Do you ever look back at some of your educational practices as a new teacher… and cringe? I do. I cringe a lot when I think back to those early years. I was ill-equipped.
When I started my first year as a teacher, I came to the school with a fairly new degree in music and a semester of substitute teaching under my belt. That was it. Not uncommon for many new teachers, though.
My first teaching assignment was at a 7-12 school in 1992. It was a much smaller school (350 students total in 7th through 12th grade) compared to the schools I had attended (520 students in my own graduating class). There was no curriculum at all for the classes I was to teach. First year teacher- had to write curriculum for 4 classes… “oh, and by the way, we need you to teach reading, too.” Also no curriculum, other than a textbook. [image credit: cc licensed image by griffithchris]
So, to say that the above was anything less than daunting would be a lie. However, I had a pretty good foundation of what kids should know and be able to do in music classes. That task was time-consuming, but a good experience. I felt pretty good about what I accomplished in this area.
Looking back, I am maybe a little proud of myself for being able to crank that out. But honestly, I’m a lot more embarrassed to share my ridiculous grading policies for the 7th and 8th grade classes I taught.
In general music, I met with 7th and 8th graders every day, all year, and was required to give them a percentage grade on their report card (no letter grades or rubric scores). There were days when we spent a lot of the class time singing, but we also had music theory, music history, American musical theater, improvisation, and music interpretation units (and probably quite a bit more that I’m not remembering right now).
And I assigned lots of homework. Why? Because I needed a body of work for grades. (ugh) That is the reason for homework, right?
The grades I recorded in my gradebook (which I made in Claris Works spreadsheets!) were averaged (ugh) on homework grades, quiz grades, test grades, project grades, and participation points (a HUGE UGH!). Participation points were based on behavior. I gave every kid 100 participation points. The points were theirs to lose. If students didn’t do their homework, I gave them zeroes. If they turned in the homework or projects late, I took off points for late work.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the post… this is cringe-worthy.
Do you know how many 7th and 8th graders FAILED my classes? Many. Too many. And the issue is this: I don’t think a single one of those kids failed my class because they were unable to demonstrate their understanding of the concepts. They failed the classes because I was unable to see the difference between a behavior and an academic score.
I pleaded with my students to turn in their homework on time. I even took time out of a lesson to show them the math on the board. “A zero is devastating to your final grade!” I explained how I was helping them to learn to be responsible.
I’m cringing even as I type this.
Ken O’Connor wasn’t a blip on my radar back then, and I didn’t see his book, How to Grade for Learning, until long after I had left that classroom. As a staff developer a few years later, I was introduced to Ken O’Connor in person. I listened to him talk about the problem with grading behavior and academic progress within the same scores. He provided real examples of why averaging grades across time actually shows less progress. He discussed the need for allowing students to re-take tests to show that they have learned and made comparisons to driver’s license testing. O’Connor asked why we set arbitrary deadlines when we knew that not all kids learn at the same rate.
And… it hit me like a ton of bricks. I had been that teacher who used grades as a punishment– a punishment to kids who didn’t care about their grades. Everything I had ever been taught about grading and assessing students was so off the mark. I wished right then and there that I could go back in time and start over again with my 7-12 students.
So this is my apology post, more than a decade too late, but here it is:
I was wrong, guys… and I’m truly sorry. You deserved to have a teacher who was more compassionate… a teacher who understood that maybe you really did lose your homework… a teacher who assigned homework only to those who really needed the practice… a teacher who reported your behavior separately from your academic progress. That wasn’t me back then, and I apologize.
If it’s any consolation at all, I am a huge advocate for children now when it comes to grading practices. In my own classroom, I report academic/skill achievement completely separately from behavior. I share my Ken O’Connor book with many people and then try to have open discussions with them to find grading practices that make sense to them. That doesn’t help the kids from my past, but I hope it helps kids now.