Guest Blogger: Leora Smith
“Ms. Smith,” he queries, with widened eyes and a smirk, “how many points is this paragraph worth?”
I slowly put down my whiteboard marker and with that teacher's face, the one with raised eyebrows and a deluge of exasperation, look him in his hopeful eyes. “Tyler, If it was worth nothing, would you work less hard on it?” The tween boy, with his frosted tips and Supreme t-shirt, his swagger diminished, looks down at his Yeezys as if the answer was written in Sanskrit on the laces. “I guess not...but is it counted as a quiz grade or an assessment? I just have to know”. I weigh my answer carefully. If I plainly tell him that I don’t plan on grading his latest brilliant manifesto more than with a passing glance, then he’ll profess that my assignment is a waste of his time, and “why should I work on something that doesn’t count?”. On the other hand, If I wax poetic -again- on the value of education being more important than grades, and how middle school marks don’t get you into Harvard but skills do, and that if he focuses on skill development the grades will follow, he will earnestly nod yes and pretend to agree with me.
The process of reforming or reworking the sentences for that exact alchemy where intent and effect are harmoniously produced is anathema to the instant gratification of a Fortnite battle. For a writing assignment to be worth doing, it has to be worth doing.
I can’t really blame Tyler. I know he wants to do well. Most of my students do. They diligently annotate for main ideas and inferences, they suffer endless reflections on my command, they raise their hands and answer all my questions. And they are rewarded. Every point I bestow unto them lights up their dopamine centers and they feel good about themselves. But Tyler, like most boys his age, recoils at the mere mention of writing. As if this task has some special, ominous power to torture him, like a medieval auto-da-fe. Ask him to spit back facts at me for a quiz and he will spend eight hours at home preparing. Debates? When he can speak his mind and show command of his argumentative prowess, he volunteers before I can finish instructions. Videos that require green screen and fight scenes he would do all day. But not writing. Not just silly poems or fairy tales, but putting words together in a pattern to make a point. The process of reforming or reworking the sentences for that exact alchemy where intent and effect are harmoniously produced is anathema to the instant gratification of a Fortnite battle. For a writing assignment to be worth doing, it has to be worth doing.
Their parents reinforce that feedback loop, dangling their extra screen time carrots and wielding their “take away your iPhone” sticks. On Back to School Night, they too nod forcefully at my soliloquy that grades do not matter. They pledge to be my partner in deemphasizing grades and supporting their kids’ learning process. But with sly winks and fingers crossed behind their backs, the message to their kids is clear: get that A or else.
I shouldn’t really blame the parents either. Students today, their parents and their parents were born into that Pavlovian system of reward and punishment. Not only that, but they’ve been trained to believe that the number or letter at the top of their paper represents their self-worth, their identity, and most ominously, their future. For parents of boys more so than girls, that grade represents their potential to be good providers or those priceless bragging rights at the supermarket. Family honor is often found in their sons’ ability to compete with all the other boys born to privilege, where this generation of new Americans with new money must achieve academically for their immigrant families to feel as if they have really made it.
Maybe I’ll extend the scope of this assignment. Maybe with this piece of writing, I can evaluate his critical thinking or ability to write a sentence where “i” is capitalized. I should always be looking for more evidence of his learning and giving him meaningful descriptive feedback, right? He’ll definitely use the rubric and the comments attached to the grade in order to apply them in his next assignment. What's another five hours of grading when report cards are due next week?
Maybe it should be worth more; after all, we adults don’t do our jobs for the sake of learning. Maybe assigning high-stakes grades will motivate him to work hard and will surely punish him if he doesn’t. Power is why I went into teaching in the first place. Definitely power. Power and money.
Maybe I’ll lie: “Tyler, it’s worth ten points, graded as a formative assessment”. But that won’t work. He’ll eye his GPA like a stock ticker, every tenth of a point accounted for and appraised. For him, the currency of grades trumps actual learning. The school’s mission statement values a sharp mind, but what skill development really means is the ability to negotiate a maximum return on the investment of time spent on homework. And if the grade doesn’t go up as promised, I’ll lose not only his trust but the invaluable yet fleeting semblance of authority I have over him.
But we both know that none of it matters. He’ll do the work to head off my ire, and I’ll assign some superfluous points that won’t alter the grand algorithm of my grade book software. He knows this dance better than I do. Sometimes it's a plaintive tango, sometimes angst-ridden twitchy foxtrot, and when it comes closer to finals, an aggressive paso doble where, of course, Tyler is the matador and I the wounded bull.
Leora Smith is a Humanities teacher at Milken Community Schools in Los Angeles and a seasoned teacher of nearly a decade. She is currently undertaking her Master’s Degree in Education.