursuit of better practices to grow and cultivate student learning.

Here’s the juxtaposition…my children are being graded for compliance, and it seems to be across the board with regard to content areas. Points are lost for missing signatures…deducted for lack of color on a math assignment where all problems are completed…gained for binder organization…the list goes on. They are developing a fear of bad grades and missing and/or late assignments (even a small one) for the repercussion that follows. They feel the high stakes of testing and assessment when reassessment is not an option. Anxiety has crept into their educational experience. As a parent, I work diligently every evening to refocus my kids back to the importance of learning. However, it is becoming more and more difficult to reinforce the natural progression of learning when a school culture is grade and compliance focused.

I have nothing against their teachers. They are wonderful people who truly care about the students in their classrooms. This is how they were instructed and how they are expected to teach kids lessons of responsibility, effort, and accountability. Don’t get me wrong, these are important lessons for all students…I simply disagree with including them in a letter grade. I worry that students’ academic achievement is not accurately communicated and no one knows how much of the grade is behavior, growth, or proficiency levels with the standards.

Moving forward I feel I need to ask some questions to best help my children. Are there any standards that are below proficient and need additional practice? Are there behavioral concerns that I can help to improve at home? Is my child growing and improving throughout the year? I also want to let the teachers know how thankful I am for their care and the positive relationships they have developed with my kids.

How can I separate my roles as a parent and educator? The truth is, I can’t. Together they are who I am as a person and deeply intertwined. I will continue to reflect and attempt to walk that fine line. I will search for ways to ensure my kids focus on learning while respecting the values and culture of their school. Living in two worlds is an interesting and challenging situation. I hope in the future the two will merge and become one.