This morning, I opened my email to find that a student of mine was the topic of a long chain of emails. She is a senior that has not completed any work throughout our 6-plus weeks of distance learning, so she is failing every class for the 4th marking period. As I scrolled through the various responses, I noticed a pattern. There was no mention of her mental or physical health, or any thoughts about her current situation at home. Grades were the concern, not her.
Are grades themselves all that vital to a student’s success? I’m going to argue no. From what I’ve seen, grades often create more problems for both teachers and students. Students have been taught to rely on them. That at the end of the day, a number matters most. Instead, grades are hindering learning. I’ve watched talented writers do a minimal amount of work, knowing they are capable of so much more, but still earn 100s. Other students have jumped numerous hurdles only to be kicked in the shins with 65s. Why? Because the rubric said so. Yes, our public education system perpetuates the problem, but I think there are ways that we teachers can push back. We can teach our students to value the learning, and it all starts with the right kind of feedback.
Think about one of those days you returned pieces of graded writing that you devoted countless hours to. You left those margin filled with ink. Suggestions galore! Do your students even read the comments at that point? Take them to heart? I doubt it. By then, the assignment is over and done with. The guidance, nudges, and praise we give our students throughout the writing process is where the learning takes place, not at the end when an assignment is returned.
This is where conferring comes in. Though we may have to get creative in our techniques, conferring can still take place during distance learning. First, a time to check-in. How are you? I miss you. Can I help you with anything? Then we can slowly pull–sometimes drag–out the various talents hidden inside every child by offering up a brief amount of time for more chat about the piece of writing. What was your goal with the piece? What do you need help with? We search for a place of beauty to highlight and an area that, with a nudge, could inspire growth.
So, back to my senior. We spoke today. I miss you. How are you? Her response shook me. She needs help, not a reminder about her failing grades. We shouldn’t be worrying about a number, but instead finding new ways to motivate and help each child.
This week, I’m setting up private Zoom conferences with each of my students. We will meet for 10-15 minutes sometime within the next two weeks, and just talk. I’ll listen, question, and coach. I’ll highlight accomplishments and encourage risk-taking. Oh, and grades? Yeah, I know I still need to give one. That will come from a discussion between me and each student at the end of the year.
Sarah Krajewski teaches 9th and 12th grade English and Journalism near Buffalo, New York. She is currently in her 18th year of teaching, and hopes to get back to her classroom soon. You can follow Sarah on Twitter @shkrajewski and her blog can be viewed at http://skrajewski.wordpress.com/.