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Grading

Grading

“Don’t let school interfere with your education…”
~Mark Twain

     Grading is that part of a teacher’s life that should bring some kind of solace to our work. No doubt, it is an arduous chore most of the time for the sheer amount of time it takes to do it well, do it fairly, and to do it in a way that actually helps the student. I am the first to admit, that I rarely feel satisfied after a long round of assessment because I often wonder if I am a reptilian calculator or a warm-blooded human on a mission to inspire, cajole and enlighten a willing and eager student. We teachers (myself included) have to juggle the competing demands of reality with an objective mission to further a subjective aim—that of coaxing the best out of a myriad of living, thinking, feeling students who bring a mosaic of life onto the platter (and splatter) of our curriculums. Amidst the competing demands of a common day, doing what is best for them seldom coincides with what is best for me .

It really feels like (after thirty years of teaching) that I should have mastered the tools of the grading toolbox, but I certainly feel now that I have much to learn and do and practice to head off to my retirement—still some years away—with some sense of satisfaction that I am a “master of my trade.” I am cursed by my burdens of reflection that I am missing out on the path to enlightenment, for I am constantly doing what others do simply because it is what is being done or has been done for generations before me. I wonder if I actually have the strength or wisdom in me to rally academia towards a wiser and more just solution.

How much of a grade should be based on homework? Most of us have no clue what “home” is to most of our students, yet we continually assign homework that is graded like daily take-home tests. It adds several more hours of pressure to what is already an over-burdened day. Homework should never be a test, which usually only rewards the gifted—whether that gift is one of intellect, the gift of a stable and nurturing home free from distraction or the gift of financial resources to tutor, guide and direct a student through his or her paces outside of school.Teachers should teach in class and not expect a student to learn what has not yet been taught. 

Parents and  administrators have become masters at manipulating expectations and as teachers we are only the limbs and heads of some monstrous and manipulated marionette. For the good of our students and our school systems, teachers are tasked to do the bidding of forces we barely even know or recognize. Common core is never really “common” for it suggests there is actually a common student on whom to model these expectations. In our private schools (free from the constraints of common core) we have the equally insidious monster that expects those extra dollars and extra attention to bring a student further up the ladder and poise him or her well and squarely on the next higher rung towards admittance to an even more prestigious school. In both cases, we are removing the wing from the bird and asking it to fly.

If anything should be common, it should be common-sense. Parents deserve to know what their children are studying, and why. Administrators deserve to know how well a teacher is teaching what they have been hired to teach. Teachers need to teach what they know best, and if they don’t know it, to learn it well or beg to be excused—but don’t fake it, and don’t let myopic, budget-constrained business sense overrule common sense and make a fisherman rule over a farm. 

I consider myself to be fairly well-rounded and open-minded enough (arguably, I am sure) but it seems like every professional day takes me further away from core of my passion. I am being asked to teach grit and resilience; I am being asked to develop the moral character of my students; I am being asked to instill honesty, empathy, respect and courage; I am being asked to eliminate prejudice and bigotry; in short, it seems like I am being tasked with shaping the form of a perfect society out of the hard-scrabbled flesh and bones of imperfect youth. Noble, maybe, but I would rather show all this rather than demand it. I bow and bend to these winds of pedagogical changes like a dory anchored outside of the harbor, but I don’t really go anywhere. Should I grade a kid on grit? Is there a way to assess courage or define lack of prejudice? Have schools become the arbiter of social change, policies and correctness? Will it be codified and ruined to the point where it can, should and must be graded? If so, there is money to made somewhere by some professional presenter to tell us how to do it–and soon it will edge and creep into another form of another demand in the life of a teacher.

And I will have to sit through it…

 

Making a Poem Better

Making a Poem Better

     So, you finished your “poem” in whatever genre of poetry you are writing, and you turn it in and proudly think, ‘There is no way any teacher can grade me down after I poured my heart and soul onto the page!” And you know, I do have a hard time deducting points from poetry. I know how hard it is to write good poetry that works for other people as much as it works for the poet itself (and yes, a published poet, after abandoning a poem to posterity, is an “it”) so I tread that fine line between encouragement and helpful prodding. 

My solution is twofold: one, I ask you to write a metacognition that explores what you are trying to accomplish in the poem and how you do this. Second, I beg, plead and cajole you into going back to the poem like a wall builder goes back to a stonewall to see where the gaps are too large or the stones too small to support something as timeless as a wall. As poets, (unlike with true wall builders) there are plenty of stones laying around from which to find a better stone to build a better wall. 

For those of you who hate my metaphors, this means to relook at every line and rethink every phrase and reexamine every word; otherwise, you have no right to call yourself a poet. A poser maybe, but not a poet. 

In practical terms, this means to look at how your words power the poem. Are you simply trying to convey an idea or thought, or are you manipulating the actual words and lines to create an effect in a reader? Are you employing anything from the long list of poetic terms and rhetorical techniques that have proven themselves for, in some cases, thousands of years? Are you creating phrases—the literary equivalent of riffs and chords and bass runs in music—in ways you have never heard or seen before? 

In short, do you give a damn? 

If you do, do it.

If you don’t, it won’t.