From my earliest memories of raising my daughter, it was quite clear she was a writer. In her elementary grades, she made lists, kept a diary and wrote stories. In the middle grades, she continued with fervor and published a poem called “If I had stayed” in an anthology of young writers. In her High School years, she wrote a “novel” and a children’s book about Math! And, yes, even today in college, she writes a blog that combines her love of Brené Brown’s research, her attempt to remain true to her namesake, Hope, and her desire to connect people together… it is entitled wordsofhopeblog.com. One of the many reasons I take pride in promoting her blog on mine is this: in the 7th grade, her English experience all but crushed her joy and ability to write and learn joyfully; and it has taken a village to bring her confidence level back to “brave.” Here are three vignettes that demonstrate how her fire was all but extinguished.
My daughter’s 7th grade teacher used notes from her Graduate School education to teach the children Greek Mythology. My daughter, the most obsequious student dream any teacher would want to have, was stressing about having to read so much, not knowing how she was going to be graded or tested. I, in my infinite training and wisdom, simply helped in two ways. First, I stayed clear of criticizing her teacher for NOT providing clear objectives or purposes for the reading, admitting that not all teachers have the same high standards of lesson planning as I have for myself and the teachers I supervise. Second, I gave her a strategy to attempt to reconstruct as much of the material as possible in a way that made sense to her so she could vomit the material any way she was asked. I asked her, “What about these mythology stories grabs you the most?” She immediately replied how stupid it was that gods would even interfere with and make mortals’ lives so petty and difficult. So, I simply gave her a RUBRIC that I thought her teacher may be assuming she would need to reconstruct appropriate information about each god/story. AND, I gave her a STRATEGY to understand and synthesize those stories in a meaningful, personal way.
It worked! After reading a mythology story, she was able to quote me the plot, the values within the story, the relationship of the main characters to other gods, goddesses and important mortals. With the new strategy, she would then with specific information comment on the “stupidity” of the gods- that one metacognitive step of personalizing the information in order to remember details (just in case the teacher would spring an “application” question or a long essay or something)! When the time for the test came around, my daughter truly had, in my parental but professional opinion, “mastered the material.” On the test, she confused a few of the gods, but for the most part, her “studying” had paid off… except for one detail. On a fill-in-the-blank question, my daughter answered, “Charon, the ferryman of the dead takes the dead to the underworld in a BOAT on the river Styx.” The teacher marked it wrong, saying the correct answer is “SHIP.” This brought my daughter’s grade from an “A” to a “B” for the test. Really? “Boat” versus “ship!” The teacher ever so pleasantly showed my daughter the page from the text from which the question was derived and in which the word “ship” was mentioned. My daughter, again, obsequious to a fault, came home sobbing, showing me her “B” and angry that another page in the same materials mentioned “boat” for the ferryman. She couldn’t understand why a teacher would ask a question like that and not expect multiple correct answers. My response? I simply told my daughter that the teacher was a literalist who practiced a traditional testing/teaching practice called, “Guess what the teacher’s thinking.” I told my daughter I knew in my heart she knew the material, and that is all that matters, not to worry about silly test questions like that. Yes, I was RAGING inside! But I did not let that show.
On another occasion, this same teacher inconvenienced me to come to get my daughter after school because she was being punished with a “self-select.” You see, my daughter, who was the most compliant and studious student in the class, had not completed the back of a homework sheet! Now, here is where we see why my daughter’s enthusiasm was squelched. She got 100% of the questions correct on the front side and had merely overlooked the back of the sheet. Others in the class had neglected to do the work at home, so at the last moment, they quickly wrote bogus answers on a few of the questions on the front and back and turned it in. They got a 100% for completing the assignment, and my daughter got a “self-select.” The teacher actually approached me as if she was rehabilitating my daughter’s poor performance, when, indeed, I was laughing in my heart of hearts! Had she not seen the 70 days of class when my daughter was over prepared? Had she not realized that for this little girl, shaming was the last thing she needed to be encouraged to be responsible and learn the information? Had she not calculated and formulated the ACTUAL message she was sending to my daughter, to me and to the rest of her students? It was going to be a long 110 more days with this teacher. I was embarrassed for this teacher, to say the least.
Finally, one last vignette to show how the sun set on a seventh grade little girl’s dream of a safe, encouraging environment to learn! The first WORDS out of my daughter’s mouth, be they latent or not at 20 months old, were, “Daddy, would you turn up the Mickey songs? I can’t hear them?” This verbal, happy child was given the gift of exploring the English language and literature in a great school. But, with 7th grade hormones and developmental issues, she could not have been more self-conscious. This same teacher would give quick quizzes in class and have students exchange papers to grade them. Then, as if she had not wasted enough of their time, she would have all the students tell her their grade aloud, as she called each name, one by one, so she could record the grade in her grade book. Of course, my daughter’s name happened to be first on the list alphabetically. After the first few times of doing this, my daughter began to feel embarrassed when she did so well in comparison to her friends. The students would jeer, “Of course Hope got a 100! And yet, she heard an embarrassing public gasp when she did NOT score a 100! She literally considered purposely doing poorly on a consistent basis so people would stop listening and reacting so vehemently. I suggested a different tactic. I told her simply to approach the teacher’s desk when her name was called and point to the score silently. I said that if the teacher insisted she say the grade aloud, my daughter should politely refuse and tell the teacher to call ME! I kiddingly told her that what I wanted her to do was to tell the teacher she would announce the grade if the teacher would announce to the class her weight! It seemed to make the experience a bit lighter for a girl who felt pressured by her teacher and her peers. After a few times of my daughter approaching the desk silently, the rest of the class followed suit, lining up to show the teacher their grade. It seems they, too, were uncomfortable announcing their grade publicly. The teacher, however, did not get the hint that perhaps entering grades in a grade book is best done NOT on the students’ learning time (or her “teaching” time). It did solve the public humiliation of an entire class who joined together to boycott such primitive, shaming techniques (and invasion of privacy?).
-Discreet point testing: There is a place and time for discreet point testing, as long as the assessment fits into the grander scheme of overall objectives such as those involving literacy skills like reading comprehension, literary analysis, higher-order thinking skills, etc. But, “ship” versus “boat!” Please! Students assume to the point of futility that the information about which they are being tested will gel into something meaningful or more sophisticated, more “educated.” It is deflating for students to be told they have minimally mastered information at a literal level and even more devastating when they actually studied (and in many cases self-taught!) the information on an academically higher level and get a “B” because they did not read the teacher’s mind. To say that “boat” is wrong because page 31 says “ship” is like taking that same ship and ripping off the sails. Enough said!
-In-class assessments: Assessments of any form serve two purposes, both of which have devolved into tools for self-serving teachers. The first purpose of assessment is to provide students with proper feedback about their learning. Having other students “grade” their peers’ work during class time is a way for teachers to “save themselves time.” The amount of thinking and learning that goes into marking a quiz item “right” or “wrong” does not help the grader or the graded. Students do not benefit from the “feedback” of a student-graded assignment. Second, assessments are for teachers to determine if they have, indeed, taught the material effectively to all the students. In-class grading and recording of those grades absolves the teacher of any responsibility to check whether s/he is teaching effectively as well as to help students master the higher-order processing of the information being tested. In addition, it almost guarantees the tests never achieve or encourage the higher-level thinking since creating better lessons and tests is a much messier and time-consuming process and the students themselves are just developing the capacities to think on such levels, ergo the appropriate reason for the teacher’s assessing them in the first place.
-Public shaming: Come on! Are we in pioneer days in a one-room classroom? Is this Hogwarts with Professor Snape? There are so many research-based, tested ways to discipline with dignity, to teach responsibility without lording a grade over someone’s head and shaming them into a conformity that isn’t even learning. Do students really get motivated to hear publicly that Suzie or Sam Suckup keeps getting A’s in a teacher’s class? Do students learn by peer grading, especially middle grades students? Is it too hard to evaluate every situation individually? For example, what would it have taken for the teacher to say, “Oh, I see you didn’t fill out the back of the worksheet, but you did very well on the front. I’ll give you 6 minutes to do the rest now.” I promise you, it took my daughter TWO minutes to fill out the worksheet in her “detention,” but she had to endure public humiliation with her peers (5 of her friends told me in carpool that she was in trouble and I had to go get her from detention), a threat of parental anger (the teacher continually drove home to my daughter that I would be disappointed), the shaming message that she was “irresponsible,” and much more! She “owed” 45 minutes of “self-select.”
This, alone, transformed my daughter from a language-loving reader/writer to an excuse-driven rebel who hated every other minute in English class. In order to begin undoing the damage, I stopped her tears at thinking I was disappointed in her for the detention, secretly whispered in her ear I thought it was hilarious, and told her to finish the rest of her homework in detention so we could go get a smoothie when I come back to pick her up!
Call it my style, my personality or call it personal offense, but I find it hard to mention positives in these sorts of stories. My daughter has encouraged me to “tell a few positive stories in this blog so that I can be more upbeat in my writing. (This will come later in this series.) But, for now, here’s my best shot at positives. Please reply if you can think of others. I’m trying, but I can’t escape the teary-eyed image of my daughter completely paralyzed by fear that she had disappointed me.
1) While I have no mercy for this teacher given her small class sizes and small number of classes, I DO understand that “writing intensive” classes sometimes can place undue demand on teachers. This may encourage them to resort to desperate measures such as in-class quiz/assessments and public announcement of private grades.
2) I really do believe that literacy objectives (and higher-order thinking objectives) such as analysis, interpretation, compare/contrast, essay writing, etc. cannot be taught and practiced without content. Therefore, there is a need for discreet point assessment of content before one is asked to do anything with the information.
3) The concept of “self-select” seems to be a “kinder, gentler” form of detention that is more holistic. In concept, it appears to be a tool where a teacher can intervene meaningfully in a student’s path, helping the student in a personal way.
Yes, I’m biting my tongue to stop me from adding a “but……”
- I wish I had seen more “writing intensive” ANYTHING in this class! My daughter was hungry for that! The supervision of such a teacher seems to be nebulous. How does a teacher practice such NON-best practices and not have it come to the attention of the admin? Simple professional development, mentoring or coaching would help this teacher blossom into an effective, inspiring member of an amazingly synergistic team.
- Differentiated instruction includes differentiated assessment. Academic freedom means the teacher may determine how s/he teaches and if the students have learned. But, as in every discipline, discreet point mastery does not mean students are communicative, literate or even deep thinkers/processors of that information. It is an issue of proper instructional planning. My daughter could have told the teacher the stories being assessed with an attitude of confidence and humor, including all the information the teacher was assessing and more. But, instead, my daughter got a “B” because she did not remember what was on page 31! Is this fair? No! Is it common? Oh, yes! Too many assumptions accompany classroom instruction dominated by discreet point testing, all of which hold unfair standards to the students that are being assessed in this manner.
- Who monitors the efficacy of “programs” such as “self-select?” Yes, there was an opportunity to encourage my daughter in a positive direction. The detention afforded the time and opportunity to do so. But, time for shaming is not on the agenda! This teacher did not know my daughter’s heart! Dare I blame her? That is a difficult question. Good teachers teach! GREAT teachers inspire and free the hearts of the ones they touch! This teacher had 70 days to learn my daughter’s heart but had failed to do so. She had 110 days to make up for the fact that SHE missed the boat (pun intended). But she did not change! When I work with teachers, one of the most important traits or skills I attempt to instill in them is the ability to be self-reflective. Can they see when they have messed up? Can they ask for help then they can’t fix it? Will they take a messy risk even though the culture in which they are working does not encourage failure or risk-taking? This teacher, in her attempt to be “safe” and “expedient,” completely squelched the enthusiasm of a beautiful, young writer-to-be.
As I ponder how personal these stories are, I cannot help but wonder what it’s like to experience this type of affront without the knowledge and expertise from the Education world that I have. Would typical parents have reacted with such suppressed rage while attempting to supplement the instruction just enough to keep the subject matter interesting for their child? Would they be in a denying bliss? I barely had the restraint, but I certainly had the expertise to help my daughter internalize the content without becoming completely jaded by the instructional process. Typical parents may show more restraint than I, but they would not be able to equip their child with strategies to “stay in the game” after such oppression. Other parents might operate in an ignorant fog believing that the teacher is actually doing their child “good.” How many students have given up hope that instruction will soon be relevant to them? I grieve when I ask these questions knowing there are resources of research and professional expertise available to teachers, administrators and parents. Do I have a higher standard than other parents for “excellence” in education? Yes! Observe, however, that, even though I did not challenge this “excellence,” it went unnoticed and unaddressed by an admin promoting such “excellence.” Shouldn’t input from parents and students be part of the process of delivering “excellence” in education?
We could converse all day about the many points you’ve made here–but two big takeaways for me are (1) the lasting pain caused by classroom injustices –I certainly had to help my daughter navigate, logistically an emotionally, more than a few, and I still vividly remember and resent being penalized for something I’d written, by an 8th grade English teacher who didn’t understand what I had done and whose reading depth and breadth I had already surpassed and (2) the huge and painful gaps between expert teaching and what happens every day, and the feeling that if the gaps are this big and damaging in a nearly ideal classroom situation, how impassable and harmful they are for most kids most of the time.
Stephanie, so true! And, of course, you have expressed two BIG takeaways in MUCH fewer words and more succinct words than I. I am in awe of your writing and am flattered by your reply! It would be a great PD to get a group of teachers in a room and have the group process that one defining and painful moment… I went to a parochial school and had a lifetime of these encounters by the 4th grade! Thanks for indulging! Don’t miss the next two blogs scheduled in the next 3 weeks. They are “positive” (per my daughter’s request) and both have stories of redemption and teacher “navigation” that empowers and inspires! I’d love your feedback. And, your second point is truly why I am writing this blog from this perspective, hopefully to elevate instructional practices while equipping parental units to dialogue with the same lingo!